On a first trip to the capital of Northern-Ireland, I have been stunned several times. As true tourists me and my travel partner, a recent immigrant of County Fermanagh, decided to take the Memorial Walls Taxi Tour. With our Starbucks purchases in hand (did you know they have banoffee cupcakes?!) we met with our driver for the next hour, Steven. Steven told us in an unmistakable Irish accent the route we were about to explore and gave us a warm welcome, “Owh you’re Dutch?! Well, thanks for starting all this mess”, “Our pleasure Steve”.
The first stop was in a Protestant neighbourhood, where we pulled up next to another three taxi’s, providing similar touristic tours. Standing in the middle of a greyish square, we found ourselves surrounded by houses which were decorated with spray-canned references to the troubles Ulster has witnessed since long. The time line on the square started with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and William III (1650-1702). Cromwell fought the Catholics in, what we currently know as Ireland, and executed measures which we would know call genocidal. He saw Catholicism as a dangerous political power which needed to be erased because it threatened all those living in England and Ireland. Very reminiscent of a current Dutch politician. William III reigned England and Ireland from 1689 onwards. The memorial wall on the side of the protestant house showed a triumphant King Billy on a black stallion surrounded by orange flowers. The walls are sprayed over frequently, one of the most recent images showed an image of children standing in the shape of the world “play”. An initiative of the neighbourhood children, emphasizing their right to play and fun, despite their growing up in a politically tense area.
More local initiatives were visible on the so-called ‘peace-wall’ dividing Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods in West-Belfast. On the Protestant side, many boys were creating their own graffiti works on the walls, being part of a community art project. Strangely enough, there were only boys. We wrote our hope “for no more walls” on the therefore destined part of the wall and drove to an actual gate in this wall, which was closed off at ten in the evening, every evening. I write actual, as we were shocked to see this. On the Catholic side, we stopped at the memorial in Bombay Street. The backsides of the houses bordering the wall are still wrapped in steel caging to protect from “the occasional stone or firework” thrown over the wall.
To my question whether it was the ultimate goal for the wall to come down eventually, he shyly laughed, thinking it over. “Ideally it is, but for now it has proven to actually work as a peace wall.” So without a physical separation in the form of a wall, people are not able to co-exist in these areas.
As we were there for the weekend only, we were expected to go out drinking by about every single person we met. (The hostel owner..”so you’re going to be bad bad girls tonight?”). Steven told us the best bar to drink a Guinness was also one of the oldest pubs in town, The Crown. We strongly think he worked on commission base. But by means of his promotion, he unintentionally provided us with the most unbelievable fact of the whole tour. The Crown is located across from the Europe Hotel, which has the dubious reputation of being the most bombed location in the city. Everything around it is concrete modernist architecture. However, as a jewel in a crown, the Crown bar still stands strong. Cheers to that.