Thursday, October 11, 2007

Welcome (sort of) to Belfast

I'm on the train to Belfast watching the sunrise out of northern Dublin. The country side is fantastic, and I can see now why this place is called the Emerald Isle. As Rick Steves noted in his book, "the gentil rainfall, called 'soft weather' by the locals, really does produce 40 shades of green -- and quite a few rainbows as well. Ancient, moss-covered ring forts crouch in lush valleys, while stone-strewn monastic ruins and lone castle turrets brave the wind on nearby hilltops."

Belfast itself is actually quite limited on tourism sites, but I really wanted to make it into northern Ireland anyway to gauge the modern day enmity between the Protestants and Catholics. Also, I thought that having toured Berlin just days earlier would provide a nice segue into Europe's other famously divided city.

Belfast is where the Titanic was built, and while it is a sensational story and one which makes perfect sense to trumpet while trying to nurture a new tourism industry, the fact that the Titanic sank disastrously seems to be lost on the residents. The result is an odd offering of souvenirs, such as this t-shirt I found in the tourist information center which proudly proclaims that the unsinkable ship that sank was "made in Belfast."

Despite the remarkable history of the city though, Belfast only warrants a day trip from Dublin on your Irish holiday, and so that's what we've done. It is a two-hour ride between Dublin and Belfast, and if you catch the earliest train out and the last train back you can get your fill.

We began our day with a tour of the quite impressive city hall (pictured left). It was a warm welcoming into the city, although we couldn't go on tour because - despite the fact that the schedule is posted right outside saying the tours would be open - the tours were closed (one of five things that would be closed today despite schedules to the contrary).

Bicipital Belfast. You arrive to a scene like this thinking perhaps Northern Ireland really has gotten over its troubles, but the marble floors and stained glass serve as a facade luring you into a false sense of calm.

A tour through the Catholic side of town shows continued support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the separatist movement, along with murals depicting support for causes around the world (usually for independence) for which the Irish Catholics are sympathetic (such as an anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinan movement).

A trip to the Protestant side of town reveals much of the same; such as this mural (painted in loyalist blue) warning all visitors. Pro-Britain members are called "unionists" because they want to maintain the union with England, but the really extreme members call themselves "loyalists." Murals seem to be the main medium for communication with the outside in Belfast, and murals like the one pictured above are a dime a dozen on both sides of town.

The city was far more divided and politically tense than I was expecting. After hearing of the cease fire which has been in affect since the mid 1990s, I had assumed tensions had eased, but in some neighborhoods they clearly had not. This is quite a departure from last week's trip through Berlin. Berlin felt like it was quickly becoming one and the same. By contrast, Belfast now has its own equivalent of the Berlin Wall. Called the "peace wall" by some and apparently the "division wall" by many others such as the man in one of the tourist information shops who sternly corrected me, it still seperates the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

Astonishingly, the cemetery we visited even has a big wall in it to separate the Catholic graves from the Protestant graves.

Touring Belfast was fascinating, and I'm very happy to have had the chance. Getting around town reminded me a great deal of Tanzania because just like in the streets of Kilimanjaro, citizens hop into shared cabs (like the dalla-dallas) and scurry about town. You don't find small, privately operated shared cabs much in the western world. In fact, this is the only occurrence I can think of, and it is a product of the favored IRA tactic of commandeering city buses and using them as blockades during street battles. Eventually, the bus system just shut down, and the Irish dalla-dallas stepped in.

I loved my time in Belfast and found it fascinating, but I'm happy to be headed on the last train back out to move into the Irish Republic. Tomorrow we tour Dublin, where 1/4 of all Irish citizens live.

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