A Political Journey Through The Past and Present of Belfast

19 Nov

 

   As Political Science major who believes that there are an infinite number of sides to every story, I cannot explain how excited I was to discover that we were getting two different tours of Belfast from two men who had completely different beliefs on what had occurred in Belfast. The first tour was through the Irish Catholic side of West Belfast and was led by a gentleman who was a former member of the IRA. As we drove through the streets of West Belfast and saw the somber, artistic depictions of the deathly consequences left by the Troubles, I immediately realized that this conflict was still prevalent. My realization of this occurred when we traveled to one of the peace walls, which featured a memorial for all those killed in the Troubles. My logic here is that if I were a citizen living in that portion of Belfast, I would awake everyday to the many reminders of what had occurred here. Whether or not I was alive to remember these issues, the memorials themselves would stand as  a memento to past times caused by conflict. The man who gave us the tour, the ex-IRA member, was extremely knowledgeably on the Troubles and, his apparent active participation in such conflicts stood as a testament to his experience. Although he did seem to be in my personal opinion, radicalized in his beliefs, I enjoyed his stories and felt that they allowed myself to grasp a better understanding of the personal side to the Troubles. I recall that his stories of Bobby Sands, the leader of the 1981 hunger strike, were both informative and realistic. The man didn’t seem to impressed with Sands, stating, “He was just a regular guy”. I had always seen Sands as a heroic figure and although I’m the man didn’t attempt to challenge that viewpoint, he suggested that Sands was romanticized by modern media. 

            One instance of present conflict that stood out to me was when the two tour guides switched. As Graham pointed out to other classmates and myself, the ex-IRA member did not refer to the other tour guide, an ex-UVF member, by his name. The ex-IRA member simply pointed at the gentleman from the bus and commanded to the bus driver, “Here’s your boy!”. The man then proceeded to get off the bus, exchanged a few words with the ex-UVF man, and went about his day. The irony here is that these two men have seen each other perhaps once a week for the last few months to years! Yet the ex-IRA member refused to call him by name. I thought this particular instance spoke to the lack of humanity that occurred during the conflict between both sides. 

            After the first tour, the ex-UVF man gave his side of the story, which to me personally was very interesting because as a Catholic Irish-American, I have only truly heard one perception of the conflict. What I concluded from the ex-UVF’s story and perception was that the Protestants living in Northern Ireland, specifically Belfast, truly do not consider themselves Irish. They consider themselves innately British and hold their allegiance not to Ireland itself but to the crown. This sort of Unionist loyalty shows us that this conflict for a unified Ireland seems as if impossible when there is such a large minority who consider themselves apart of totally different nation.

            Generally speaking, Belfast was one of my favorite trips thus far in my study abroad experience as I learnt a bit about my own personal heritage. In connection to Northern Ireland, I learned very recently that one of my great-grandfathers hailed from the North, and in fact was descendant of British ancestry. This would likely mean that he was originally a Protestant who converted to Catholicism. In fact, my grandmother listed that the whole reason he immigrated to the United States is because he refused to join the original IRA, back in the early 1900s. From what I understand, he was perhaps apart of the majority group in Ireland who did not really care for freedom from the English prior to the 1916 Easter Rising. It is from this where I draw a personally connection to the conflict. In part, I may not have been here if it were not for the original Irish rebellion. Both pieces of history, the rebellion and the Troubles, stand as testaments to the strong nature of the Irish people and also as a reminder of how far the nation has truly come. 

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