If someone was going to do Belfast in a day, then I would suggest doing the Titanic Museum, walking around downtown a bit, and doing a mural tour.
We didn't have a full day to spend in Belfast, so we decided to just do a mural tour, and while it was very interesting, I don't know that I would recommend it to someone else. It was long--almost 3 hours--but having taught Irish literature, then I was particularly interested in hearing about the Irish conflict from a Catholic perspective.
After having a lovely breakfast with our hosts Norman and Hazel, we were fortunate enough to have Hazel drop us off on the street where the walking tour was starting. Not too many years ago, this street was not particularly safe for tourists. But as I mentioned yesterday, a lot has changed since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Our guide was a former IRA volunteer (the term they call the nationalists who fought against the British in efforts to free Northern Ireland from British rule) who had spent time as a political prisoner. He had a lot of stories to tell--stories about where key figures had died, stories about where British soldiers had stationed themselves. He was clearly not trying to incite violence or hatred towards the British, just giving his perspective about how and why events happened. He disagreed with labeling IRA volunteers as terrorists--"we were fighting for our independence"--and he thought the British made the conflict much worse than it needed to be--which has been the long standing idea by most academics now.
There is still a small faction of people who use violence in their fight for independence from Great Britain, but when we asked him if he would want his kids to be involved in that, he said, "Absolutely not. We did what we did because it was the right thing to do at that time. And that time has passed." He wanted his kids to get a good education. He also thought that Northern Ireland is making huge advances in promoting Irish heritage and language because so many schools teach Irish (Gaelic).
From the tour...we met on the Falls Road, which is known for its pro-nationalist role in the conflict. We saw part of the peace wall, which separates the Catholics/Nationalists from the Protestants/Unionists. We asked if it was still necessary. "Yes," he said.
We saw bullet holes they refuse to cover up: "So we remember that they tried to shoot schoolchildren."
We saw the famous Belfast murals that express the stories and feelings of days long ago.
We saw the famous "RPG Avenue," so named because RPG-7s were the predominant weapon in the fight against the British.
We walked past the city cemetery, where an underground wall separates the Catholic graves from the Protestant ones. And we saw this:
Yes, the week before someone had tried to assassinate some British soldiers with an explosive. According to our guide, they didn't know what they were doing "and we aren't going to help them," so the explosive destroyed some poor unfortunate cinder-block. It was the only time I was just teeny bit unnerved about walking through a conflicted area.
Our tour ended at Milltown Cemetery, where many IRA volunteers are honored.
This plot is dedicated to the many IRA volunteers who died during the conflict--whether through hunger strikes or on the streets--but, as our guide said, hopefully no one else will be buried in this New Republican Plot. In other words, hopefully no other IRA volunteers will be killed in conflict.
You may be wondering, as we did, how daily discrimination can happen when race is not a factor. As our guide said, "You can just tell. You can tell in the way someone stands, the way they talk, how outgoing they are. A Catholic--or even just a nationalist in general--is more friendly."
When Hazel came to pick us up after the tour, we asked her about this. She didn't give much credit to our tour guide's theory that "you can just tell." She did say, however, that all you have to do is ask someone where they went to school or where their kids go to school and you know where their political sympathies lie. In fact, she makes it a point NOT to ask because it's akin to asking someone in the states if they are a Republican or Democrat. The education system in Northern Ireland is still largely segregated--Catholic/nationalists at one school and Protestant/unionists at another--and Hazel firmly believes that when the schools are desegregated then many of the discrimination issues will be resolved.
As a teacher, I would agree that segregation in education rarely has any positive outcomes.
The nationalist area of Belfast has made quite a stunning recovery economically. The US poured quite a lot of money into the area, which the city used for housing and schools, and to an average tourist, you would never know that it was once considered a very dodgy part of town. I mean, it still feels very tied to the past with all the monuments and murals, but it also seems just like a regular city.
All in all, the Falls Road tour was very interesting to someone who is especially interested in the Irish conflict. I don't think this particular tour would appeal to an average tourist, but certainly everyone should see the murals and the peace line. It's powerful stuff to see that this kind of conflict still exists in Western civilization.
Hopefully I get to go back to Belfast again. There's a lot I didn't get to see, and it would be a real treat to visit Norman and Hazel again. They were wonderful.
We had to be on our way, though, so we said goodbye and headed west to Sligo, specifically Drumcliff.
Well, it's where William Butler Yeats is buried, of course.
You couldn't expect two English majors to pass up the grave of an amazing poet, could you? Of course not.
Yeats actually died in France, but he wanted to be buried in the shadow of Ben Bulben mountain. We got to the cemetery too late to have tea in the gift shop, but we got pictures anyway.
From Drumcliff we headed south to Galway, where we had lined up a night's stay through AirBnB (highly recommend, by the way).
Along the way...
We got to Galway in good time, but we had the most impossible time trying to find the house we were staying at. We did not have good directions, and between the roads not being marked well and cultural differences in landmark names we drove the same stretch of road for more than an hour before finding our way. For future reference: if someone in Ireland says "drive to the end of the road" they mean "drive to where the road changes names, which is not the end of the road nor labeled properly." Also if they say "last estate on the left" they do not actually mean an estate like a house or something ala Downton Abbey, they mean "last subdivision on the left." Finally, "by the bus stop," could mean anything. As there are bus stops all over the freaking place.
We eventually--and not entirely humorously--found the right place, but as it was nearing 9:30, we quickly headed out again to get something to eat before everything but the pubs closed.
Our hosts recommended McSwiggans, which proved to be such an excellent recommendation that we forgave them for the ridiculous driving directions.
If you're ever in Galway, please go to McSwiggans. Oh my goodness. It was the absolute best place we ate at the entire trip.
Local seafood and shellfish chowder with Irish soda bread...marinated succulent pork ribs...Tandoori monkfish masala...
Rhubarb crumble ala mode...crepes with vanilla and chocolate ice cream...
I could definitely go for that meal again any night of the week. It was a great way to end a very full day.
Tomorrow we take a quick walk through Galway before driving south to see the landscape highlight of the trip.