looking for troubles

Some observations about “the Troubles”…

Having spent all of four days in Northern Ireland, I would not presume to be able to tell you what it was/is all about, but I can tell you what I saw, felt and had relayed to me.

Ireland was ruled by the Catholic King James II, and it was feared that the Catholic influence spreading from France was becoming too powerful (don’t all conflicts seem to have the same plot??)  William of Orange, who was a nephew and also, awkwardly, the son in law of King James, was requested to invade as a protestant, in order to curtail the catholic influence in the region.  He did so and was victorious, and the protestants were again in the ascendancy.    The William followers were named “Orangemen” and to this day, still gather and march to commemorate the victory, wearing orange sashes.  They meet at Orange Lodges, or halls.

The two sides started out as being under a religious banner, i.e. Catholic and Protestant, however I was told that whilst these labels are still often used, the issue is more a Nationalist-Republican/Loyalist one.  Nationalist being for an independent Irish nation, and Loyalist being loyal to the Crown and being part of the United Kingdom.  Ireland is part of the EU and uses the Euro, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and uses the pound sterling.     It is often the case that a nationalist will also be a catholic, and the reverse also applies.  The sides each raised fighting forces, the IRA and the Ulster Militia, and as will happen, each of these sides had their fair share of extremists.   Whilst the tensions bubbled away over many generations, the 70s and 80s raised the bar in terms of the tactics and targets.  Car bombs were parked outside buildings, petrol bombs thrown into shops etc.

The citizens of Belfast tend to live in the same areas as their family.  In years gone by, work was often at a Mill, at the end of the road, so families would live near their parents, aunts and other extended family members, as this enabled them to have the children and elderly be supervised and generally lighten the load.  This tended to create enclaves which were either Republican or Loyalist, but more from necessity and convenience than by law.

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The geography of the city shows that main roads all make their way down into the city, which then had a barrier around it, and in the worst days, you would have to clear security to traverse the barrier, to go into town for a hairdresser/doctor/shopping etc.

Maybe an explanation why many food outlets are out in the suburbs, rather than in the city?

You will see that Crumlin and Shankill Roads, both major feeders, are in the Loyalist area, whereas Falls Road is within a Nationalist area.  These all run parallel to each other.  Streets in Nationalist areas have dual signs, one in English and one in Irish.  Streets in Loyalist areas do not.     Despite free traffic throughout the day, Gates between these areas are closed each night.    A recent study asked residents if they would like to do away with these gates, but they said that they felt safer with them in place.

  • Orangemen hold a march on July 12, commemorating William of Orange’s victory over the catholic King James.  They march down Crumlin road, in a Loyalist area, the march passing by in about 15 minutes.
  • Republicans will attend the march, to take a stand against it.   I note that the report from last year’s march confirmed no violence occurred.
  • Where the march may traverse a Nationalist area, armored cars back up to the houses so that the parties are kept separate.
  • One of the Orange halls has a street frontage that abuts an area predominantly nationalist, and the members must enter the hall from the rear for security.  The windows and doors facing the street are all bricked in and the hall receives a special stipend from the Crown for its energy costs, as no natural lighting is available.

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  • The Peace Wall was initially the height of the Berlin Wall, but had to be extended twice.  Now the wall is 40 ft high, and as I was told, …”if you are going to throw a device over, you’d better be sure it goes over..”
  • Members of the IRA were imprisoned, and proceeded to protest that they were not ordinary prisoners, and should be treated as political prisoners.  They staged several protests, such as the blanket protest (where they refused to wear clothing,  and used only blankets); the dirty protest (where they refused to wash/shave etc) followed by the hunger strike.  Unfortunately they were pitted against the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who had zero interest in their wellbeing, and let them freeze or starve.
  • Splinter groups within the imprisoned IRA groups meant that they could not be allowed out to exercise/eat etc at the same time, the IRA, the provisional IRA, the reaI IRA and as our guide told us the “I can’t believe its not butter IRA”.
  • Murals are often painted at the gable ends of housing rows, and the occupants have no say in whether these are installed or not.  Tourists will then come and photograph them.
  • Where buildings were damaged, people establish remembrance gardens, rather than rebuild on these sites, despite a chronic housing shortage.
  • The night preceding the 12 July March is known as bonfire night, to commemorate the signal bonfires lit for the armies back in the day.  There is much angst on the radio regarding moves to “regulate” these fires, as the fires are lit on street corners down the Shankill Road, and some folk like them to blaze within inches of housing.  They also see this as a great opportunity to burn any crap lying around, like car tyres and other stuff, which will then burn for a millennium.
  • The Northern Ireland parliament consists of both Loyalist and Republican representatives, however they are yet to sit in the current term due to disputes.

I don’t have any answers.  I suspect you won’t either.

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Is it too late to have a gap year in your late 50s? To take back some time from our day to day working life to travel - unplanned, unescorted, unfettered? To take that leap? It was a defining year - liberating, challenging, humbling, scary. It was many things, but it wasn't a holiday.

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