A Portrait of Belfast

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Every city is its own character. In its tangle of street-corners and boulevards, shops and cafes, landmarks and graffiti-sprayed alleyways, a city finds a way to live, breathe, and move through the flow of evening rush hours and quiet afternoons in a way unique to itself. It’s true of Sarajevo and Paris, Belgrade and Boston, Budapest and Amman, and the dozens of other cities I’ve visited over the past few years. And here in Belfast, it’s true as well.

I’ve traveled in and out of Belfast several times since arriving in Northern Ireland, usually by taking a bus from Ballycastle, one to Ballymeena in central Antrim, and then another from Ballymeena to the base of Hotel Europa, famous as Europe’s “Most Bombed Hotel”. I think I’ve made this journey five or six times now in the past month and a half, in order to get out of the small town environment of Ballycastle and Corrymeela for a weekend to soak up the bars, nightlife, and restaurants of Ireland’s second largest city.

Walking along the streets downtown, or through the Botanical Gardens near Queen’s University, it’s easy to forget the images from the not so distant past of checkpoints manned by British soldiers, paramilitaries totting Kalashnikovs and bombed street corners that painted the picture of a city at war. Like Sarajevo or Budapest, Belfast has strived to escape its darker past, in the past twenty years becoming one of the United Kingdom’s newest, youngest, most vibrant hubs for education, tech, and trade — something made possible by its close connection to the Republic to the South. In Belfast’s city center, at least, there’s a story of growth and renewal that its heartening to see. Outside of the center, though … that’s another, much more complicated, thing.

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In the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast Center

For every new evolution — such as the ‘Titanic Quarter”, which has turned an industrial shipyard used to construct such behemoths as the Olympic or Titanic into a quickly developing waterfront center — there are neighborhoods and streets which still cling to nationalism and sectarianism of the Troubles. Loyalist East Belfast; Shankill Road and Falls Road; The Village and Short Strand. Each of these names belongs to a side of the conflict — to Nationalists or Unionists, Loyalists or Republicans — and the maze of zones where one side belongs and the other is excluded is a patchwork tapestry that winds through the city, marked by flags, graffiti, and murals that clearly marks out the territory of Protestants and Catholics. The guns may have been silenced two decades ago, the paramilitaries disbanded, and the killings stopped. But still the divisions, the sectarianism remains.

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Freedom Corner, a Loyalist neighborhood in East Belfast
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Falls road, a Republican stronghold

I came most recently to Belfast with a group of high-school aged students from rural Northern Ireland who I’ve been working with for the past week or so. Many of these kids have grown up in small towns that are predominantly Protestant or predominantly Catholic, and have gone to segregated Catholic or Protestant schools, and because of that the conflict doesn’t seem to cast as wide a shadow as it would to someone from Belfast or Derry/Londonderry. Some seemed unsure about the particulars of the Troubles, which paramilitary group belonged to what side or the events such as Bloody Sunday, the Omagh Bombings or the Battle of Bogside. To them, all of that is history, a vague and undefined history that belongs to their parents generation, not to their own.

But even as I’ve seen these young people make friends and connections between Catholics and Protestants over this past week, it’s clear that they still live within the divisions set by the Troubles during their day-to-day lives. Watching some of them tense while we walked through a Loyalist neighborhood, while others grew visibly uncomfortable by IRA-glorifying graffiti in the Republican Falls Road, and you realize that even if younger people have become able to reach across and make friendships between religions and national identities, there is still a firm sense of where they do and do not belong.

For them, this is, and will always be, a divided country, and despite their shared citizenship in Northern Ireland, there will always be parts to this nation that they are not welcome in. That is a hard thing to grapple with, and something I’ve been dealing with myself as I work more and more with youth in Northern Ireland and the British Isles at large.

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Freedom Corner, East Belfast
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Shankill Road
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Republican Falls Road
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Falls Road

And there are walls here. Not just mental walls, but physical ones, dividing communities in the name of peace and security while keeping both sides firmly apart through a concrete barrier. Called “Peace Lines” or “Peace Walls”, there are today nearly 50 throughout Northern Ireland — mostly in Belfast, but also Derry/Londonderry, Portadown, and Lurgan. Ostensibly established as temporary structures to create a sense of security for people living close to one another in opposite communities (so-called “interface areas”), many of which experienced the worse of the sectarian violence during the Troubles, today these walls have become seemingly permanent monoliths, as part of the city’s architecture now as the City Hall or Stormont Assembly.

What was once temporary has become indefinite; structures placed to calm sectarian violence now serve to further separate these communities from each other. The comparisons to the “Security Barrier” in Israel-Palestine aren’t too much of a stretch to make, and it’s shocking to see something so militant and imposing right in the heart of the United Kingdom.

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Even in the UK, in Europe, in the Western world — the supposed bastion for tolerance, human rights, and equality — there are walls. There are divided communities. There is separation and sectarianism and fear. And these days, rather than calming and solving those tensions, we seem to be returning back to them — Brexit, Trump, the National Front in France.

Sometimes I want to take these people dividing us today and show them the young adults I’ve been working with these past few weeks, and show them how divisions can be made in the span of mere years, but can take generations to heal. Walls and barriers in the name of security may seem an easy solution — whether it be to keep out migrants from Latin America or the Middle East or to separate conflicting communities in Northern Ireland — but, almost always, they tend to create far more problems than they solve.

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Freedom Corner mural depicting a Loyalist paramilitary group
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Protestant East Belfast
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Republican Falls Road
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Mural commemorating the 1981 Republican hunger strikers

But Belfast is moving forward. I’ve shown only the worst of it here on this blog — because it’s important to show — but I haven’t shown the pubs with Protestants and Catholics mingling together over a shared love of Irish music. I haven’t shown the festivals, or the murals that proclaim unity and reconciliation over exclusion and identity. There is so much that is good and positive in this city too, and so much that is worth celebrating. That goes not just for Belfast, it goes for Northern Ireland as a whole.

When I speak to people in Northern Ireland, they often ask me why I’m here — I could be in France or Spain or Germany, or London or New York, instead of this oft forgotten corner of the United Kingdom. And I say I’m here to learn. I’m here too short of a time to be any real part of this country’s healing, but every part of the world I’ve experienced that has gone through conflict, through hardship and sectarian strife, has broadened my view of the world and strengthen my conviction to be some positive part of its future.

Our world isn’t all European cafes and beautiful mountain vistas and sailboats of the Riviera — although those parts should be celebrated for what they are. It’s the hard and difficult parts as well. It’s the parts that have gone through the worst humanity can inflict upon itself, and emerged from it again, that we can sometimes learn the most from. Sarajevo is that; the refugee camps in Jordan are that; Northern Ireland is that. And that, above all, is why I’m here.

I’ll leave you with one last mural, which I found on the peace wall between Shankill and Falls road. Thanks for reading.

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Thoughts from the North Coast

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There is something about the sea, and the rain that comes and goes in sheets from off the coast, and the golden light of evenings when the sun finally peers out from the clouds, that creates a space for long and slow thoughts here along the North Coast of Ireland. I need this.

Been having a lot of time for thinking, lately. It’s been a month, now, since my last post here — and, well, I’m letting each day come and go as it passes, and in the process trying to let my thoughts do the same. I’ve noticed that I’ve been stepping back from politics, and the intensity of international affairs and political science and academia this past month, in a way that I hadn’t had the chance to in Boston. I’m still reading the news of course, following the ups and downs of what’s going on not just at home but in the world, but I’m trying not to let it devour and consume my thoughts and time the way it so often did back at Northeastern. I’m focusing on the things I can do, here, instead — the act of connecting with others and their healing, of being a part of the community at Corrymeela, of learning to love and appreciate this land and the time I have in it.

When I first started this blog, now three summers ago during my first time really abroad, I knew that I wanted to see the world, and to write about it. Two years, three summers, several countries, and an international co-op later, and I’m finding that, if anything, that that is the one constant that still rings true. There is still more of the world that I want to see, still more to experience, and still more that I need to write on. I’m trying to hold on to that.

But for now, here in Northern Ireland, I’m trying to just — pause — and find out after these three hectic and wonderful and difficult years who I still am, and what it is in this world I find worth traveling to, experiencing and writing about. There will be time, still, to have a hand in International Affairs and helping solve the conflicts in the Middle East, the refugee crisis and everything else going wrong in this world. But right now, I can just focus on being here, and now, and not put too much worry towards what the future might hold.

I have had nothing conclusive come out of any of that — yet — but these long nights and hard mornings and afternoons spent a book as the rain beats relentlessly against the windowpanes is getting me… somewhere, at least.

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Evening in Portrush

There’s something primordial about this coastline, called the Causeway or North Coast here in Northern Ireland. Not just old– the Appalachians back home in the States are old, and they wear their age like a comfortable, welcoming blanket. Here, it feels like you are on the edge of the world, not just in space but in time — as if you’ve stepped back into some ancient, wild, untamed era, back when the earth was still young. It’s not something you see in the rest of Ireland, all domesticated fields and little villages, but along this particular stretch of shore it’s hard to escape feeling that this is a place that doesn’t belong to man, but to nature and to the elements.

Even if there are now dozens of tour buses carrying people as far away as China or India to this little pocket of Northern Ireland to see the Giant’s Causeway or filming locations for Game of Thrones, at the end of the day every visitor and tourist here feels small, merely momentary observers to a land that has remained seemingly unchanged for generations, and yet in the lifespan of the Earth is in fact ever changing, shaped as it is by the movement of lava and glaciers and the sea over millennia.

It’s a powerful feeling, and one that not even a hundred tourists perched on the rocks of the Giant’s Causeway or walking through the Dark Hedges can really steal away. In the end, every person who has set foot on these shores — whether they were the Scottish warlords who built Dunluce Castle or the first Vikings who raided the coast from Rathlin Island — have come, lived, fought and killed, and eventually died, while this jagged coastline has remained. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”

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Dunluce Castle
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The Giant’s Causeway
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Another scene from the Causeway
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Looking down the Causeway Coast
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Walking along the Dark Hedges

I have said it before, but its worth repeating: I am in love with this land, the power in its coastlines and the grace and calm of its fields. There’s something meditative and wholesome about waking up the coast of the North Shore, seeing Rathlin Island in the distance and, further still, the mountains on the edge of Scotland. In the evenings, just walking by the stone walls that line the fields and watching the grass light with gold as the sun dips beneath the hills is enough to lighten the heart, and even on dark days when there is nothing but rain it seems — as a member of Corrymeela said to be the other day — that the whole island is crying. There is something poetic to that.

But even this time in Northern Ireland is only for a moment, and there is still a lot of work left to be done in this world when all of this is over, a world that seems even more fractured now that in was a year ago. But I’m realizing, too, that the work and dedication that has to be put into healing the wounds and mending the divides of our world can not just be in government policy or big, international treaties that end wars. It is in the little things, as well — the telling of stories that mean something, the love and warmth we give to one another in the darkest of days, the sharing of faith between religions and denominations and the coming together of communities despite differences. Those, at the end of the day, are what matter.

Or, in the words of Gandalf: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

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Walking along the road to Bushmills

It is those small things I have found myself coming back to, as things have become so shaken in the world and in myself. Even as I move through this time in Northern Ireland, and through this final year at university and to whatever lies past that, I’m keeping in mind that it is those little things, the small everyday deeds of love, kindness, and sacrifice, that sometimes matter more than the big issues of politics or international relations.

It is in those little things that I have also just maybe found something worth writing about, when my efforts to write about the big, important events and conflicts that dominate the headlines have so often fallen flat. Writing about things like rivers and fields, about seasons, the mountains and the North Sea, and about the people caught in this mad, crazy world that is full both of pain and suffering and joy and love in equal measure. The little things that we so often forget to look at, so focused on the larger picture — the little things that I myself have forgotten to see these past few years.

That’s not to say I’m straying from my studied in International Affairs. I still want to learn Arabic and French, and to travel to the Middle East and other parts of the world that have experienced fracturing, conflict and hardship. But there is so much beauty in the small things, and at the end of the day, sometimes it’s those small things that shine the only light that matters when things seem their darkest.

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The North Coast

So, that’s where I’m at. Writing in notebooks about birds and seasons and moving forward and this island of Ireland. Finding out how to use my words and my travels to create something good and meaningful as the world changes and grows dark. And, above all, figuring how to be a better person, and to move forward each day while leaving hard feelings and pain behind.

The last of those is the hardest, but also the most important. I’m not there…yet, and there are still many, many more days — some dark — ahead, until I find out how to find peace within myself and with others. But that’s okay– it is, after all, what these six months in Northern Ireland are maybe meant to be.

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