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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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