Having grown up in this day and age in America, I feel like I have grown up in a country of blissful ignorance. In school, we were taught Texas History, US History, and ancient world history. However, we were failed to learn about the conflict happening in certain parts of the world… such as in Northern Ireland. Until this day, I had no idea about how intense it was over in N.I., and how there is still turmoil and a lot of walking on eggshells even today.
On our last day of study abroad, we all took a tour of the Peace Walls in Belfast. We all walked to the outskirts of the city where we had been previously advised to maybe not hang around there. We were told that they were not especially fond of Americans.
We met our tour guide in front of a tall, white building that had red framed windows. Our tour guide was a small, stout Northern Irishman who had actually been sentenced to 20 years in prison by the IRA. He was released after 12, and has been giving tours ever since because he wanted to educate people on the events that had transpired and the intensity of the situation that is still very much relevant today.
Not long after we began our walk, we began to see colorful murals. They all were beautiful and unique, and some were extremely bold and political. We walked past a clearing in between two buildings, where we saw a tall, green iron gate with barbed wire around the top and not 50 feet after it stood another one. Our guide told us that was called “No Man’s Land”. It was the small piece of land that divided the Catholic and the Protestant community. The wall didn’t go on forever, but to go around would be a detour of about 50 miles. Our guide told us that these gates opened at 6:30am and closed at 6:30pm. He said he hopes that their peace will grow and those times will become longer and longer until hopefully, one day, the doors will not close.
As time grew on and we got deeper and deeper in the community, I felt like an intruder, especially with my giant DSLR hanging from my neck. I took it off and zipped it into my bad. I had previously tried to get myself to photograph the area, but I felt rude and very much like an intruder on this community with such intense and sensitive history. Some of the people in my group kept taking photos and others put their cameras away two. I only ended up with about three photos from that experience, but I’m okay with it. I would never want to disrespect a community.
We walked past the Bobby Sands mural. It was one of the biggest ones and so beautifully painted. He was part of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who died in prison during a hunger strike. In prison, he was elected into office until he died.
As we were walking, one man said “Don’t listen to anything he says” a man said about our tour guide. Joking or serious, that just goes to show how sensitive things still are over there.
We walked through the barrier that divided the Catholics and the Protestants. It was covered in graffiti and we rounded the corner to see even more murals than we had seen before. These were more intense and more political. I couldn’t believe how these were still up and how things were over there. This was probably the most sobering experience of the trip because I wasn’t in an American Bubble anymore. I was there. I was in this place that still had conflict and it was sitting there, right in front of me. Not 20 years ago, the neighborhood I was strolling in had been bombed and up in flames. 20 years is not long ago.. at all.
We finished our tour in a neighborhood that had been built and rebuilt after having been in several fires. Our tour guide revealed to us that he had grown up in this neighborhood. Some of the people who lived there looked weathered, as if they had seen a thousand tours come through. They stared us down as we passed by, on their turf. Once again, I was sobered.
As we walked back out of the community and back towards our familiar part of the city, I couldn’t get the afternoon out of my head. With everything happening with Brexit, my professor told me he thinks things might end up going backward with the community, and that their progress with peace may even be set back many years. I looked back at the community and prayed that the future would give them mercy and not mayhem. I hoped that I could come back in 20 years and find one community, not divided by a tall, green wall.
I highly recommend anyone to visit this place. Or a place that has seen conflict or even tragedy. We hear about it and see it every day, but it is so dispersed in the media that we of scroll past them in ignorance. Conflict is real and it is all over our world. Go. Visit. Learn about our world’s past because it is so important that we make sure we do not repeat it.
It’s time to end our conflict and share compassion.