Face to face with the Troubles
2016-03-14 16:20:46 -

Meghan Nosal


As an American student, the only real knowledge of the Troubles I’ve learned is from my Irish Life and Cultures class. We had been talking about this period at length for two months, so I was not necessarily excited to be going on a weekend-long field trip to Northern Ireland to learn even more about it.

But my ignorance slapped me in the face as our bus pulled through an old iron gate separating loyalist and nationalist areas and pulled in front of a Belfast primary school still pockmarked by bullet holes.

It was part of a tour through the nationalist side of the Northern Irish capital guided by a former republican political prisoner. Skyscraping fences and memorials stood out throughout the troubled town, as our tour guide matter-of-factly recounted going to school with people now deceased far too young, pointing out their old homes and the spots where they were killed.

When asked about what remains of the community divide in Northern Ireland, our guide breathed heavily and said: “The Union Jacks and [Irish] flag-burning are from the old timers. I have eight kids at university who are friends with Protestants, Catholics, Irish and Brits. They don’t even know what hate is.”

Our visit continued on the other side of Belfast, guided by a former loyalist political prisoner – loyalist to the British crown, that is, and against Irish republicanism. Again we traveled through a patchwork Belfast, but this time we heard different stories of friends and families killed. Poppy crosses scattered the shops, marking ruthless murders from explosions and bullets.

We were led past a mural of four smiling men proudly bearing AK-47s. Our loyalist guide said the mural used to be more threatening, with the men frowning and wearing balaclavas. He has been working to make the murals ‘friendlier’, he said, but it is hard to make men holding machine guns seem less intimidating.

Our visit moved on to Derry – Londonderry to the loyalist or unionist communities – where pieces of peace were scattered among murals that have not been changed, the city still obviously divided. The loyalist side, where British flags line the streets, is only accessible through a main gate. IRA graffiti marks rooftops and the ‘London’ part of the city’s name was crossed out of several street signs.

The most brutal reminder of The Troubles, though, was the Bloody Sunday memorial at the Museum of Free Derry. Aside from the U2 song, I was embarrassed at how little I knew about the tragedy in January 1972. I think I have become so numb to pictures of people lying dead in the streets, that I didn’t realise how horrific this event was until the screams and cries from the riots rang over the stereo system, while before me blood-stained clothing from the 14 victims haunted my vision.

Outside, in the city where life goes on, a white Peace Bridge erected in 2011 stands proud as a symbol of changing times. In the centre of the city, too, is a statue of two boys reaching out to each other, barely touching but almost there. This is how things seem to be moving in Northern Ireland – almost there.

Our loyalist guide led us across the wall that overlooked the republican Bogside, where murals of victims and men in gas masks covered buildings. But among them, a rainbow-checked mural with an outline of a dove stood brightest and boldest. Catholic and Protestant school children came together to paint that mural.

My attitude about this trip was completely changed almost as soon as I entered Northern Ireland. Reading about the Troubles and seeing the pictures does not compare to the history that stares back at you from almost every corner in Belfast and Derry, and I would recommend such a tour to everyone. Despite their dark times, the people we met there are proud of their home, and asked us to spread the word that Northern Ireland is open for business.


Meghan Nosal is a student at Marist College in New York state and an intern with Metro Éireann

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