By Viviana Lletget (Visiting Student – Department(s) at Trinity: English, Political Science, and Sociology – Home University: University of California Berkeley, Ethnic Studies)
Part of the reason I came to study in Ireland was to learn more about its political history, particularly Northern Ireland, which is one of the four countries that makes up the United Kingdom. British colonialism ended with the Irish Partition in 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, making Northern and Southern Ireland UK territories operating in different Home Rule fashions, but in 1922 with the War of Independence, Southern Ireland became independent as the Irish Free State. Belfast has always been a place to protest and voice your political position within the mainstream two factions of Irish Nationalism or Unionism. Belfast is saturated with social movement histories, and has been affected by violent pasts that seem to still plague the city besides its increasing social solidarity among citizens. People get along, though generally speaking, Catholics and Protestants don’t really hang out in each other’s neighborhoods, but no one is bombing or vandalizing a rival’s area as before. Things have changed in Belfast, though the city is definitely still segregated.
As soon as I got a free weekend to travel to Belfast from Dublin I took it. I had been excited to see such an important place where Irish history had been formed shaping its current identity. An Irish friend was able to drive us, and most of the drive up from Dublin is beautiful. Green scenery, nice looking trees, mystical-looking nature. We ended up finding a hotel room at the famous Europa Hotel. It has been known to be the most bombed hotel in Europe, being bombed 28 times during the period of The Troubles. The Troubles is a common name given to the Nationalist versus Unionist conflicts during the 20th century, though still carries on today due to mistrust, usually between catholic and protestant neighborhoods from the Irish Partition. The Troubles was about fighting for Irish Nationalism or being loyal to the British Crown. Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an agreement drafted by British and Irish government in order to continue peacemaking between the North and South, the discussion over having Northern Ireland be a part of the Republic of Ireland is still talked about today, yet it did establish more peace in the city. The highlights of my trip were seeing politically charged street murals about peace and destruction caused by war, and seeing memorials dedicated to those who have lost their lives during The Troubles. The street murals discuss a wide range of political topics, from Northern Ireland specifically to world peace.
Belfast has a reputation for being dangerous, but I felt it was a relatively safe city – even though there are many reminders throughout the city of its violent past. Barricades are still implemented and used to enclose certain neighborhoods, and the motive behind this is to keep Protestants or Catholics on each other’s own side of the city. That was shocking to me. Walls with bars or fencing at the top to keep people from jumping into neighborhoods they shouldn’t be within was very prison-like and really made an impression on me. I mean, these weren’t walls belonging to governmental compounds, but it is a whole city constructed of walls to border safe places for a certain faction of people. Blockades are still used every night at a certain time, and though considerable peace has been established between catholic and protestant parties, physical barriers continue to demonstrate a mistrust throughout the peacemaking process.
Going to Belfast was a very special time for me. I was able to absorb and reflect on all the history I had been reading about in my classes. I feel honored in that I was able to find the Peace Walls (also known as Peace Lines) and be able to write a message to inspire positivity. The Peace Walls are really long walls that have artistic murals on them and people from all over the world who come to visit Belfast can write a message on them. I wrote: “Peace and Love from the SF Bay Area 2016.” I actually didn’t know what to write, but that was the first thing that came to mind. Once a year the walls get repainted so that another year of new messages can be written. I am not sure if people think the Peace Walls work, but it is good to read the positive messages when you walk by them as they make you think about how many people would rather see peace than violence. I like to think that the Peace Walls help remind people that past conflicts do not have to be today’s reality. Belfast is an incredible place to visit. While you are there, make sure to check out the street murals that have very educational, positive, and motivating messages on them.