There are times when borders have no gates and other times when the border is more than just the physical reminders of gates and barriers, but a presence in the air, a sensation that pervades all around you. When I took the bus up from Dublin to Belfast for one of Butler’s weekend trips I crossed multiple borders; technical and imagined, seen and unseen.
I couldn’t make the first evening and day of Butler’s trip because I had a few classes I couldn’t afford to miss so I only have the word of a number of trusted friends that the sights of Giant’s Causeway and other such highlights were magnificent things to behold and wonder. My journey instead took me by Bus Eireann up to Northern Ireland. Like Greyhound and other forms of mass transport in the States, Bus Eireann has its fair shares of what some call “Lynch-ian” characters, in other words the bizarre people that seem to only exist on bus routes and disappear immediately thereafter. There were the rowdy and loud teenagers near the back, the tired and saggy middle-aged and old shutting their eyes from the world around them, the person with absolutely no luggage but five grocery bags filled with food and who-knows-what-else, the college kid with eyes lost out the window… There was no checkpoint or border stop when we entered Northern Ireland.
Two, three hours later I found myself in downtown, central “South” Belfast. I checked into the hotel Bulter had put us in, which was actually pretty nice. Since the rest of the Butler crew was still out on their planned adventures I took advantage of the remaining daylight and sunshine while I still had it to go tour around the city by myself and try to get the feel of Belfast. My aimless wanderings were somewhat aided by the tourist maps and signs posted about the city, since I hadn’t the foggiest clue which way was which. My little lost feet found me along the river with beautiful buildings and bridges along the waterfront as the sun disappeared to the west and night overtook the city. My eyes eventually spied a sign that stopped me in my tracks, advertising pints for £2, which, even after the conversion back to euros, meant I could fill myself with wonderful Guinness for half the price I could in Dublin. I firmly planted myself against the bar, ordered my pint and learned, to whatever truth it may actually hold, that the pipes for the Guinness tap have to be cleaned every two weeks or the taste and consistency changes considerably, or so said the bartender to the native Belfastians with accents I couldn’t begin to comprehend, except that they loved Guinness. It was after a few pints that I was found by a few of the Butler guys at TCD who were on the re way to dinner, so I joined them for a bite and friendly conversation.
The next morning after breakfast they spilt us up into three sections, with each section at a time being taken on the Black Cab Tour of Belfast’s famous “troubled” sites. They explained that in the city center, South Belfast, things were fine nowadays and nothing bad really happens there, but in West Belfast the trouble is still a very felt presence. At our first stop we were given a brief bit of history of how the calamities began way back hundreds of years ago and how they’ve been evolving yet staying basically the same ever since. All around us were housing units in decent, not terrible nor fantastic, condition, and almost every single one of them on one end had a mural painted on it.
You can divide the murals into two basic types: peace murals and the violence or war murals. I care to blanket them into such black and white categories because, from what I saw, they all pretty much fit perfectly into those two choices. There were murals dedicated to innocent civilians killed in the violence, to murdered children, to ending the hate, the suffering, and the violence. Then there were those proclaiming the justice of the cause, loyalist to Britain or separatist to, dedicated to “volunteers” of the fighting factions. One that was pointed out to us, a painted mural of a guy in his twenties with a backwards baseball cap and “thug bling” around his neck, had been connected to the killings of somewhere between thirty and fifty people before he was himself killed. The guide made reference to that by saying it would be akin to Americans painting a picture of OJ Simpson on the sides of buildings, or any other person famously connected with murder. The impression stayed.
Next they took us to the Peace Wall, a name aptly or poorly fit depending on your feelings about the situation in front of you. The Peace Wall is a series of walls that separate the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, thusly creating a semblance of distance and safety from the other group when they would otherwise be separated by a distance of about thirty or forty yards. On the wall are quotes and signatures of hundreds if not thousands of people who have made a pilgrimage to the site to write words of peace. You can find quotes from the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, and other famous figures whom have traveled there to promote peace between the two sides; you can also find the scorch marks from Molotov cocktails and bomb blasts. The guides then showed us large gates connected to portions of the wall, leading into the communities inside. Every night they are still locked and sealed around 9:30, under guard. Every single night, after all these years.
After the tour a group of us walked around the city center, coming upon a huge open market full of stalls of vendors of every sort. Fish mongers, butchers, bakers, pastry chefs, farmers, weavers, nearly everything you could want and maybe a little bit more. I got myself a delicious jerk chicken wrap from a Jamaican lady and listened to two young guys on guitars play an eclectic cover of songs, from Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, to maybe the best cover of the Counting Crows “Round Here” that I’ve ever heard.
I walked on my own around the city for a while, see if I could find some sights. I had with me a brochure for a tour of the place where the Titanic was built, and since it didn’t look very far away on the tiny map in my hands, I thought why not and went off to find it. Once again, my poor navigational skills led me astray from my goal and I wound up a few miles down a road I had no intention of going down. I ended up, I found out later, in East Belfast, a place that hadn’t been named on the tour before. It was walking here that I began to get a feeling in me, an eerie presence I couldn’t quite place, like something was off or that I had crossed over some imaginary line. As the feeling got stronger, I saw the first mural, a peace one, with a strong message begging for the violence and hate to cease. Thirty feet away was another mural, dedicated this time to the Red Hand of Ulster, the Loyalist forces, which said they would never give up their true and just fight for English rule. A store that sold nothing but Union Jack souvenirs. Mural after mural, memorial after memorial dedicated to fallen volunteers/soldiers. At one point, someone pulled out of a parking spot in their car, popping a rock out from under a wheel, which made me jump in fright. Even though nothing around me was actually threatening, the broad daylight did little to shield me from the primitive fear from hearing all the stories of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being killed just because.
During the tour earlier, they mentioned how in Belfast the fighting wasn’t between blacks and whites or other stereotypical fighting like that, it was between Catholics and Protestants. Someone asked if you could tell the difference, if there were signs. They said no, not really, you couldn’t really tell just by looking at someone. I hate myself for this bit of immaturity, but when I heard that the first thought that came to mind was how stupid it was to fight over such meaningless differences, when you couldn’t even tell by looking at a person. But, really, do looks really matter, either? In a way, that’s part of the message I took from the tour and the trip. It was easy to get up caught up on one side, and say the other one was at fault because blah blah blah, and then mock the whole thing for being ridiculous, as opposed to other similar tragedies. As I walked back to the city center, I went through a street of alternating violent and peaceful murals and unlocked gates. War and peace until I passed the one I saw when I entered, that rang out a resounding “No more!”