Belfast: Broadening Perspectives

Lizzie Hjelle NUI Galway, Ireland


March 22, 2016

As the weeks have gone on, I’ve become increasingly comfortable living here in Galway. I’ve developed some routines, fortified some wonderful friendships, explored the city, and even gotten involved on campus through some clubs and societies. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, however, studying abroad poses a unique opportunity to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Since I was beginning to feel a bit too comfortable in my wonderful West coast city, Arcadia’s trip to Belfast and the Antrim Coast earlier this month came at just the right time. I had signed up for this trip without knowing much about the history of Belfast, Northern Ireland, or the Troubles that took place in recent history, but this weekend really opened my eyes to the tumultuous history of a place I had barely heard of.

After catching an early morning bus from Galway to Dublin on Friday morning, we met up with other Irish students to begin the long bus ride to Belfast. Upon arriving that afternoon, we started our weekend at the Titanic Visitor Centre. There, we were able to learn more about Belfast’s rich shipbuilding history as the first industrial city in Ireland. While exploring the exhibits, we were able to look into the harbor and see exactly where the Titanic was built as well as learn about how many jobs its construction created for people living in Belfast at the time. I’m definitely a museum lover, and I could have spent an entire day wandering through the exhibits and absorbing all of the history.

Saturday marked our day of outdoor exploration at the Giant’s Causeway. Of course, we were greeted with rain and wind upon our arrival to the causeway. The rain and cold may have dampened our clothes, but not our spirits! We spent all morning learning about the folklore surrounding the causeway, the history of the site itself, and about the geological phenomena that created such a unique place. I was even able to face my fears and climb to the top of the columns in order to get a picture with a friend from my home university. After returning to the city, a few of us took the chance to explore Queens University, the Botanic Gardens, and the Ulster Museum. The museum had a wonderful exhibit chronicling the history of Northern Ireland, including a large section devoted to the Troubles. This exhibit was where we spent the most time, as we felt very uninformed about the history of the city we were staying in. Many of us didn’t realize how recent the Troubles were, how deep the rifts were within the community, or that the tension never completely went away. After such a somber afternoon at the museum, we were delighted when our friend invited us to tag along on a historic pub-crawl of Belfast. We learned the history behind some of Belfast’s oldest pubs, one of which happened to be the oldest building in the city. The pub-crawl proved to be a much-needed outing after a day of adventures.

Sunday morning marked our last day in Belfast, and the day where we got to really learn about the political significance of the city. Our morning began with a presentation by Professor Bill Rolston from the University of Ulster on the Troubles focused on the numerous political murals found all over the city of Belfast. Professor Rolston had spent many years documenting the murals of Belfast and studying their evolution, so it was incredible to hear him talk us through which murals have survived, how tactics have changed, and the significance behind the images used in the murals. He was able to show us different images of the same exact wall taken several years apart so we could see how the murals were updated to match the changing tactics of each political party. His lecture was especially helpful as we embarked on a bus tour of the murals that afternoon, where we saw some of the murals he referenced first hand. Although the violence associated with the troubles has decreased, the community’s deep wounds were still apparent in the murals. The murals also revealed a deep desire for peace, and not just in Ireland. Many referenced the hunger strike of many imprisoned activists during the Troubles, most were anti-violence, and one of the most powerful murals made reference to events in Gaza.

The last stop on our mural tour was at the Peace Wall, situated between a historically Protestant and a historically Catholic neighborhood. Many tourists who visit the wall also sign their name as a gesture of their supporting peace in Belfast. People from all over the world have signed the wall, including famous politicians. While the widespread support of peace is great, our guide referred to tourists signing the Peace Wall as a sort of “dark tourism.” So many people have signed it in support of peace in the community, but after leaving their signature they eventually leave Belfast and the Troubles behind them. Those actually living in the community are the ones who experience the effects of the tensions and violence, and what good does signing the wall do if we are just going to leave and never think of it again? While I do hope for peace in a community so ravaged by violence, I made the conscious choice to not sign the wall after all. A community’s real struggles shouldn’t be my photo opportunity. Spending a weekend in Belfast was a truly eye-opening experience for me, and I left feeling so much more informed about the history of the country I’ve called home since January. Belfast offered a heavy dose of perspective on life in Northern Ireland and on Irish politics, and I am incredibly glad that I was able to learn from such a resilient city.