Our second, and final, group trip was to Northern Ireland, the northeastern portion of the Emerald Isle that is technically a province of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, characterized by political and social upheaval since its creation in 1921, was perhaps one of the most interesting places I have ever visited; a place where Ireland and its former ruler coexist despite vastly different religious and political identities.
We arrived in Belfast Friday afternoon. It was only apparent that we were in a different country because of the currency change to the British pound. Besides that, Belfast could have been been another city in Ireland; a city with its own character, but similar aesthetics to Dublin. The culture, however, is unlike any other place in the world. A rigid dichotomy exists not only in Belfast, but in all of Northern Ireland. On one side: Catholics who identify themselves as Irish. On the other: Protestants who identify with their British roots. Though the conflict has little to do with actual faith-based religious differences, the terms Catholic and Protestant are synonymous with Irish and British. Falls road, separating the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, is paralleled by a peace wall. We toured both sides of the wall lead by a corresponding ex-member of the paramilitary groups so closely associated with the violence during the Troubles. It quickly became apparent to me that this trip was very unlike Western Ireland. Where, in Western Ireland, the purpose of the trip was to show us the beauty and rural culture of the West, this trip was intended to expose us to the intense cultural conflict that has existed in Northern Ireland for centuries. It was a sobering experience hearing ex-paramilitary (and ex-prisoners) discuss their political views and personal history so candidly.
In just one weekend, we were exposed to the intense divide that still exists in Northern Ireland. Though it may not have been a cheerful subject, witnessing the peace wall and actually talking to the people involved in the Troubles is an experience that goes much deeper than any sort of “sightseeing” and one that I will never forget.