A Tour of the Troubles

In 2016, a life-long dream came true when I visited Northern Ireland.  I had always wanted to see the sprawling green countryside, the charming cities, and the beautiful ocean views.  I was also excited to soak up the history and culture of Belfast.  My travel buddy booked us a cab tour so we could learn it all in the comfort of a nice car.  The next morning, we were picked up by Patrick – our friendly Belfast Tours guide.  As the tour began, I quickly realized this wasn’t a typical tour of historic buildings and local hot spots.  Patrick instead steered us through a series of violent events in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.”  The Troubles?  Just when I think I can call myself a history buff, there’s this whole other battle going on.  And believe me, it was a battle.  Since that tour of Belfast, I have struggled to get a grip on the Troubles.  I think anyone who knows about them can agree it’s a complicated subject.  But here are the basics, or at least the basics that I can wrap my head around.

The roots to the modern-day Troubles are probably best traced to 1609.  Scottish and English settlers (deemed “planters”) were given lands in the Irish Plantation of Ulster to colonize and cultivate.  As such, “Ulster” became the first Protestant pocket on a largely Catholic island.  Unfortunately, the Protestants and Catholics mixed about as well as water and oil.  Trouble simmered fast, and it boiled into all-out religious wars that spanned the 1600s.  One of these was the “Williamite War.”  This was a struggle between the forces of Catholic King James II and his Protestant counterpart, William of Orange, over who was the rightful king of the English empire.  William came up with huge victories as well as the throne.  It was the end of any good tidings between Catholics and Protestants and it firmly established British (and therefore Protestant) rule in Ireland.

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As the years wore on, the split became more than just religious.  As a general rule, Protestant peoples in Ireland were in support of loyalty to the British Empire (therefore called Loyalists).  Catholics (or Nationalists) wanted independence from the British Isles.  It created more fertile ground for conflict, and there was plenty of that over the next few centuries.  Uprisings and rebellions (one of the fiercest in 1798) by the Nationalists and their allies were frequently put down by Loyalists.  The Loyalists even formed an entire order (the Orange Order) dedicated to preserving the legacy of William of Orange and keeping Ireland British and Protestant.  Things really exploded in 1916 during the infamous Easter Rebellion.  Started by an offshoot of the Irish Volunteers (a Nationalist force), it was a violent bid for independence.  England was alarmed enough to take forces from the all-consuming Western Front and send them to Ireland, where they put down the rebellion after a week of bitter fighting.  They captured and interned over 1800 people and executed fifteen of the rebellion’s ringleaders.  It was the bloodiest demonstration since the rebellion of 1798 and turned world attention to the issue.

After World War I, the Government of Ireland Act officially split Ireland into two different sections – Northern Ireland, which would remain under the jurisdiction of the UK but have its own government, and the Irish Free State for Nationalists in the South.  Most thought it a win, but it wasn’t so for the Nationalist (and mostly Catholic) population of Northern Ireland, especially around Belfast.  As Catholics were increasingly left out of government, voting, and decent housing, tensions mounted once again and Nationalist tempers flared.  They even formed their own volunteer force known as the IRA (Irish Republican Army).  While both the Northern Ireland and British governments tried to mediate the quarreling Belfast populations, it was often corrupted on both sides and it only led to more violence.  Government policy deteriorated into arrests and internments of political agitators, and in 1969, all civility reached an end.  That summer, a series of violent riots broke out in Belfast.  They shed the first blood of the Troubles and caused untold damage to the city.  It took intervention from military troops to restore order, and even that didn’t last long.  Crude barricades sprung up between Nationalist and Loyalist areas.  Meant to be temporary structures, they were instead expanded until they turned into an official “Peace Wall” that split up the entire city and was monitored by paramilitary forces on both sides.  Scattered shootings and bombings became prevalent around Belfast. 

The dawn of the 1970s brought some of the darkest days to Northern Ireland.  While the British and Northern Ireland governments haggled over the best way to handle the spiraling situation, UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and IRA forces devolved into all-out war.  Buildings were bombed, houses were looted, and innocent bystanders were all too often caught in the crossfire.  In 1972, “Bloody Sunday” saw the biggest increase in violence since the Easter uprisings of 1916.  During a Nationalist rally to protest Internment policies, thirteen civilians were killed and a dozen more injured when the protest erupted with gunfire.  The response was a severe uptick in violence all over the city.  1972 became the most lethal year of The Troubles and saw over five hundred deaths.

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By the late 1970s, both sides were getting exhausted but there was still no end in sight.  The Northern Ireland government continually switched hands, and no one could agree on the best way to halt the violence.  Peace groups seeking an end to paramilitary activity sprang up.  Although one achieved a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, even their efforts were hampered in the end.  Violence continued in the wake of a Loyalist policy to treat IRA political prisoners the same as convicted criminals.  IRA prisoners started a hunger strike in protest of the policy in 1980, and ten died of starvation.  The first to die was Bobby Sands, and his funeral was attended by over 100,000 Nationalist sympathizers (today, his mural is painted on the side of a building in Belfast).

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It wasn’t until the 1990s that cease fires were arranged and negotiations between the paramilitary forces finally began.  While it took multiple attempts and most of the decade, both sides eventually reached a shaky settlement in 1998.  Known as the Good Friday Agreement, it restored self-government to Northern Ireland with concessions to include Irish Catholics in the predominantly Protestant political bodies.  It also saw the withdrawal of many military forces on both sides, and the closing down of barricades and watch towers.  It was a shaky truce at best, since scattered violence continued into the new millennium.

Although the worst of the Troubles are over, signs of the turbulence still linger.  The most prominent one is the giant peace wall that still separates Belfast into different blocks.  It’s taller than most buildings, covered with graffiti and lined with barbed wire in some spots.  It reminded me of something you’d see in a prison and looking at it made me feel shackled.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, because tension still sizzles in the areas closest to the wall.  Our tour guide warned us that even today, it is not safe to be caught on the wrong side of the wall after sundown.  But nobody is giving up hope.  That is evidenced by the countless signatures spanning one end of the wall to the other.  It is part of a long-held tradition for people to sign the wall in hopes that it will someday come down.

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There are also the murals.  Known all over the world, these vibrant yet haunting paintings cover buildings all over the city on both sides of the wall.  One pays respect to the riots of 1969.  Some commemorate members of the UVF or the IRA, depending on which side of the wall you’re on.  Patrick brought our attention to the story of an Ulster Defense member who got into multiple firefights on the wrong side of the wall before taking his own life.  His victims were commemorated with a haunting memorial on the Nationalist side of the wall.  On the other side, he had his own mural and was commemorated as a hero.  It was a striking reminder of how history tells us two different stories – one for each side of the wall.

I’ve often been told that I can see both sides of any argument.  While this is perhaps honorable, it makes it extremely difficult for me to choose a side.  I felt that both sides of Belfast were pleading with me to pick theirs.  “Hear the voices of our dead,” the murals whispered.  “Take up your cause with us.”  True to form, I couldn’t pick one.  Because I don’t know who’s right or wrong, I just know that like the painters of those murals, I hate to see people suffer.  I think we all do deep down inside.

To this day, the Troubles remain out of reach for me.  I just can’t grasp the whole picture.  Hell, I bet a lot of people in Ireland can’t even grasp the whole picture.  I think we can all agree on one thing though.  We don’t want people to die.  That’s why I joined the millions of others and left my signature on the Belfast Peace Wall.  It’s just one small drop in the vastness, but if you get enough drops you can make an ocean.  Maybe if we all unite together we can make a difference.  The walls can come down, and we can discover the beauty that lies in all of us – illustrated by those murals on the buildings in Belfast.

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SOURCES

Belfast Tours – Guided by Patrick

A Short History of Ireland – S. McMahon

Making Sense of the Troubles – D. McKittrick & D. McVea

The Troubles – T.P. Coogan

Wikipedia

NOTE:  This is just one humble tourist’s perspective on a very complex and sensitive issue.  Please feel free to add your own thoughts and perspectives below, but let’s all be nice and keep them clean!  M.B. Henry thanks you!

All photos by M.B. Henry.  To see more photos from my trip to Ireland, click here 

74 Comments on “A Tour of the Troubles

    • I’m afraid this is all a very new area of study for me so I know I have a lot to learn. Sounds like something I better look into!

      • 15-1600’s Scotland fairly brutal and murderous from Catholics then Anglicans. An area of special interest for me was early 1600’s colonial Massachusetts and doctrines that amicably divided Puritans into either Presbyterians and Congregationalists. One example was in Congregational model minister elected and ordained by a congregation but lost ordination if congregation hired a new minister. Presbyterian minister ordained by clergy and retained ordination with church assignment or not.

      • Very interesting! Sounds like you have a strong background in this subject. I’d like to learn a little more myself because this tour that I took fascinated me (while breaking my heart too).

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad I could shed at least a little light on it. It’s such a sad story and very complicated given all the different ideals and factions involved. This was the best I could do! I’m glad you gave it a read and enjoyed it.

  1. We were drawn to the area by a guide that built a Habitat for Humanity house with Bert. What we couldn’t believe was how passionate both sides have been and still are for their way of life. We still don’t really “get it,” but maybe no one who lives outside Northern Ireland does. Thanks for posting!

    • Thank YOU for giving it a read! I too have a very hard time wrapping my head around it – as you can probably tell from the article! I’ve read so many books trying to figure it out but it’s all so complicated. Here’s hoping for more peaceful solutions in the future. Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. This is a fascinating story about a piece of history I know very little about. My cousin Debbie lived in Ireland for a semester during her college years. She returned with stories about the conflicts between protestants and catholics. You tell this so well. You are so gifted with the pen….or these days..the keyboard!

    • Thanks! Yeah I’m still learning a lot myself. It sure is complicated to say the least.

      • It’s so very sad that these atrocities were committed in the name of religion. It sounds extremely complicated.

    • Boy I’m flattered you think so! I had a really hard time writing it. Thanks as always for taking the time to read it

  3. The overspill of the troubles affected many people, and not just in Ireland. Bombs in British cities took many lives too, and some of the violence in Ireland was too horrific to talk about. I think many involved in the more recent troubles had lost sight of what it was about, it almost became the ‘norm’ and that’s what you did. Let’s hope that the fragile peace continues to grow and we can all learn to live peacefully together.

    • Let’s definitely hope so! It’s so awful when something like that becomes the norm and has such far reaching consequences. Glad you stopped by to read and enlightened me to the bombings outside Ireland as well. I’m very new to this subject so still learning a lot!

      • There’s definitely a lot to learn too! I was only a teenager but I remember the Birmingham pub bombings (google the Birmingham Six) and the Deal barracks bombing. Two of many soft targets hit by the IRA.

      • Wow I googled that Birmingham Six story it’s crazy. What a troubling time for so many people! Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Wow, well done on a comprehensive, balanced view of the Troubles! Especially for recognising that the divide was political, as well as religious… I feel like that angle gets passed over a bit. I grew up in a predominately Protestant, British-leaning part of Northern Ireland, and it was only after I moved to Dublin as a student that I became fully aware of both sides of the story. I think you did both of them justice… And that’s no mean feat! It’s also so nice to hear that you wanted to visit Northern Ireland for its natural beauty – we have heaps of that! I hope you enjoyed your visit!

    • This is a very flattering compliment. Thank you very much. I wanted to be as balanced as possible here because there is always two sides to every story! So glad it resonated with you. I had a wonderful time in Northern Ireland. Such beautiful country and lovely people.

    • Thank you! I definitely struggled with fitting such a complex issue into a short article. I’m sure you can relate since you cover a lot of similar topics and tidy them up so nice!

    • You know I did a lot of reading to write this article and I’m still not even sure how it got so out of hand! Such a heartbreaking thing. Glad you took time to read this

  5. So many wars around the world started because of religion. I remember the troubles of Ireland while I was growing up and couldn’t believe the two religions couldn’t see eye to eye.

  6. I’m old enough to remember the TV news reports of the troubles in the 1970s. It was the first time anything like that happened in a country where people spoke the same language I did, and it was disquieting.

    • It must have been awful seeing that unfold and having such a personal connection with it too. I know stuff like that is hard to even read about!

  7. In 1978, I spent the better part of three months walking around Ireland. While in Donegal, I ran into a large number of IRA members who were there on R&R. My general impression was, “what a bunch of pricks.” They were not very nice people, not to each other or anyone else.

    Interestingly enough, I had spent the earlier part of the summer in Navarre (Northern Spain) and noticed an eerie similarity in the quasi-Marxist rhetoric among the Basque ETA sympathizers and their counter-parts in the IRA. Years later, when the old Soviet Union collapsed, so did the IRA and ETA. Guess who was funding those groups?

    The takeaway for history buffs is that world powers almost always exploit the local grievances of their rivals to create mayhem….. kind of like the French did by underwriting a great deal of our own independence.

    • You know I think I’ve almost learned more from the comments on this post than I have from the research. What an inside look you got and thanks for sharing it here. It’s also a great reminder that not only does every story have two sides (or more!) But also each side has many layers, some of which don’t make the history books. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience.

  8. It’s great you wrote about this, since most people are left scratching their heads over this conflict. In the end, it’s like you said, history always tells us two stories and we need to make sure we listen to both sides before arriving to any conclusion.

    • Oh believe me I’m still scratching my head! It is a very complicated subject indeed. Two sides to the story is the only real conclusion I could come up with. So glad you stopped by and gave this a read! I really appreciate it.

  9. This is very thoughtfully written. I have a direct connection to this everlasting battle. One of my great uncles was jailed for terrorism in Dublin back in the 1920s, I think. Our Catholic family kept this secret until their deaths. I went to a Catholic School in Glasgow and we really struggled with bullying and bomb threats during the ’70s. My aunt still volunteers on cross border activities to stop this relentless division. The same aunt was not happy that I married a Scottish Protestant in a civil ceremony.
    In my humble opinion, it is time to move on. There are good and bad people on both sides of any ‘war’.

    • Excellent point about good and bad people on either side. That’s what troubles me so much about it all. Not just this conflict but all of them. Somewhere in there I think we all want what’s best for people – illustrated by your aunt’s work to stop the division, but then things get so complicated (like her objections to your marriage!). It all just illustrates the deep complexities of being human I guess, and I hope the moving on comes soon. Sorry for your family’s struggles during this difficult time!

      • Humans are not quite as evolved as we think. Our base instincts that make us a successful species will always cause conflict. All those skills might come in handy in the zombie apocalypse…😁

      • Haha let’s hope so! With the zombies we would at least have a reason to unite!

    • I can’t imagine what that must have been like! Thanks for sharing the link and your insights.

  10. WOW! Thank you for sharing! I can’t believe that this is still going on! This has to be the longest “problem” of all time! But it seems that the people still feel very strongly to this day. Hopefully there will be some kind of peace between the two parties…or at least an agreeable compromise. Unfortunately, as long as these “troubles” have been going on, I don’t think that they will ever reach peace. Very informative post! Thank you! (But I bet Ireland was beautiful, though)

    • Oh yes Ireland is gorgeous. Kind of makes the troubles all the more tragic! I’m at least glad things have gotten a little better since the 1970s!

    • I’m sure glad it came off as comprehensive because boy was I scratching my head during the research! Thank you for your visit and comment Paula, always love it when you stop by.

  11. this is fascinating – and sad. i wonder when the next conflict will happen again… because, let’s face it, violence has a hard grip on society these days.
    and that’s more sad because civilians always get the brunt of it.
    did you get to tour the historical places?

    • I think you are spot on in that the ones who had little to do (if anything) with starting the conflict always pay the highest price. Its Also true that conflict is just an awful part of being human although I wish we could find other ways to solve our differences. Our time in Belfast was short so I didn’t get to see too many historical places, although we did see the University and the Titanic museum (both fabulous!)

      • Yep! Titanic was built in Belfast. The museum is pretty cool if you are ever wondering around that area!

      • Oh gosh lots of stuff! It walks you through the whole construction process like the materials used and how they accomplished it with the era’s technology. It also teaches you all about the history of Harland and Wolff and the people who worked on the ship. They have some replica rooms and even still have part of the slip preserved where the hull sat during construction.

  12. You’ve done really well with this. Religious differences dominate a good chunk of European history – though of course the differences were also political – and some really stupid, cruel, things happened in Ireland. The ‘Irish Question’ was a huge issue in Victorian Britain and, in fact, Ireland was on the verge of civil war when a slightly larger conflict broke out in 1914. Fast forward to the 60s and 70s in Northern Ireland and the differences aren’t religious – they’re tribal, with widespread discrimination against Catholics. But Patrick perhaps forgot to tell you about the IRA bombings and murders on the mainland; at one point they were putting bombs in waste bins and letter boxes. That’s when they took litter bins away from railway stations in the 1990s. There are still parts of the UK where Protestant and Catholic don’t get on – madness – and incomprehensible to those outside that culture.

    • IRA bombings on the mainland are definitely a part of this I have learned about more through very informative comments like this one. It does seem like such a complicated issue and I am very new to it as well. Incomprehensible sounds about right as even after the tour and reading a few books I’m still not totally clear on a lot of it. Thanks for filling me in some and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  13. I have been interested in the religious wars in England since I was in high school! I loved reading this post. And thank you for it because it helped me better understand the origin of these conflicts. Very well done!

    • Why thank you! Always glad when I can help clear some things up. I could definitely see why you’d be interested in this topic, there’s a lot to learn and study! I plan to read a little deeper into it as well!

  14. Religion and politics…. The topic brings to mind a statement made by Gandhi, “Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either.” Thank you for explaining so much of this complex history.

    • Boy Gandhi sure had a way of summing things up nicely, didn’t he? Thank you for sharing that quote. Glad you enjoyed the post – it was sure a hard subject to get a grasp on!

  15. I live in Northern Ireland, these are real issues. When the troubles were bad I experienced them first hand. I had bombs in my workplace, had friends who were injured and killed too. I am glad to say the majority of the issues are behind us.

    • I can’t imagine how awful that must have been for you. I am so sorry about friends that were hurt or killed. I too am very glad the worst is over and I hope things continue to get better!

  16. As an Episcopalian (American version of Anglican) who was married to a Catholic and read some on this issue previosly, I think you ‘done good’ with this.

    I also recall that Great Britain used the colonization model you mentioned (or variants thereof) while building their empire. While condemning violence as a tool of protest, I recall that we fought England for our freedom some time back with backing from France as others mention and Spain, if I recall correctly.

    • You would probably recall better than me, I am very new to this subject and still learning a lot. Thanks so much for the compliment and for sharing your insights. It helps me learn!

  17. Excellent article on the historical struggles. It is unfortunate our societies don’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable – resulting in conflict without easy resolution. As you can attest this has been the case since the development of communities.

    • Yes you speak a very valid truth. I’ve made a life study of military history and what you said about sums it up! Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the article

  18. So wonderful your tour opportunity. Great post! Most informative. The Irish faced many challenges. with the great famine and adjusting in America.❤❤❤❤❤

    • Thanks for your compliments! Glad you stopped by and gave this a read.

  19. Doing my best to grasp the history as they are the roots of all modern woes. My husband and I watched part of the Young Karl Marx movie last night. I was telling him about The Great Hunger and my theory on its links to the Industrial Revolution. It would be awesome to stay home and research more!

    • It sure is a complicated issue, and I agree that it is all connected in the end. The domino effect at work. I wish I could get a better grip on it myself. Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your thoughts!

  20. I remember when I was a young lad in 1980, hitchhiking through Belfast. It wasn’t long after Bobby Sands, and I was taken aback by the Sands graffiti and the sight of armored troop carriers cruising through town, rifle barrels poking out little armored slots. We’ll be touring Ireland in late summer, my first time back, it’ll be interesting to see the changes.

    • I can’t imagine seeing something like that! It just seems like such a confusing and chaotic time. Some signs of it still linger but overall I think you will find the place much changed. Have a great time this summer!

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