It’s a tad odd, perhaps, to make my first blog entry for many moons not about Taiwan at all, but about another small and equally beautiful country on the opposite side of the world; one that’s seen an even more troubled and eventful recent history than this wonderful island I live on. At the risk of appearing a bit morbid, however, several recent visits to Northern Ireland have introduced me not only to it’s lovely people and fantastic landscapes, but also to the dark period of the Troubles (approximately 1969 to 1998), much of which occurred during my formative years back in England, and which I learnt of during daily BBC News bulletins.
Since my first visit to Northern Ireland last summer (2017), I’ve been back there and to that equally lovely Republic to the south another two times to visit friends, and to enjoy what may well turn out to be one of my very favorite corners of the whole world. Ireland (the whole of it) is quite simply stunning. The countryside of the Emerald Isle may not be greener than Taiwan (where is?) and the jaw-dropping coastline of the Great Atlantic Highway has its competition along the coast of England, Scotland and Wales, but for sheer, genuine charm, I don’t think anyone beats the Irish countryside, its people and the culture.
However, I grew up with a very different view of Ireland. At five years old, I was too young to remember Bloody Sunday (January 30th, 1972), but what happened during the following years as the Troubles really kicked into gear still remains a vivid memory, via seemingly nearly daily BBC News reports of attacks on the British army stationed in West Belfast, yet another knee-capping ‘punishment,’ the horrors of the H Blocks at Maze Prison, and atrocities such as the Frizzell’s Fish Shop explosion, and the massacre at Enniskillen. Then, when we thought the worst was over, came Omagh, the worst single atrocity in the history of the Troubles, in 1998.
Following the Omagh bombing, a ceasefire was declared. Sinn Fein rose to become one of Northern Ireland’s two biggest parties, and (perhaps naively) I assumed all the old wounds were healing, and Northern Ireland was moving on from a terrible recent past.
Well, it has in many ways, but what a shock when, after landing in Belfast one sunny, warm day in late June 2017, I took a stroll into west Belfast the evening I arrived. It was devastatingly clear that the wounds certainly haven’t healed. That walk unleashed a new (perhaps slightly morbid) curiosity to learn more about places like Falls Road, Shankill Road and the Bogside (in (London)Derry) that were eerily familiar from umpteen evening news reports from my youth.
Despite all the info up on the Web these days, rather than risk writing about events I don’t understand sufficiently, and unable to empathize with or really even understand how all this can have even happened, I’ll let the photos I took over several trips to the North (these were all taken in 2016) speak for themselves. I’ve divided them into sections, the first in (mostly west) Belfast, with its landscape of edgy political murals, memorials to past violence, cemeteries and looming Peace Wall, then more to upbeat Derry, whose murals these days give the place the look almost of an open-air museum. Finally a section is devoted to some of the biggest outrages committed elsewhere, both in Northern Ireland and across the sea in England
Northern Ireland has undoubtedly moved on since those terrible years, but it’s painfully clear the deep rifts haven’t healed completely, and for me that makes it one of the most profound (and shocking) discoveries I’ve made in several decades of travelling around the world.
What I find especially unsettling is that, nearly two decades after the last atrocities were committed there, evidence of the Troubles and the enormous suffering caused during those thirty years is still pretty obvious during a trip to Northern Ireland. The murals, memorials and cemeteries (which look as well-kept today as they must have looked when they were first created) are a clear sign that the locals are determined to never forget. But the most painful aspect is that at least a proportion of the population still seems to hold the same beliefs that caused all the horror in the first place, and, most chilling of all, a very firm belief that their ideas are the only right ones. At least, despite occasional acts of violence, the peace has held for almost two decades. We can only hope those dark days never return.
Sandy Row, near Belfast city center, is a staunchly pro-unionist area of the city
…while across the motorway that divides the city, West Belfast (including the Shankill and Falls Roads areas of town) is a very different place…
The headquarters of Sinn Fein, formally the political wing of the IRA, and now one of the largest political parties in Ireland
Memorial on the site of the protestant-owned Bayardo Bar in Aberdeen Street, where five people died on August 13th, 1975 when IRA members opened fire at the door, and then detonated a bomb inside the pub
Memorial marking the spot where three Ulster Volunteer Force members were gunned down on 16th June, 1994
Site of the Four Step Inn in the Shankill Road, bombed on 29th September 1971, when two Protestant civilians were killed
The Cross Step Inn during the aftermath of the explosion
Memorial on the site of Frizzell’s Fish Shop in Shankill Road, where an IRA bomb detonated prematurely, killing 10 and injuring 57 (mostly civilians)
The site of Frizzell’s Fish Shop after the explosion
Nationalist memorial garden
Memorial to the events in Bombay Street, where scores of (mostly Catholic-owned) houses were burned during the August 1969 riots, one of the events which signaled the start of the thirty-year Northern Ireland Troubles
Bonfire in the early stages of construction in west Belfast, intended for the Eleventh Night celebration, held on July 11th each year by protestants, during which Irish flags are often burnt. It’s best to be cautious if walking around Belfast over the days around July 12th each year. A friend who lives there even prefers to stay home on the big day
Perhaps the most shocking (for me) revelation about Belfast in 2016 was the so-called Peace Wall, a sort of Berlin Wall dividing west Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant inhabitants. The wall was built to prevent hostilities erupting between the two sides rather than to keep anyone in, but gates (like this one) through the wall are few and far between, and it’s a lengthy walk along it to get through and back to the city center once on its western side. At least more neutral, light-hearted graffiti is now turning up alongside the propaganda painted on its endless, smooth face
A compulsory stop on any visit to Belfast is the Ulster Museum, which among the dinosaur bones, stuffed animals, and prehistoric relics has a section devoted (with, I thought, impressive objectiveness) the Troubles. It’s possibly the best way to end (or start) an attempt to understand what the hell happened here, The Botanical Garden outside is a great place to unwind and reflect afterwards too.
Considering its dark recent past, and all the violence and intolerance I still associate with it, Belfast is a surprisingly wonderful city to explore, with plenty to keep the average visitor occupied for several days. Northern Ireland’s second city, Derry (or Londonderry, depending on whom you talk to) is, however, my favorite Northern Ireland city. The compact old part of the city is completely encircled by the old city walls, while below it, to the north, parts of the Bogside Area (where the Troubles are generally regarded to have begun with the Battle of the Bogside, August 12th – 14th, 1969) today look almost like an open-air art gallery, the famous, powerful and often very colorful murals scattered over an open area with small grassy parks, and it doesn’t feel as edgy and tense as a walk through west Belfast. Probably this is at least partly to do with Derry being chosen UK City of Culture in 2013!
A copy of this, one of the most famous of Derry’s murals, was even hanging on the living room wall of the bed and breakfast we stayed in.
The continuing division is nowhere more obvious in Derry than in the Fountain, a Protestant enclave seemingly encircled by Catholic residential areas, and surrounded by its own Peace Wall, apparently one of several in the city.
Walking through the Fountain area, the pro-British position of the residents is stated in no uncertain terms through the red-white-and-blue of the British flag painted on the curbs of roads in the area
Derry’s famous political murals have been joined in more recent years by softer, less divisive works of street art. The city really is a showcase of graffiti art the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen…well, anywhere …
The Hands Across the Divide peace memorial, in the center of a roundabout down by the river, near the city center, is a poignant symbol of hope for reconciliation between the two sides. It was unveiled in 1992.
Site of the bombing that killed eleven civilians and injured 63 others during a Remembrance Day parade on November 8th, 1987, at Enniskillen in County Fermanagh
The Clinton Center, opened by the then President of the US in 2002 stands on the site of the local Catholic church reading rooms, where the bomb exploded
The IRA and various splinter groups took their violent protests across the Irish Sea to England in various attacks from the Brighton Bombing of 1984 to attacks in London (Canary Wharf, 1996), and fatal attacks on troops from Cheshire to Kent. The most outrageous attack on Great Britain though came in 1996 with the Manchester Bombing. Selfridges Department Store now stands where a truck loaded with explosives was detonated in Manchester city center on June 15th, 1996. The IRA telephoned warnings about an hour-and-a-half before the bomb detonated, allowing police to attempt to evacuate the area. No one died in the blast, but over 200 people were injured. The bomb remains to date the largest to be detonated in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) since WWII.
A small plaque on the wall of Selfridges records the event, while around the corner, under a new pedestrian overpass, and almost opposite WH Smith bookstore, a red post box, which remarkably survived the bombing, despite being just yards away from the parked truck, has been moved back to its original position following the rebuilding of the area. A plaque on the box recalls the bombing.
A memorial marks the spot where a car bomb exploded in the town of Omagh, County Tyrone, on August 15th 1998. The explosion killed 29 people and injured another 220, making it the worst single atrocity of the Troubles. The universal outrage caused by the bombing (probably helped in no small part by the famous photo below) lead urgency to the ongoing Northern Ireland peace process, and is generally perceived as marking the end of the ‘Troubles,’ although small-scale violence (including murder) continues, the latest being a car bomb which led to the death of a prison officer in Belfast in February 2016.
A photo taken by a Spanish tourist shortly before the car bomb exploded in Market Street, Omagh, inside the red sedan car just behind the man and little girl. They survived the bombing, but the photographer was killed.
A memorial garden just outside the center of Omagh commemorates the last, and most devastating single event of the Troubles