Northern Ireland is a small space shared and claimed by Republicans and Loyalists: Republicans, mostly Irish and Catholic, want the North and the Republic of Ireland to unite. Loyalists, mostly Protestants of Ulster Scots ancestry, want the North to remain part of the United Kingdom and separated from Ireland. If you read the previous installment of this series, you by now know that my interest for everything Irish goes back several years. My contact with British Loyalism, however, was very limited—and that was something I wanted to change in order to get a better idea of both the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland as well as what it’s like to live there now.
Please note: This is the fourth 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.
I first got acquainted with the Republican areas of Belfast on the day of my arrival, which was the day before Christmas. On Christmas Day, I set out to explore the Loyalist side of West Belfast, and in the subsequent days East Belfast.
Christmas Day was relatively warm and sunny—with no signs of the storm announced by the meteorological service. I left the hostel in the morning after devouring a delicious Irish breakfast—a calorie bomb made up of sausages, bacon, fried eggs, and baked beans. A purist might question the quality of an Irish breakfast made by a Frenchman using canned ingredients, but to me it tasted just right and got the job done.
The first order of business was again getting a coffee. By the time I hit Sandy Row I figured I could get a Christmas pint and walked into a Rangers pub. The place was half-empty but there were still a few patrons—mostly older men and a few younger guys wearing tracksuits, which are hugely popular in Northern Ireland. I only stayed in the pub long enough to get a feel for it: As opposed to the Red Devil on the (Republican) Falls Rd., this pub was full of Union Jacks, Northern Irish flags, and emblems of the Northern Irish Football Association and Glasgow Rangers. Bits and pieces of Royal memorabilia, displayed behind blue, red, and white lights, adorned the back of the bar. Just like at Republican pubs, the decoration of this establishment was very patriotic.
I walked down Sandy Row, a Loyalist stronghold, which, at the height of The Troubles, was firmly in the grip of paramilitaries. Street curbs here are painted in the colors of the Union Jack, light posts too. Murals and gardens of remembrance dedicated to the memory of both civilians and Loyalist paramilitary leaders are also found in this part of town. However, many of the more aggressive murals (such as the one below) have been painted over.
I saw a mural of George Best in that area, and also of the Northern Irish football team. The famous mural featuring a masked man holding an AK47 that used to be at the entrance to Sandy Row (pictured above) was replaced by a portrait of Prince William of Orange not that long ago. William of Orange was a Dutch king who, interestingly enough, defeated an English king in the famous Battle of the Boyne of 1690 to take control of Ireland. A Protestant, William of Orange is venerated in the Loyalist community. He also inspired the sectarian Orange Order, a Protestant-only organization which formerly controlled the Northern Irish government.
I followed basically the same route I took to go to the Falls Rd. to get to the Shankill Rd., a Protestant part of West Belfast. A local told me it was best to walk along the highway until hitting the Shankill Rd, for the crossing at the Peace Wall might be closed on Christmas Day (and, as I later found out, it was). The Shankill Rd. is a major avenue of West Belfast. It runs parallel to the Republican Falls Rd., from which it is separated by a massive wall. Murals dedicated to both paramilitary members and civilian victims of the conflict are found everywhere on the Shankill Rd. Red Poppies adorn walls—meaning that Loyalist paramilitaries also understand themselves as members of the British armed forces.
Crossing from one side of the Peace Wall to the other feels like crossing an international boundary—even though the Falls Rd. is only 500 meters away from the Shankill Rd. On the “other” side of the wall, whichever that might be, the cultural and political symbols you’ll come across belong to different nations and states. Flags, emblems, and other symbols such as the red poppy or the Red Hand of Ulster are ubiquitous in the Loyalist, Protestant parts of Belfast (and of Northern Ireland as a whole). As mentioned in the second installment of this series, only in these parts of town will you come across the flag of Northern Ireland and the Union Jack. Likewise, the Northern Irish National Football team has its following here—the areas on the other side of the wall belong to the national team of the Republic of Ireland.
By the way, remember that storm warning I mentioned in the previous installment of this series? Well, the weather report was partially accurate. Christmas Day was windy, cold, and wet. At some point, I figured the conditions for sightseeing were not ideal and went in the Berlin pub. I later found out that the pub, like every other establishment on the Shankill Rd., used to be frequented by Loyalist paramilitaries. That day, however, I was the only patron at the bar. After downing a pint, I continued my wandering through the Shankill; however, I ended up cutting it short and going back to the hostel relatively early. After all, there was nothing going on, the day was bleak and the weather miserable—what Scots would call dreich. I, however, went back to the Shankill area with my Black Taxi Tour a few days later, and also went to East Belfast. East Belfast is, with the exception of a small Republican enclave called Short Strand, an overwhelmingly Loyalist area. The Newtownards Rd. is famous for its murals.
The most striking feature of Loyalist Belfast are the murals. Not because they are unique to this parts of town, but rather because of the aggressiveness of most. Now, some things about the Irish Conflict are better known than others, and that includes the names of the organizations involved. Everybody has heard about the IRA; however, who’s heard about the UDA, or the UVF? What about the Red Hand Commando? (If you haven’t please refer to part one of this series.) Loyalist militias do not usually come to mind when talking about The Troubles outside of Ireland or even the United Kingdom, but in the Loyalist parts of Belfast you will definitely feel their presence through murals and flags.
Now, it is beyond the scope of this travel blog to get into the whole debate around the actions waged by the different Republican and Loyalist armed groups during The Troubles and their legacy. What is true is that, at a certain point, the political violence of The Troubles descended into a murderous spiral of revenge often targeting civilians. Loyalist gangs often engaged in brutal violence, sometimes even in collusion with the British Army and the RUC—and the unapologetic way of remembering the figures involved in the Loyalist parts of Belfast can be pretty appalling. One such example is the mural dedicated to Stephen “Top Gun” McKeag, found close to the Crumlin Rd. McKeag was responsible for the sectarian killings of at least twelve unarmed civilians before dying of a cocaine overdose at age 30—and yet, he is remembered by many as a hero of the UDA.
Memory is selective, and the more brutal aspect of the conflict is usually left out of public remembrance on both sides. However, while in the Republican parts of Belfast most murals are rather history-oriented, in the Loyalist parts of town they can be much more militant. Loyalist murals often depict the more martial side of extremism: Rifles, guns, and men in balaclavas—and that can be quite intimidating, not only for tourists but also for locals.
While many of these murals have been painted over (such as the famous Shankill Mona Lisa), new ones (such as the one mentioned above) keep appearing. However, many local council members and community leaders have tried to eradicate them, for they keep badly needed investment away from these areas. The fact that they still stand is clear evidence of the power that these paramilitaries still exercise in their communities.
At the same time, Loyalist areas also feature a large number of cross-community murals calling for peace and understanding. This could very well also be seen as a mirror reflecting Northern Irish society: Some wish to move forward, others do not.
Fast forward to the end of my trip: As I was waiting to board my flight back to Berlin, I caught a glimpse of what the guy ahead of me was reading on his phone. A bit startled, I took out my phone and went online to the BBC Northern Ireland website. The headline? “Blythe Street: Viable device found in south Belfast.” A side street just off of Sandy Row, Blythe St. is only about a 10-minute walk away from my hostel. I must have walked by there at least six times during my stay in Belfast. That’s where I photographed the mural above, too.
Checking out the parallel worlds that coexist in Belfast is a very unique experience that will teach you a lot about the legacy of the conflict and Northern Irish society.
Have you been to Belfast? What was your experience there like?
Hope you enjoyed the read! Click here for part and read all about my experience at the North Belfast Derby between Cliftonville and Crusaders!