Before we left on our trip, we were told how charming the people of Ireland were. That we should hit the local pubs and, if we spent more than 30 minutes there, we would walk out with the names and numbers of our new best friends, and an invitation to come back and visit.
From our first ride in the cab in Belfast, we knew everything we had heard was true. The people were charming. Their friendliness, irresistible. They were down to earth, eager to connect and so very thankful that we would visit their piece of the world, which, as it would happen, we fell in love with.
Belfast is a complicated city. It’s where the White Star Line’s Titanic was built, before leaving for Liverpool where she would embark on her tragic maiden voyage. More recently it was home to the Troubles—the 30-year conflict that began in the 1960’s as tension arose over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. There were the Unionists (predominately Protestants) who wanted Northern Ireland to stay as part of the United Kingdom. And there were the nationalists (predominately Catholics) who wanted to join a united Ireland republic. Of course it’s more complicated than that. It always is. But that’s a piece of it. It was a political and a religious conflict that lasted nearly 30 years, starting with protests and riots, that soon spiraled into something more. Things became violent. People started getting killed. What once seemed like stable political structures became precariously weakened. The emotion the conflict created seemed incapable of being tamed.
There’s that story of a frog being put in a pot of water in the stove. How, if you raise the temperature gradually, eventually getting to a boil, the frog won’t ever notice, ultimately dying in the heated water. I wonder if what happened in Belfast was like the temperature being slowly raised over time. That no one expected things to turn as they did, that on the surface it just seemed like protests and riots, but internally the temperature had been slowing going up, and then, before people fully realized what happened, blood was being spilled. People were dying because the water had been so much closer to boiling than everyone knew.
At the end of 1969, the year after the Troubles began, the first “peace wall” was built. Walls erected to keep predominately Catholic and predominately Protestant neighborhoods separated. Neighborhoods where the populations had been mixed began to see movement, so they became representative of one side or the other. The objective was to stop the fighting. To keep more unnecessary deaths from happening. To maybe lower the degree of the water temperature, to keep things under control.
But the conflict lasted for nearly 30 years even after the peace walls were put up. The Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, but when visiting Belfast today, you can still find the walls.
There’s good news and bad news about a wall. And they’re one and the same. A wall does what it was made to do. It keeps us from one another. It stifles the violence, sure, but it also stifles the growth. It’s a bound too tight bandage that keeps the air a wound needs to heal, out. They were called peace walls. But the objective was to keep a fragile peace, instead of make a more tenuous one.
I loved Northern Ireland. I loved the lilting accents and the humble posture of the people. I loved the rugged coastline and the radiant hills, the fertile forests and the stony shores of the land. But what I loved most of all was the insight it gave into myself. As an individual, but also as part of a complex, but very much the same, humanity. Of our tendency to put up walls to protect us from one another. Of what we self-assuredly call “peace” when it’s really just avoidance, denial, a covering up of a pain so deep, and felt so long, that we know little to do, except cut ourselves off from it. Doing so in hopes that our amputation from the people or the thing that hurts us most will fix what’s bubbling beneath the surface, what’s slowly raising the temperature in our souls, what threatens to spill over, to erupt within us, to expose what we fight to even acknowledge exists.
Belfast is a city with walls erected to keep the peace. And blood spilled because a wall can’t accomplish the peace we’re after.
Towards the end of our trip we drove—on the left side of the road—to a local pub, less than a mile away from the hotel where we stayed, bumping up against the charging waters on a haggard coast. It was called Matties Meeting House, and above the bar, a line from the old Irish blessing, the one my dad wove into the toast at our wedding, was painted.
“May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back.”
We happened to be there an evening when local musicians were also there, playing old Irish tunes—with a Radiohead song thrown in for good measure. The pub closed at 11, but at 11:30, my husband and I, the only two costumers left, had pulled up close to the encircled musicians, willing to stay as long as they were willing to play.
The last song was a Steve Earle song, we were told. The man who led the group, with the guitar, explaining, how meaningful a song it was in light of Northern Ireland’s past. He slowed the song down. A man to his right picked up the harmonica, and the others fixed their eyes on various objects in the room, not really seeing, it seemed, but remembering: the walls, the fighting, the fear. And then they sang.
“Well, maybe I’m only dreaming and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learning how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumbling in and I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drumming again and I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
And there’ll be no barricades then, there’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem”
They finished and the two of us clapped, while also blinking away gathering tears. We shook hands and tried to put a few pounds in their tip jar as we left, but they wouldn’t hear of it. They refused. They would rather our ears than our money, it seemed, to lean in and learn from what the thirty years of walls and conflict and death taught them.
I don’t know for sure, but I think we put up walls because we are afraid of what might happen without them. Of the bloodshed. But also what not having a wall will require of us. To look the other in the eye. To work for commonality. To pursue our common human dignity. To acknowledge how broken we really are, to confront the hate in ourselves, a hate a towering wall will keep us from acknowledging.
Belfast is a city with a story. A city with a past not erased, or denied or brushed over. It is a city that knows what humanity is capable of. Who knows a wall will never do what we wish it would, and whose past stands testament to the someday not yet here, and the reality we live with in the meantime. It’s a city trying to write a new story for itself, of hope and promise, a rising from the ashes they brought upon themselves. I saw glimpses of the new story while there.
In kind cabbies and Irish blessings. In sung poetry and willing generosity. In walls that still exist, but in hope of a world without them.