Two weeks ago, after we were done with various Cliodynamics activities in Dublin, we went on a field trip to study the post-conflict landscape in Belfast. Our guide on this trip was Kevin Feeney. Exploring Belfast is best done with someone who knows which neighborhoods are safe, and which are not. Even though it has been more than 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which put a stop to the civil war between the Protestants and the Catholics, in some places taking pictures can get you in trouble. For many people who lived through the Troubles, a car that slows down for no apparent reasons is associated with the possibility of drive-by shooting.
Northern Ireland is a very strange place. To an outsider (and even an insider) the Catholics and the Protestants are virtually indistinguishable. They look the same, they dress the same, and they speak the same (a particularly unlovely form of English, I may add, although who am I, a non-native speaker of English, to judge).
Let me clarify, before I proceed further, that the essence of ‘ethnicity’ is the division of the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them’; the particular symbolic markers vary depending on the context, and may include phenotype (‘race’), clothing and ornamentation, language and dialect, and religion. In the case of Northern Ireland, the demarcating symbols are religion-based, but that’s just the outward form. To repeat, the content of ethnicity is ‘us versus them.’
Whether you are Catholic or Protestant is not signaled outwardly, although once in a while you see a secondary marker that signals ethnicity unambiguously. For example, are these boys Catholic or Protestant?
Photograph by the author
Submit your answers in the comments, and I will tell you who is right.
Returning to the strangeness of Norther Ireland. Belfast is a crazy patchwork of Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. It is inhabited by two ethnic groups in roughly equal proportions (the latest data indicate that overall in Northern Ireland Catholics are at 48 percent). Yet most Catholics would not dream of entering Protestant areas, and vice versa.
Some of the lines dividing Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are invisible, but mostly they are very clearly demarcated (unlike people themselves). The most obvious are ‘Peace Lines’ – walls separating Protestant and Catholic areas:
The tall fence behind the houses is a Peace Wall, separating this Catholic neighborhood from a Loyalist area on the other side (photograph by the author)
But most dividing lines are not physical; they are symbolic. Two types of symbols are most commonly used: the murals and the flags. Interestingly enough, the Republicans (Catholics) primarily use murals, while the Loyalists really go overboard on flags.
After we arrived in Belfast, we first checked in the hotel (in the neutral area, see the yellow spot in the city center marked as ‘Botanic’ – it’s actually the university quarter and was largely left alone during the civil war). Then we went on foot into the Catholic area along the Falls Road in West Belfast (the dark green sector to the southwest of the city center).
I must admit that I’ve never before seen such a symbol-laden landscape. Practically every building has a mural commemorating a key event in the struggle of the Irish people against the English oppression, or a hero who played an important role in the struggle.
At the entrance to the Catholic sector, you are welcomed by a mural that advertizes. among other things, Irish political tours:
One sign says, “If it’s history you want go on a cemetary tour.” (There is something very Irish in the structure of this sentence; spelling is as in the original.)
Another mural celebrates the West Belfast Taxi association:
During the Troubles many Republican areas were completely cut-off from the state (for example, policemen never entered them, as they were liable to get shot). These Catholic communities were thrown on their own devices, but they did a very good job policing themselves and providing other services. Crime, for example, was practically nonexistent (well, potential thieves knew that they would be kneecapped, which provided a powerful incentive to stay away from crime; but it would be a mistake to explain low crime incidence simply by the fear of punishment).
The Catholic areas also provided a community-based transportation services, which still operate today. They look like traditional Black Taxis you see in London, but operate like buses – following fixed routes and having a fixed fare.
A bit further down Falls Road is a huge memorial to Bobby Sands:
Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA, who died on hunger strike in a British prison.
Nearby is the Garden of Remembrance:
which is dedicated to the memory of the D Company of the 2nd Battalion of IRA:
OK, it’s getting a bit late, so I will have to deal with the Protestant areas in the next blog. But before I end this one, I want to stress just how symbolically dense the Belfast landscape is. I took a ton of pictures, most of which I don’t have space to publish here. But here’s one of a side street off the Falls Road:
There is another mural on the left, which I couldn’t capture, not having a wide enough lens. The house in the background has another memorial to the hunger strikers:
To be continued
A note added 18.VII.2014:
HBD Chick gets the prize!