The day started out nice and early. Wake up before dawn, get on the bus and make our way to Connolly Station on Amiens St. Easy enough. The train ride was a dream, literally and figuratively. I had a very interesting conversation with Sarah, which made the trip enjoyable and easy. I am grateful for people who are gracious about sharing their adventures in life. It’s a gift I will never tire of receiving. Although, I must admit that when there were lulls in the conversation I was going in and out of reality. My thoughts were trying desperately to play catch up with my knackered body. I needed something to wake me up. Belfast did just that and more.
Belfast is a city on the brink of change. As you all know, change is inevitable but not always easy. You will always have opposing forces that push and pull you every which way. The best example of this was a stretch of road in west Belfast called Shankill Road. According to our knowledgeable guide from our Belfast Hop On Hop Off tour, the Shankill was, on many an occasion in the past, the site of unrest between republican forces and its unionist residents. Even today, as the Union flags fly high and proud on the streets of the Shankill, the undercurrent of conflict is still quite palpable. The murals depict scenes from history, some more poignant than others. It was quite disturbing to see distinctly violent murals, which almost looked like they were glorifying violence. One of the most distressing murals was on Emerson Street off Shankill Road that showed five Ulster Volunteer Force members (known as the Shankill Butchers), their logo and four armed men dressed in black. I often wondered on the trip through the Shankill why these murals still existed. How could there be real peace between the opposing factions when unfortunate images like this persist and are seemingly tolerated by the residents of the area?
The other side of town is a different story. The Falls Road, a predominantly republican part of the city, is separated from the Shankill by Peace Walls. Of all the murals that had a profound effect on me, I was particularly taken by that of Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer and an MP to the United Kingdom Parliament (a token move since they knew he would never serve his term). He was sentenced to a prison term for possession of firearms; while in prison, he led a hunger strike in jail to regain political status for him and his fellow republican prisoners. A controversial and yet revered figure, Bobby Sands will remain a martyr, not only for republican supporters, but for people all over the world fighting the system of tyranny and oppression. People will always have different opinions about Sands, his ideology and his methods. I would be interested in learning more about him and the resurgence of violence upon his death in May 1981.
The two sides of town are a microcosm for what was and what will be for Belfast. The city and its people have gone through the most trying times, sometimes having very little hope for change. There has been bloodshed, there has been conflict, there has been tragedy. But through the pain, confusion and opposition, the people of Belfast have been resilient, strong and steadfast in the idea that change will come to Northern Ireland and peace shall be the norm for all.
I will be back, Belfast. Keep well till then. See you down the road.