On the third day of our honeymoon, my husband and I pay a man named Kevin* thirty-five pounds sterling to take us on a tour of some of Belfast’s roughest neighborhoods. He pulls up in front of our hotel in a London-style black taxi, a lumpy vehicle that looks like either a station wagon or a hearse. Kevin drives us a few kilometers from the center of Belfast to the neighborhoods ravaged by the Troubles, the swath of sectarian violence that seized Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for three decades from the late 1960s until the late 1990s.
The conflict is often oversimplified as pro-Irish Catholics pitted against pro-British Protestants—Christians fighting another kind of Christian over the same piece of land. But the hostilities are not overtly based on religion. Rather, they center on a key political question: should Ulster Province, the northern part of the island, be part of the Republic of Ireland? If Ulster were to join the Republic, the entire island would be independent from British rule.
Kevin speaks with Belfast’s thick, garbled accent, which sounds almost Scottish. At times, we can’t quite understand him. He heads first to Falls Road, a Catholic artery that extends southwest out of the city center. As he drives, Kevin provides an overview of the history of the Troubles. His company’s website promises an unbiased view of both sides of the conflict, but it’s clear from the beginning that his perspective is strongly anti-English. This isn’t a problem, though we wonder what a more neutral tour would feel like.
We stop a few times throughout the tour, always in Catholic areas. At each stop, Kevin jumps into the back of the taxi and sits in the rear-facing seat to show us laminated pictures of dead men and burned-out buildings. We hear of bombings, of attacks by soldiers. As he speaks, we get the sense that some of the adults who lived through the Troubles may never be able to move on—they’ve simply been through too much.
Kevin tells us that Belfast’s first peace walls, or peace lines, were built in the late sixties to separate Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant ones—to minimize the tension with twenty feet of wall. It didn’t work: fighting continued until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. Even though the city is technically at peace, I later read that more sections of wall were built after the agreement than before it.
The total length of the Belfast peace wall is about twenty miles, but it does not create a simple fifty-fifty split—there’s no line running neatly down the middle of the city. It’s not like the Berlin Wall, either, circling a portion of town. Instead, the peace wall is comprised of numerous lengths built at key spots of tension, chopping Belfast into chunks on the map. Peace lines divide Derry and a few other Northern Irish cities as well. One Belfast Telegraph article from 2016 states that there are 109 separate sections of walls still standing. Most of the peace lines I see are crafted of steel fencing or concrete, though there are interludes of brick.
On Falls Road, a brick section is covered by painted murals. Some celebrate men who died fighting for Irish statehood, one features Nelson Mandela, others call for the liberation of political prisoners, and one highlights the dangers of global warming. There’s even a mural that declares End Sectarianism. Bring Down The Walls. Razor wire curls across the top of the artwork, making the wall impossible to scale.
This segment is a popular tourist destination, though when we visit, we have the block to ourselves. When my husband stands across the street from the murals to take a picture, a white van slows. Its driver rolls his window down. I tense.
The driver waves at my husband and yells, “take my picture too!” We all laugh, and the van moves on. A few minutes later, so do we. Kevin takes us around the corner to a street that crosses between sections of the wall. Two gates are swung open along the road, and there’s another open on the sidewalk. These gates shut every night and open every morning. It’s a wartime curfew, though these neighborhoods have officially been at peace for nearly twenty years.
Like the history of other modern conflicts, the history of the Troubles began long before the Troubles themselves did. Ireland came under English rule during the Middle Ages. Most residents of the island were Catholic, but many Protestant Scots and English moved to Ulster beginning in the seventeenth century. (A tour guide we have another day tells us that many Scots stopped in the northern counties on their way to America, settling in Ulster for a few years or generations, or simply staying. He traced the lineage of many prominent Americans to Ulster. According to him, many of the Scots-Irish who settled in Appalachia, where we live, came from or passed through his part of the world.)
The Irish suffered under centuries of English rule, particularly the Catholic majority, whose rights were stripped over the generations. The people endured poverty, and the British were often cruel. England is criticized as not providing sufficient support during the famine of the 1840s, which decimated the island’s population through death and migration. Naturally, decades and decades of suffering honed over time mass resentment towards English rule, though Protestants tended to remain loyal to England.
In 1916, after a prominent and unsuccessful attempt at a rebellion, officials from the six mostly Protestant northern counties of Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone) committed to remaining under British rule even if the rest of the island gained independence. After several years of violence from Derry down to Cork, the Irish Free State was established in 1922, consisting of the twenty-six mostly Catholic southern counties. The Irish Free State’s name was something of a misnomer; though it had a Parliament, the Free State was ultimately ruled by London.
The Republic of Ireland was established in 1949, following decades of territory disputes, political maneuvers, and more fighting, including a civil war in the twenties. Its first few decades were marked by occasional violence by various groups, including radical offshoots of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.
Between 1968 and 1998, violence took hold of the island. Most people consider the beginning of the Troubles to be October 1968, when police forces wounded civil rights marchers and groups that would now be called counter-protestors in Londonderry, the north’s second-largest city. The following year, the British army was sent in to attempt to maintain order. In 1972, Northern Ireland lost its authority to govern itself. It was ruled directly from London until 1998.
Guerrilla groups on both sides attacked their enemies. For a time, British forces imprisoned without trial anyone suspected of being involved with the IRA. Officials throughout the island and the United Kingdom were assassinated. Catholic and Protestant civilians alike were killed by bombs or fires at nightclubs, parades, pubs, and in their own homes. Cease-fires never lasted. The three decades of near-constant violence left over 3,600 people dead and another 50,000 seriously injured, most of them in Northern Ireland, which has a population of under two million.
In April 1998, with the help of U.S. diplomats, the Good Friday Agreement was signed by representatives of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Though 1998 is regarded as the beginning of an era of peace, violence has spiked at times. The years since the Good Friday Agreement have been marked by occasional bombings, assassinations, and riots, though there fortunately has been less violence in the nearly twenty years since the agreement was signed than in the thirty years prior. But say that to the people who’ve lost limbs or loved ones since 1998. An injury or a loss means everything when it’s yours.
Though technically the Troubles have been over for a generation, they still reverberate, dictating where people live, what jobs they get, and how they commute to work. Most areas of Belfast remain segregated. Kevin points out the Catholic-run taxis that shuttle people from their homes off of Falls Road to the center of the city; there is no public transit for that neighborhood, he says. In Belfast, many elements of people’s lives are determined by the side of the wall they live on.
A middle-aged coffee shop owner we meet in the center of town one day tells us that her daughter, who’s in her twenties, thinks of the Troubles as ancient history. This young woman is part of a generation that gives its predecessors hope for a peaceful, cosmopolitan future. But, when we visit in April 2017, the older generations are already tensing up in preparation for the possible re-installment of border security between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The summer before our time in Belfast, citizens of the United Kingdom—though, overwhelmingly, not Northern Ireland’s residents—voted to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland is the part of the UK, besides Gibraltar, where Brexit will be most acutely felt, because the border between Ulster and the Republic will now delineate an EU territory from a non-EU nation. Borders within the EU are open, meaning that travelers can cross from one member country into another without stopping at passport control or having their vehicles searched.
This openness may soon end. The presence of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland could make travel and trade difficult again, could re-establish physical and psychological roadblocks. It could serve as a reminder of the tensions of the past, geographically re-dividing an island that feels, at least when driving, almost fluid. I get the sense that some people are already steeling themselves up for the possibility of more trouble. Shoring their fragments against the chance of future ruin.
“They didn’t know what they were doing,” the café owner tells us. Brexit could hurt her business, possibly raising her taxes and overhead costs, limiting who she can hire, or even reducing the travel of tourists like us to town. “I’m sorry you’re going through this, too,” she says, a nod to our recent election of a man who has threatened to shut down the federal government in order to build a wall along our southern border.
The café owner and Kevin likely remember some of the worst violence, like what happened on Bombay Street, another stop on our tour. In 1969, Catholic-inhabited houses on Bombay Street were set on fire by people loyal to England. The blaze forced 1,500 residents out of their homes, which were burned to the ground, and a teenager was killed. The rebuilt houses that back onto the peace wall have metal cages covering their backyards, angling from each roof to the ground. I imagine Molotovs sliding down the caging and exploding feet from where a child might play. I wonder if the people who live in these houses feel like they’re in prison when they’re at home.
On Bombay Street, we stop at Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, a small park that contains plaques bearing the names of area residents who have died fighting for reunification with Ireland since 1916. A house that overlooks the memorial has a billboard tacked to its side wall. The billboard declares Never Again! It features a photograph of the teenager who died during the violence of 1969, and photographs of the street in ruins.
According to surveys, a third of area residents don’t want the peace lines to come down. There’s subtext to the wall’s existence, deeper than a question of which side you’re on. The subtext, when neighborhoods are divided by a wall that’s as high as three stories in places, is that you must choose a side. You may not straddle the two perspectives or express an alternate point of view.
Yet visitors are supposed to remain neutral. Travel guides we read advise against entering into discussions about the Troubles except on tours like this one. Guidebooks urge tourists to avoid politics altogether, though politics are what has shaped this part of the world. Tourists come to Belfast for three major reasons: to learn about the Titanic or the Troubles, or, more recently, to visit filming locations for Game of Thrones, itself a political drama. People come here to learn about the city’s history—to see the ramifications of what happens when a city tears itself apart. We come because, like the Causeway Coast not far from here, Belfast’s divided landscape is striking and dramatic. We come because the peace lines remind us that it could happen at home, too.
Peace is a fragile thing. In the summer of 1998, just a few months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, members of a radical faction of the IRA bombed the center of the town of Omagh, County Tyrone, on a busy shopping day. The car bomb killed twenty-nine people and injured over two hundred others.
I have a distant personal connection to this attack. Several years after Omagh, when I was a teenager, the son of one of that day’s first responders spent a summer break from college with my family. He lived with us while he interned for a politician as part of a cultural exchange program. Through Will, I learned about the pro-English view of the conflict. My parents and I were expecting someone who would fit our uninformed image of what it meant to be Irish: someone who would tell us legends and who’d listen to U2 with me. But within moments of meeting us, Will informed my family that he was not Irish. Will was devoted to Britain; we watched East Enders together while drinking a cuppa, and he often wore a pair of shoes bearing the Union Jack.
As we drive through Belfast with Kevin, I can’t help but think of Will. What would he say to someone like Kevin? Would the two men, Kevin middle-aged, who grew up Catholic in Belfast, and Will, now in his thirties, a Protestant from County Tyrone, even be able to have a conversation? These men share similar accents, and, more importantly, a similar fervor—the same belief that their sides are right, that the others are in the wrong. Both Kevin and Will are so well-versed in the history and perspective of their own sides that I wonder if they’d even be able to listen to the other’s opinion.
I think about how there are two sides emerging in my own country as well. The United States contains several stark divides that, if not bridged, could rend our nation apart. Most notable is the divide between people who want to “make America great again” by ostracizing and/or ousting anyone who doesn’t look, worship, love, live, or think like they do and people who believe that our country’s strength is in our diversity. (I over-simplify, of course.) We have a president who wants to build a physical wall along our southern border, who doesn’t seem to care if metaphysical walls are already rising between people with different points of view.
In Belfast, I see firsthand what happens when walls go up.
Kevin takes us to the Protestant side of the peace lines for our last stop. On Shankhill Road, the peace wall is covered in graffiti and tourists’ signatures. We add ours, smiling for a photograph as we sign our names and I draw a heart. I don’t feel right adding my name to this wall, or smiling here, but it’s what’s expected of us—because it’s what most visitors do. I feel as though my act of writing on it somehow contributes to the structure, helping to solidify the wall and to ensure that it will not come down. While he takes our picture, Kevin tells us that everyone who stops here signs the wall, even Rihanna.
So we squat, holding Sharpies up to the concrete, and smile.
*The names of the two Northern Irish men featured in this essay have been changed.
Marissa Mazek received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins in 2015, and got her BA in English and Creative Writing at Barnard in 2010. Her work has been published in Entropy, Watershed Review, ZiN Daily, and elsewhere. She recently completed a novel set in the South Bronx and Puerto Rico.