The feeling that morning was familiar from previous trips, and yet much more intense: I didn’t want to go home. I wasn’t ready to go home. I had so much left to see and do in Belfast that I wished I could have stay a bit longer. The fact that I was dreading the trip back from Belfast to the Shannon airport probably made it worse. But alas, it was time to go back to Berlin.
Please note: This is the seventh and final installment of my series on Northern Ireland. If you’re not familiar with the particular context of the Irish Conflict please refer to part one for an outline of the history of Northern Ireland. For a more general picture of Belfast check out part two. To read about my experiences in the Republican parts of the city click here, and for an account of what I saw in the Loyalist parts of town click here. To read my account of the North Belfast Derby check out part five. Check out part six to read about my trip to Derry.
Going to Northern Ireland had been very high up on my list for quite a long time. It might not be the top destination for most, but it was to me because of my long-time interest in the Irish Conflict. And while I also would have loved to explore the rest of the Emerald Isle, I first wanted to go to Ulster in order to better (begin to) understand the legacy of The Troubles. So lemme go ahead and share with you what I took from the trip.
The Emerald Isle has a lot to offer, and the six counties in Ulster are no exception. And while it used to be common for travelers to skip this part of the Isle, tourism in Northern Ireland is booming. Many people travel to Northern Ireland to experience Belfast’s bustling nightlife, check out the sites where Game of Thrones is filmed, or see the shipyard where the Titanic was built. And then there’s political tourism: Northern Ireland’s recent history has become a massive tourist-magnet in recent years. This has led to the growth of an industry that caters especially to those interested in the history of the Irish Conflict and the legacy of The Troubles.
The Troubles are luckily over—but that doesn’t mean that the conflict is too, it’s just moved to a different arena. Sure, there is still sporadic violence in Northern Ireland, but what is true is that the worst days of the violence are over, as most armed factions, both Loyalist and Republican, have announced the end of their armed struggle, commissioned their guns, and disbanded. The British Army’s campaign in Northern Ireland has been over for a decade now.
So can The Troubles be historicized now? Politicians and historians are at odds with the question, especially since the memory and legacy of The Troubles is still very present in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement was only signed in 1998—that’s less than two decades ago. I was 14 when that happened, and who knows what I could have witnessed or suffered had I been born there and not on the other side of the world.
The murals of Belfast and Northern Ireland have become iconic. Yet many people in their communities see the murals as unsavory mementos from violent times. Loyalist murals are particularly aggressive, and even former Loyalist paramilitary leaders are against new ones being painted, for they see that as a step backward in respect to the peace process. Several community leaders have complained that the more aggressive murals keep investors away from areas that badly need the money—especially with the kind of rampant unemployment that Northern Ireland has. However, these murals are also pulling more and more visitors to Belfast.
This is an aspect of Irish and British history that you should be mindful about when you go to Northern Ireland. And while people might ask you what you think, just remember that you’re going there to observe and listen. Take advantage of your neutrality to explore as much as you can and talk to as many people as possible. People were always happy to talk to me, but I would still suggest tact when approaching the subject as it can be painful for many.
Belfast and Northern Ireland have a lot to offer beyond political tourism. I am thus aware that my articles do the place no justice because they only focus on this particular aspect. However, the fact that there’s an industry around it cannot be ignored, even if that’s an area that doesn’t feature that prominently on the marketing plans of Northern Ireland’s tourism board.
I did spend more time hanging out with Irish folk in Belfast for some reason, and they reminded me of one very important thing: You can be proud of who you are and love your culture without being a dick about it. I met people who told me with immense pride that they were fluent in Irish, that they are raising their children to speak Irish, who told me about their music and traditions, and made me feel welcome and included. That is something that’s easily taken for granted living in Germany, but that is entirely normal in Latin America.
And you know what? I think that’s the beauty of traveling: Truly experiencing different cultures and traditions. But if people are reluctant to embrace them or, even worse, they embrace them and exclude outsiders, then your experience as a traveler is incomplete. Luckily though, that was not the case in Belfast or Derry. Granted that was among the Irish, and there’s a mutual appreciation between them and Latin Americans, especially Mexicans. Likewise, people who were formerly oppressed are more likely to embrace their culture and be eager to share it with outsiders—that was also my experience in the Baltic.
That being said, I chose an interesting time to go to Northern Ireland: Just a few days after I left, the government collapsed following a heating scandal that could cost taxpayers up to 500 million pounds (!!!). New elections were held on March 2, and for the first time ever, Loyalists lost their majority in government. And with Brexit looming in the horizon (which a majority in Northern Ireland voted against) and a long-awaited referendum for Irish unity now more possible than ever, who knows what will happen with Northern Ireland—especially since its political establishment is clearly completely out of touch with the wants and needs of the electorate.
I learned a lot from my time in Northern Ireland. Getting to know a culture means making a connection with it, but the intensity of it is usually dependent on a number of factors, such as whether you’re able to communicate with the locals or the kind of experiences you had. In this particular case, I not only connected but identified with the locals I met.
“I’m glad you came to see Belfast. People still think we live here like back in the seventies, but that’s not how it is at all now,” told me someone at a bar in South Belfast. It is indeed unfortunate that Belfast is associated with violence, as it is now a happening and lively city full of progressive creatives, friendly people, and beautiful girls. Go there and see for yourself what I mean!
The time had come to start heading back to Germany. I took a night bus at 3 a.m. to the Dublin airport, then walked across the city at 5 in the morning to take a train to Limerick. I hung out in Limerick for a while, and then took a bus to the Shannon airport. My flight to Berlin was delayed due to fog in London, and I had to wait at the airport for over 5 hours to board. I fell asleep right after taking off, and only woke up as we were getting ready to land in Berlin.
This was one of my favorite travel experiences, and I hope that these articles paint a good picture of what it was like over there. That being said, thanks a lot for your interest! Did you make it through all seven installments?
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The Rocky Road to Belfast beckons.