Travel Photo Feature – Belfast’s Gritty Side

Load Me Up played over my headphones. Raw and edgy, the lyrics of Vancouver’s Matthew Good Band warned of “ticking in the overhead.” This struck me as an unusual offering for in-flight music on an international route. While I peered at the blue expanse of the North Atlantic below me, the song described “bodies in the water, floating all around you,” and I tried to brush aside my apprehensions about visiting Belfast.

Later, traveling by train from Dublin to Belfast, I was surprised to see no sign of a border separating the Irish Republic from Northern Ireland. The train had quietly whisked passengers along the coast of the Irish Sea, through meadows, around lakes, and past the Mourne Mountains. But as we approached Belfast, graffiti on a grey railway control box read: “26 + 6 = 1.” This slogan symbolized the aspirations of Republicans to see the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland and the six of the northern British province united in a single country. This was my first encounter with Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide.

About two hours after leaving Dublin, the train pulled into Belfast. As I made my way through the small station, I discovered that there was no sign of the police or security forces that I had expected to see.

Just outside the station, a thin older gentleman asked me if I was looking for a taxi. When I replied in the affirmative, he grabbed my luggage and threw it onto a pile of suitcases already gathered in the trunk of his black cab. Entering the cab, I discovered four other travelers. We all appeared to be equally surprised by this experiment in mass transit. Overflowing with baggage, the trunk’s open lid bounced up and down as the cab headed to its first destination — the downtown hostel where I would be staying. Soon we came to an area where the buildings were pressed together along narrow shadowy streets. The driver brought the cab to a halt in front of the hostel. Miraculously, my luggage hadn’t been lost along the way. Surveying the street outside the hostel, I thought that many of the buildings appeared abandoned, neglected, grey, and forbidding. Later, I learned that this district was adjacent to Shankill and the Falls, two neighbourhoods made infamous during the height of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” This area would be my “home” during my time in Belfast.

It was a bright spring afternoon, and after checking in, I toured the streets nearby. On one particular block, offices of funeral directors alternated with florist shops selling funeral wreaths. Walking further, it became apparent that Belfast’s landscape was disfigured by barricades and policing devices. The courthouse and police stations were wrapped in metal fencing and razor wire, peppered with cameras, and monitored by watchtowers.

To combat IRA car bombings, Belfast’s shopping and financial districts had become pedestrian zones where cars were prohibited. Even the entrances of some pubs and nightclubs were enclosed in barbed wire, guarded by cameras, and controlled by buzzers and electronic locks. And while the British Army had reduced its presence in Northern Ireland, the occasional armoured personnel carrier could be seen on Belfast’s streets.

The next day, and with some feelings of guilt, I joined one of the somewhat morbid “‘Troubles’ tours” of the city that exposed curious visitors to an alien culture. Minibuses and black cabs propelled inquisitive travelers through sectarian neighbourhoods, and made pilgrimages to the city’s frequently bombed buildings, like The Crown Liquor Saloon and The Europa Hotel. Even as a visitor to this divided city, however, it was necessary to be cautious. Travel brochures carried warnings not to photograph police or security forces. But the deadly reality of the situation became apparent to me after I purchased a republican newspaper at the Sinn Fein outlet on the Falls Road, and the driver told me to hide it as we passed through Protestant Shankill. In Belfast it was potentially dangerous to be caught with the “enemy’s” publications.

On this same tour, I encountered Belfast’s 30 year old corrugated iron walls — ironically dubbed “the Peace Wall” or Peace Line — that separated the slums of Shankill and the Falls. With British flags and curbsides painted red, white and blue, Shankill’s Protestants demonstrated their determination to remain a part of the United Kingdom. In solidarity with the Irish Republic, the Falls, a Catholic area, streetlights were draped with flags in the republican colours of white, yellow and green. According to our driver, thirty years of segregation has only isolated and polarized Shankill and the Falls from each other.

The driver then headed for Belfast’s disturbing and often pro-violence partisan murals that reflected the divisions marked out by the Peace Wall. From the sides of homes and businesses, the murals in Catholic neighborhoods echoed Catholic fear and distrust of police and security forces. There, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British police force, was depicted as a snarling wolf with blood dripping from its fangs. In particular, Catholics have accused the RUC and the British Army of being in collusion with Protestant paramilitary groups. Other murals portrayed republican heroes like hunger striker Bobby Sands, historical grievances such as the tragedy of the Irish potato famine (referred to by Catholics as “Ireland’s Holocaust”), and the “Bloody Sunday” slaughter in which unarmed Catholic protesters were gunned-down by British soldiers.

In Protestant East Belfast, a set of murals expressed fears of losing British identity and the threat posed by Catholic paramilitary groups. Illustrated with the disbanded police forces of the UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment) and “B” Specials, one mural asked “WHO WILL DEFEND ULSTER NOW?” Another painting featured the U.F.F. (Ulster Freedom Fighters), a Protestant paramilitary group, and warned “WE SHALL NEVER IN ANY WAY CONSENT TO SUBMIT TO THE RULE OF THE IRISH.”

In fact, most of Belfast’s Protestants are descended from British Anglicans and Presbyterians granted land in an effort to displace Ireland’s Catholic natives. As if to drive the point home, another painting bellowed “IRISH OUT: THE ULSTER CONFLICT IS ABOUT NATIONALITY.” A common symbol in Protestant murals was the Red Hand of Ulster. According to legend, a Viking chief pledged that the land in sight of their ships would belong to the first man to place his hand on it. Cutting off his own hand, he then flung the bloody limb on the shore. This image illustrates the “all or nothing” attitude that can be found along Northern Ireland’s religious divide. After taking many photographs of these paintings, I realized that no one was embarrassed that a stranger was recording these hate-filled images. As the driver returned our group to the hostel, I puzzled over a society in which portraits of fear and hatred were displayed so openly.

Later that day, I found myself outside a pub where the entrance was covered by a wire cage, and monitored by cameras. I pressed a button, and an electronic hum indicated that the gate was unlocked. Inside, portraits of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Mohammed Ali, and Bob Marley congregated at one end of a narrow bar. A photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. incongruously faced an American Confederate flag. The display of these images — many of them associated with rebellion — announced that this was a republican bar.

The bar patrons were exceptionally friendly. In their tradition of good “craíc” (pronounced “crack”), my hosts almost immediately began to entertain their Canadian visitor with jokes and song. It was startling for me to discover, then, that many of the men around the pub were convicted terrorists, released under the provisions of the Good Friday Accord. And each of them had a story to tell. One white-haired man angrily recounted the British government’s disregard for Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike. Sands eventually died of starvation in his attempt to have himself and other IRA prisoners recognized as political prisoners. Sands’ death only increased the Catholic community’s militancy. Around the room, the group agreed that Margaret Thatcher, in allowing Sands to die, “was the best recruiter that the IRA ever had.”

Having lost a family member to sectarian violence, another-middle-aged Catholic man in the pub had spent time in prison after retaliating against the killers. “You don’t want to hurt people, but sometimes you have to,” he said.

Another patron explained the pub’s need for security measures: several years ago, Protestant paramilitaries sprayed the bar with machine gun fire. Three people died in that attack, murdered in the same room where we were now talking and drinking. Looking around the pub once more, I realized that the pub’s windows were all bricked-in. Isolated from the outside world, and knowing that people had been slain on this site, I felt a wave of claustrophobia wash over me.

Searching for an excuse to leave, I asked if there was an inexpensive restaurant in the vicinity. One of the pub’s patrons, who had been reading a newspaper, recommended a Chinese take-away. As he was heading home anyway, he offered to share a cab that would let me out a couple of blocks from the restaurant.

It had rained while I was in the bar, and grey clouds still hung in the sky. As the sun hadn’t fully set, this unfamiliar section of the city was bathed in tones of grey and brown.

Following the directions I’d been given, I walked along a street where the ruins of blackened buildings stood like open wounds. I suspected that these places had been burned or bombed in some past explosion of sectarian violence. It occurred to me that this must be Shankill.

I crossed the street, and entered the Chinese restaurant. Inside, a Chinese cook prepared food on a stainless steel counter, while a pale blond woman with a heavy Northern Irish accent stood behind the cash register and took my order.

“What part of the States are you from?” she enquired, cheerfully.

After telling her that I was from Canada, she explained that it was my “drawl” that had made her assume that I was American.

My drawl? I was completely taken aback. I’d lived all of my life in Canada, and had never thought of myself as having a drawl.

“Yes, I guess it is softer than an American accent” she offered, perhaps noting my puzzlement.

Similarities between American and Canadian accents aside, it dawned on me that she may not have heard a Canadian voice before. How many Canadians go to Shankill for Chinese take-away?

“Have you been to city hall?” the young woman ventured. “They have tours, you know.” “And the pubs around Queen’s University are just grand” she added.

Another customer, presumably a regular, entered the restaurant. She immediately began to prod him for advice about places to visit in Belfast. Her attempt to enlist his help was unproductive.

“He’s from Canada,” she added. This was met with no response from the rather embarrassed customer.

“Oh, and there’s the Ulster Museum – it even has treasure from the Spanish Armada” the cashier announced proudly. While recommending that I see the Giant’s Causeway, a famous area on Northern Ireland’s coast, she packaged the food for me.

Thanking the young woman for her suggestions, I headed out onto the rain-soaked streets. Once more passing the blackened ruins on my way back to the hostel, I thought about the men at the bar, and the sectarian murals that I had seen earlier that day. The news reports out of Northern Ireland — the ones that I had heard most of my life — had always involved nameless and faceless victims and terrorists. Shankill and the Falls, however, had now become real places for me. I had met former IRA terrorists, and listened to their stories. Through the sectarian murals, I had even witnessed something of the fear and hatred that divided Northern Ireland.

After my time in Belfast, reports on terrorist activities, decommissioning, and especially Northern Ireland’s peace efforts took on a much greater significance for me.

Again on the flight home, I listened to Load Me Up on Air Canada’s in-flight music system. This time, though, I didn’t hear it with a personal sense of apprehension or foreboding. I knew that I was safe. I worried, instead, for the Northern Ireland’s fragile future.

For your information . . .

In the past, some travel information sources advised tourists to avoid Northern Ireland during the “Marching Season” (from about July 12th to August 12th). In spite of its violent reputation, however, Belfast is generally quite safe for tourists.

For information on Belfast’s hostels, contact

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