A Day in Belfast With an Ex-IRA Prisoner

I have SO MANY ideas for posts for this blog, and sometimes I find it overwhelming, difficult to choose just one.  Andrew’s been asking me lately what my next post will be about, and I told him I’d have to be inspired, and I wasn’t sure yet.

And then, my answer came to me…

I was grocery shopping just now, and as soon as I turned the key in the ignition at the conclusion of my errand, the radio burst forth with the opening militaristic drumbeats of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday“.  The song played for the entire time it took for me to drive home, wrapping up as I pulled into the garage.

WHEN does that even ever happen, with ANY song?

And so, I’ll recount the day Andrew and I went to Belfast and took a political walking tour with an ex-IRA prisoner.

My journal states:

“Saturday July 20, 2013:  Walked past city hall and Donegal Square on our way to meet up with the political tour at Divis Tower at 1 pm.  Led by an ex-IRA prisoner, it was very interesting… what we were able to understand, anyway.”

Unfortunately, Andrew and I are terrible at understanding accents.  I thought I was horrible at it, so I was trusting Andrew to be catching everything that was said… but when our guide asked him a question and Andrew’s answer was rather confusing, I realized that for whatever reason I could understand the guy better than Andrew!  So… we were a little bit hoopered.  It was such a shame to not understand him well.  He was so earnest!

Another problem for me on the tour, was that one of our fellow tour members was annoying the hell out of me.  It was a man who weirdly enough never seemed to walk with his wife.  Instead, I was constantly finding him near ME.  I’m sure he was just a bumbling fool who didn’t even realize he was creeping me out… and it’s a true shame that I spent a good deal of the day focusing on escaping this pesky creeper.  I may have even yelled a few swears at this fellow.  I was sooooo frustrated.  This is an issue for me — that I’ll focus on one thing that’s making me uncomfortable, and miss out on a fantastic opportunity to really learn the history of the place we’re seeing.

I don’t think I want to try to attempt to explain The Troubles.  It’s deep, it’s complicated, it’s tense, it’s OVER and they’re taking steps toward peace — and the one thing that I’m especially aware of is that I’ll never really understand the conflict.

I mean, okay, I can try to give the quick Erin-version without the aid of research:  When the British tried to take over Ireland, the Irish would have none of that nonsense.  Though the Brits did gain a foothold in the North and there they stayed.  I don’t recall the details as to how Northern Ireland precisely came to pass, but it did, and most counties in Northern Ireland were/are British/Protestant, though there are a few counties that are Irish/Catholic… but they’re totally outnumbered.  Though I realize violence has been perpetuated on both sides of the conflict, I can’t help but empathize with the Irish Catholics.

So, the infamous U2 song is about a particular bloodbath during The Troubles.

Maybe this is where I should try to explain everything I’ve learned… I’m not awesome at that, so instead I’ll post a link to someone who IS: Everywhereist.

You know, I think our guide was actually imprisoned for the majority of The Troubles.  Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

“He was imprisoned three times — the first time for shooting at two police officers who had invaded his home… and he missed.  He got 15 years for this.  Conditions in the prison were disgusting and brutal.”

If you’ve seen the 2008 film “Hunger“, you’ll know this.

“As we walked, he said hello to a lot of people on the street, some of whom looked a little worse for wear.  I’m guessing they had been through similar situations back during The Troubles.  We were led through rough-looking areas, empty warehouses, rubble, graffiti, memorials, and the murals… they’re absolutely gripping.  We visited a cemetery with a 7-foot wall underground to separate Catholics and Protestants even in death.  Our tour concluded with a pint of Guinness at The Felons Club with our ex-IRA friend.  A very poignant experience, even though we couldn’t usually understand him… nor the conflict.”

As he walked, there was a haunted look in his eyes… he’d look at certain sites or certain streets, and I’m sure he was remembering yet another tragedy that took place there.  He told us that today he works in schools with special needs kids.  Honestly… there’s so much about that day that makes me tear up.  For example, we saw a wall that went up in a residential area to try to prevent people from throwing molotov cocktails into their neighbour’s backyards.

Here are some pics from our Coiste Political Walking Tour (highly recommended, by the way):

bobby sands

troubles

troubles 2

IMG_6333

sinn fein

Headquarters of Sinn Fein (the Irish Republican Party).

IMG_6340

Milltown Cemetery, and our guide.

After our tour, Andrew insisted we visit the British area of town.  We’d been in the Irish Side, now it was time to see Sandy Row.

brit

Not shy about being British.  Even the curbs and light standards are painted the colours of the British flag.

tense

uff

The Red Hand of the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

whoa

stay out

Andrew was also feeling tense.  We took this photo in a hurry.  It just felt weird, you know?  And yet… this is one of my very favourite pictures of Andrew.  Badass.

It turns out that at the exact time that we were walking and talking with our ex-IRA guide in the Irish Catholic side of Belfast, friends of ours were volunteering at a Protestant mission just outside Belfast.  Upon our return home, we got together with them to discuss and share our very different experiences.  I have to say, there are more sides to this than I can fathom, more to consider than I can digest.  Our world opened up, and I’m truly left more confused than ever.

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