Northern Ireland is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful places. Blessed with a stunning coastline and a culture continually voted one of ‘the world’s friendliest’, this small country (of only 6 counties) should be on the must-visit list of every traveler who longs to experience genuine hospitality and a more relaxed way of life.
Northern Ireland’s capital city of Belfast, however, has very different points of intrigue beyond the natural beauty and geographic wonders found in the rest of the country. When visiting Belfast it is not possible to avoid the religious, political, and social ideologies that have shaped so much of the country’s past and present. Even in a relatively peaceful time, the city is still one of obvious divisions and tensions, which are most vividly reflected in the graphic city-wide murals and the so-called ‘Peace Walls’ that run throughout the neighborhoods (around 100 barrier-walls divide Belfast according to most official estimates). As is the case with so many internal conflicts, it’s difficult for the outsider, the visiting tourist, to fully understand Northern Ireland’s complex history or to form an unclouded perspective of the recent ‘Troubles’. Thus, it’s best to dive right in to Belfast with an open mind and a willingness to experience all sides of the city’s past, present, and future story.
For a European capital city and major metropolitan area, the quiet stillness of Belfast is unexpected. When I was there the streets were consistently deserted and the sound of traffic and pedestrian life muted. As a local later informed me ‘most everyone in the city keeps to their own community’. I found Belfast city-dwellers to possess the characteristic hospitable spirit and same friendly demeanor as the rest of the island, but it is clear that the tensions of recent years have not yet faded into the past.
Most of the peace walls of Belfast are community-driven and relatively recent constructions (the great majority were built after the official IRA ceasefire of 1994). I visited the longest peace wall in Belfast, which runs along Cupar Way between two well-known hotspot areas, the Shankill Road (Loyalist/Unionist/Protestant) and the Falls Road (Republican/Nationalist/Catholic). This section of wall is covered from top to bottom in graffiti and personal messages from visitors and locals, which is strikingly reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.
The safety of visiting the peace walls is somewhat questionable at times. There has been violence in Belfast as recently as June 2011. However, I walked from the city centre, through the Shankill/Falls areas, and right up to the wall on Cupar Way without any issue or fear of danger. Alternatively, there are dedicated black taxis that will provide a tour of the area and drive you to the wall. Adding my own message of hope to the wall was one of the most meaningful events of all my European travels. The Belfast peace walls, of course, represent the conflict of one particular city, but also call to mind the walls that currently stand in Gaza and other areas of conflict around the world.
There are hundreds of murals distributed across the neighborhoods of Belfast, which are best visited by bus tour. This way you can see as many as possible and learn about their history and significance from an experienced guide. In most of the mural neighborhoods there is a confusing and paradoxical mixture of truly lovely people and overtly violent, divisive images. It may be slightly unnerving for tourists who have never witnessed conflict to encounter murals of gunmen painted intentionally to look as if they’re shooting right at the onlooker. The following are a selection of famous images and a good example of the graphics that you’ll encounter across the city.
When viewed in isolation, the above murals paint Belfast as a grim, hostile city, which is often how Northern Ireland is perceived in popular media. However, that’s not the full story. There are several socio-cultural and peace-inspired murals across the city, along with a strong feeling that communities are beginning to express a desire to move beyond the need for walls and threatening murals to maintain peace and safety.
A visit to Northern Ireland is always a rewarding and memorable experience. The amiable people and refreshing countryside make it hard to leave and will constantly draw you to return. Belfast delivers the characteristic loveliness of Celtic culture in the midst of a complex socio-political situation. With its mixture of friendly people, beautiful landscape, complicated history, murals and peace walls, and exuberant spirit, this city is unlike any other in Western Europe.
Written by Erin Connelly for EuropeUpClose.com