Monday, January 25, 2010

A Catholic and a Protestant walk into a bar: Big Bad Belfast, Northern Ireland

Destination:  Belfast, Northern Ireland
Number of Days Spent:  1 day
Where we stayed:  RCI's Jewel of the Seas
Best of:  Surprisingly thriving business district, large Celtic crosses & it is relatively peaceful these days.
Worst of:    It rained all day, but how else would Ireland stay so lush green?
Most Memorable:  We had quite the character for our Black Taxi tour.  The Catholic driver took us around to see the murals and reminded us in his actions and words that there is still tension.  Favorite quote from the cabbie, "You couldn't pay me a million euros to walk into that bar."

Useful Tip:   The tours are a fixed 10BP per person for 3 or more or 40 BP for the car so try and partner with a couple of other people to save a few "quid".
Think of Belfast or Northern Ireland and images of car bombs, internal strife and violence first come to mind.  Dubbed "The Troubles", Belfast was the epicenter for a struggle between two distinct groups divided over several key issues.  The beginnings of The Troubles takes root back in the 17th century.  Legend has it that the King of England at the time promised this chunk of relatively uninhabited land in Ireland to the first person to "lay his hand on land."  Seeing that he was about to lose the race to land, Ulster cut off his hand and threw it on the shore.  His bloody stump along with William of Orange (who defeated the Catholic King of England in Northern Ireland) are the "heroes" of the Protestant north (Loyalists or UVF) that are loyal to the crown of England.  On the other side, we have Bobby Sands, the "martyr" who starved to death in a protest known as the Hunger Strikes;  an attempt to bring attention to the "plight" of the Catholics (Republicans or IRA).  The situation reached a head in 1969 when parts of the city went up in flames from rioting.  Our cabbie was on his honeymoon when the riots began and when he returned, his house was burnt down.  Today, while tensions have calmed down, the hatred continues.
Along with our friends Ron and Patty, we set out to find the afore mentioned Black Taxi Tours.  When the public buses were used as blockades service was suspended and the locals still needed a public transport option.  The black taxi service was born and is still in use till this day.  Some of the drivers who speak clear enough English operate their taxis as tours.  After figuring out which black taxi was the right black taxi, our driver took us down Falls Church road to see the Catholic, IRA murals.  
The murals are somewhat controversial - some see them as a road block to peace as they continue to serve as a reminder of a troubled past and stir up emotions.  In general, the two sides have very distinctly different methods.  The IRA play up the role of oppressed, martyrs, helpless victims of an unjust cause.  As you start down the road, a series of murals depict other martyrs who have died in the cause of Irish independence.  The mural of Bobby Sands dominates the side wall of the Sinn Fein (IRA) headquarters.  A little further along he takes us to a memorial garden with the names of victims of the violence, including several children.
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A high barrier wall separates the two neighborhoods.  There are three gates along the length of the wall, all closing at dark.  The driver tells us that wall was put up in the early 70's and he doesn't see that wall ever coming down in his lifetime.
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Crossing through one of the gates we arrive on the Loyalist side to Shankill Road.  Opposite the victim attitude of the IRA, the loyalist take the "don't mess with us" approach.  Their murals take on a more military feel.  The one on the left depicts a man with a gun that seemingly points the gun at you no matter what angle you look at it from (creepy indeed).  The one in the middle is of William of Orange, the afore mentioned King who defeated the Catholics and claimed Northern Ireland for the Crown of England.  Stevie "Top Gun" Mckeag, who by most accounts died of a drug overdose, is credited for 12 assassinations of oftentimes innocent Catholics.     

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On a brighter note, the city and the country as a whole seem to be emerging from the violence and not allowing this relatively small portion of the population stand in the way of progress.  Northern Ireland has received heavy support and investment from the EU in recent years and central Belfast is filled with banks, offices and all signs are pointing to a much brighter future.
One other place of note in town is the Cathedral Church of St. Anne.  Other than being another beautiful church (admittedly, we have become a little jaded with big European churches) the church boasts the world's largest Celtic Cross.
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With history and religion covered, there was but one thing left - a pint at the pub...The Crown Liquor Salon that is.  Self-proclaimed "The most beautiful bar in the world" the interior is a beautiful blend of carved wood, mosaic tiled floors and well placed mirrors.  While the name implies that it's a loyalist joint, the republicans are quick to point out that you have to step on the crown to enter. 
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With another day down, we board the ship and set sail for Iceland!
To see more photos from Belfast click here!

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