Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Where the walls do talk

After being in Belfast for 48 hours, I can't shake the feeling that it is an eerie place that masquerades as a normal city.

I don't mean to be melodramatic. It is obviously much different now than it was before the peace agreements of the late 1990s. But there is a tension or perhaps more of a reserved wariness that lurks just beneath the surface.

This is the big wall that divides the Protestant neighborhood from the Catholic one. Gates between the two areas are locked at night and reopen at 6 a.m.
Belfast, of course, was epicenter of violence and terrorism between Protestant loyalists to the British crown and mostly Catholic Irish nationalists. That’s a gross simplification, but then again so is the name “the Troubles,” which the Irish use to describe that three-decade period from 1968 to 1998 that killed 3,700 people.  “The Troubles” is such a benign understatement for the terror – as if it were on par with a stalled car or unruly child.

The accounts of death are chilling.

One of our drivers, Sam (right), explains the memorial.
We heard and saw some of it as tourists on the Black Taxi tour, in which taxi driver/tour guides took us through some of the neighborhoods that border the front line of the fragile peace. The gates between these areas are locked at night and don’t reopen until 6 a.m.

It was slightly uncomfortable walking through the neighborhoods in a big group like tourists. Even taking pictures of the murals, it’s hard not to get a piece of someone’s everyday life in the shot. But those who live there don’t mind, the taxi drivers said, because they want their side of the story seen and retold. 

The atrocities committed and endured by both sides are stunning. 

We saw the memorial to the Catholic victims of Bombay Street, whose houses were burned by Protestant loyalists. Some set a bus on fire and drove it into row homes. 

In the Protestant neighborhood of Shankill, a mural still honors Stevie "Topgun" McKeag, whose face is ringed with flowers signifying each of the Catholics he murdered in the 1990s starting when he was 17. One of his victims, a pharmacy clerk, he shot five times in the face so that her family couldn't hold an open-casket funeral. McKeag died of a drug overdose in 2000. 

The mural to Stevie "Topgun" McKeag in the middle of this Protestant neighborhood.

And on Sunday The Irish Mail ran an interview with a survivor of the 1976 Kingsmill Massacre in which the IRA (Irish Republican Army of Catholic nationalists) stopped a van of workers on their way home, sent the Catholic running and then opened fire on the other 11 men. They killed 10 of them and left Alan Black riddled with 18 bullet wounds but still breathing.

What led up to the grudges, the attacks and ultimately the fragile peace is wrapped up in a history of deep wounds, which I am wholly unqualified to either adequately describe or analyze let alone try to summarize in a blog post.

Some murals aren't overtly political.
Even writers and artists from the area have wrestled with the inadequacies of art to capture the depth and scope of the grotesque distortions the violence caused to everyday life there. Ciaran Carson, a poet and lifelong resident of Belfast, wrote his “Belfast Confetti” poem about a particular moment in 1985 when a bomb sent confusion and debris everywhere, assaulting the narrator of the poem with a disorienting array of bits that seemed to scramble everything, including poetry.

“Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type,” he writes. It ends as the narrator is assaulted with questions from the police. “A fusillade of question-marks.”

It’s a poem that uses punctuation as shrapnel.

Carson, 24 yearslater, would write that he didn’t realize whatever circumstances led to that explosion “might still be valid today.” The explosions have stopped but the questions behind them have not.

There are now more walls around Belfast between neighborhoods of working class and middle class Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists than there were in 1998 when the peace agreements were signed.

Jason Spann signs the wall as Derek Stine looks on.
It would be na├»ve to tear down the walls now, our taxi driver told us. There are still too many long memories among those residents who are my age (who came of age in the 1980s and early ‘90s) and older. Too many overlapping grudges. It’s a Celtic knot of scar tissue.

So people sign the walls, as we did, to encourage a deeper peace in hopes that the next generation will wake up confused about why walls splinter parts of the city. 

“Only you can decide between division and unity, between hard lives and high hopes, only you can create a lasting peace,” Bill Clinton said in his 1995 speech here. “It takes courage to let go of familiar divisions. It takes faith to walk down a new road.”

And sometimes the city seems to ask itself if it’s ready for that. Murals and graffiti, which are sometimes so indistinguishable, debate this – sometimes through graphics, sometimes through words.

The drivers kept saying that Belfast is a different city – a different world – from the one they knew growing up.

“We still have our problems, but it’s a million times better,” he said.

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