I don’t know how I first became fascinated with Ireland. Might have been through Irish music, or maybe Irish history—or perhaps Celtic mythology?
Let me start this post with an anecdote: One evening I was walking about downtown San Diego when I passed by The Dubliner. Inside, an Irish band was tearing it up big time. I couldn’t go in because I was not 21 yet, but listened to them from the sidewalk. After I turned 21 that summer, many a Friday evening was spent partying to the tunes of The Leperkhanz. They played a mean version of “Come out, ye Black and Tans,” a very famous Irish Rebel Song.
The story in the lyrics takes place in Dublin, but it was through that song that I first came into contact with Irish Republicanism.
Please note: This article is the third installment of a seven-article series. An outline of the historical context of the conflict can be found in the first installment, and a more general portrait of the city in part two.
It was the day before Christmas. I had just arrived in Belfast that morning and, though I was extremely tired and wanted to go to bed, I was not allowed in my room until 2 p.m.
Though I was not particularly feeling like a spring chicken that morning, I was really impatient about exploring the city. I wanted to explore Belfast and witness how the legacy of The Troubles is remembered—and decided I would start in the Republican areas of the city.
Luckily, the storm that was supposed to hit the North Channel over Christmas ended up just being a light but constant drizzle, so the conditions to go sightseeing were better than I had expected. It was definitely warmer than in Berlin, and that alone was already a big plus.
I left my hostel at 10 or 11 a.m. together with an Indian guy who had also just arrived that day named Michael.
After getting a cappuccino for the road, I walked through South Belfast past Grosvenor Rd., crossed the highway, and continued through a small and beautiful residential area full of small, red-brick houses. The signs on most of those houses read “céad míle fáilte,” or “welcome” in Irish—meaning I was in a Republican Catholic neighborhood. This area was just next to the Divis Rd., which is named after a mountain close to Belfast. A narrow alleyway leads up to the Divis tower—a residential buiding, which during The Troubles housed an observation point of the British army.
The Divis Rd. becomes the Falls Rd., a major avenue that runs parallel to the Shankill Rd. Both roads and the areas around them are Republican and Loyalist strongholds, respectively—and are separated from each other by a massive wall.
When entering the Falls Rd., the first murals you’ll come across are those from the “International Wall.” Being that I was there in late 2016, the murals adorning this wall commemorated the 100th year anniversary of the Easter Rising (please refer to part one of this series for more on that).
Likewise, there are also murals commemorating the hunger strike from 1981 as well as the preceding blanket and dirty protests. The hunger strike was started in the H Block prison by members of the IRA and INLA in order to get the British government to grant them the status of political prisoners.
The first hunger striker was Bobby Sands, who is a particularly important figure in the history of The Troubles. He was also the first hunger striker to die. However, the circumstances of his death catalyzed a huge numbers boost in the rank and file of the IRA—for Bobby Sands was nominated for and won a post in the British parliament shortly before his death, meaning that the government allowed one of its ministers to die of starvation. Therefore, you will see Bobby Sands’ portrait and poems (he was a prolific writer) in many parts of the city—but most famously on the side of Sinn Féin’s West Belfast headquarters.
I figured it was beer o’ clock. Well, it was noon, but I was in the mood for a beer. I entered a pub whose name I don’t remember and got me a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of pure nostalgia. Outside, above the door, waved an Irish tricolor. On the corner, the initials of the Irish National Liberation Army, an armed paramilitary Marxist group that also strived for Irish reunification, hung on a light post. I downed the first beer of the day while talking to the bartender about the upcoming football match on Boxing Day.
Like I mentioned in the introduction, the Irish conflict is often oversimplified as “Catholics vs. Protestants.” However, the conflict is primarily political, and Republicanism is not sectarian in nature. In fact, many of the precursors of Irish Republicanism (Society of United Irishmen) were Protestant. Likewise, the colors of the Irish flag represent peace (white) between Catholics (green) and Protestants (orange). For more background information please check out the first installment of this series.
In the years before The Troubles exploded, the Irish Catholic population of Northern Ireland had pursued its demands for the government to end the institutionalized discrimination against them via peaceful protest. Because of this, modern Irish Republicanism sees itself connected to the global civil rights struggle.
Likewise, being an irredentist movement seeking to end Britain’s presence in Ireland, Irish Republicans see themselves as fighting the same fight of the Basques and the Catalans in Spain and France, and the Palestinians in Israel, among others—seen in a post-colonial context, the term “subaltern” comes to mind.
Belfast is known for its murals. Though the painting of murals is not exclusive to Republicans, it’s the works of art on the Falls Rd. that are most often photographed, such as the mural of Bobby Sands. You’ll notice two things when you look at murals in Republican areas: A huge percentage of them are not about The Troubles but rather about the Irish War of Independence or the Irish Civil War. The other thing you’ll notice is that not all of them are Ireland-related but have rather Basque, Catalan, or Socialist themes. However, the thing I found most striking is that they are not as aggressive and intimidating as Loyalist murals.
Just like the UVF on the Protestant side, the IRA enjoys the status of “People’s Army” among militant Republicans—this applies to all the incarnations of the IRA—although you won’t see that many murals dedicated to the Provisional IRA in Belfast (but you will in Derry). Likewise, militant Republicans see groups such as the Basque ETA, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Hezbollah as brothers in arms of the Provisional IRA, and you will encounter references to these organizations every now and then.
Now, while I am not encouraging you to drink if you don’t, I will say that one of the most enlightening experiences when abroad is talking to locals over a beer or two. I was in the Gaeltacht Quarter, a part of West Belfast where the Irish language and culture are promoted. There is a bar called the Red Devil, which a friend described as a “good Republican pub,” and where I decided I would pound back a few.
The decoration of the bar mirrors that of other Republican parts of town: Catalan, Basque, Breton, and Palestinian flags, and scarves of Celtic, Cliftonville, St. Pauli, and Athletic Bilbao among others—all clubs with a solid left-wing following. I sat down with Michael and got me a beer (pretty sure it was a Harp this time).
It didn’t take long before I struck up a conversation with the other patrons, one of whom told me a lot about the government’s efforts to promote the Irish language—which he himself had learned in Belfast and County Donegal, in the Irish Republic. Unsurprisingly, the conversation turned to football after a few minutes. I mentioned I had rescheduled my whole trip to attend the North Belfast Derby between Cliftonville and Crusaders. Cliftonville is the only team in the whole Northern Irish Premiership with an Irish identity, and though Belfast belongs to Glasgow Celtic, most Celtic supporters are also Cliftonville fans.
This whole time, a big guy behind the bar with tattoos all over his arms and head just stood there with his arms crossed, listening to our conversation. He was wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the Quinta Brigada—an Irish Brigade that fought on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. He then left and shortly after came back. “Hey, you going to the game?” I said yes, to which he simply responded by throwing a striped scarf at me. “Take that with you. Just don’t wear it around town.” It was a Cliftonville scarf. I reciprocated by giving him a pin of Union Berlin, my local second division team. He then called some of his friends to tell them I would be going to the match, though I didn’t meet any of them at the game.
If you go anywhere in Belfast outside of the city center, there’s no escaping the Irish/British conflict. Murals all over town pay homage to Ireland’s tragic history: An Gorta Mór, otherwise known as the Irish Potato Famine, the 1981 Hunger Strike, and the Easter Rising are all featured prominently in several pieces—which makes walking through the streets of the city a very powerful and humbling experience. And while murals have also become a vehicle to bring together the two communities and celebrate what unites them, many of them tell stories of incarceration, starvation, exile, and death—so think well in front of which you’d like to have your picture taken.
During my stay in Belfast I visited several Republican areas and enclaves (see the second installment of this series for a detailed route), such as “The Bone” in North Belfast, Short Strand in otherwise Protestant East Belfast, the Lower Ormeau Rd. in South Belfast, the Falls Rd., Ballymurphy, Clonard, and Carrick Hill in West Belfast. I went either by myself or with my tour guide from belfastmuralexperience.com.
I had a great experience of cultural immersion in Belfast, particularly after the aforementioned Football game between Cliftonville and Crusaders, which escalated into a proper borrachera (full article coming up soon). So yeah, it was basically seven drunken days, seven drunken nights over there, which taught me a lot about the place.
On that particular evening I partied with North Belfast locals, a few Shamrock Rovers fans who came to the match from Dublin, and a few other assorted characters including a German groundhopper. After the match I hopped into a cab with a group of football fans and crossed the city to go to a bar in South Belfast. I was advised to hide my Cliftonville scarf, for football colors are not particularly welcome anywhere in the city.
At some point I brought up the San Patricios, or St. Patrick’s Battalion—a division made up of mostly Irish immigrants that deserted the American army and joined the Mexicans in the war of 1846. Though Mexico lost the war, many San Patricios remained in Mexico, and their memory is still commemorated by the ambassadors of both countries. Likewise, many Mexicans still look dearly toward Ireland and celebrate this friendship. My drinking buddies were unaware of it, and I was happy to take on the role of drunken ambassador—even though if you’re Latin American, people are sure to be extremely friendly and welcoming to you anyway! “You’re one of us! You’re of our fucking culture!” We cheered to that. I had been initiated.
Funnily enough, there were a couple of instances when people looked at me sideways in the good ol’ Dubliner back in San Diego because they thought it was weird that a Hispanic guy would be so into Irish music. And there I was in Belfast, feeling right at home as an honorary Irishman.
All in all, I saw a lot of Republican Belfast. But I was there to discover the place, and to get a better understanding of what makes Republican Belfast what it is, I had to explore Loyalist Belfast. That was the next order of business. Find out what that was like on part four!
Hope you enjoyed the read! Stay tuned for the next installment of this series!