I’ve listened to the U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” countless times, but I have to admit that I never gave too much thought to the meaning behind the song. After spending the weekend in Belfast, I will never again look past the meaning of that song. The trip was an extremely enlightening and incredibly moving experience. One of UCD’s international student societies (ESN) organized the trip, which included two days and two nights in Belfast and one day at the Giant’s Causeway. I met some amazing people and learned quite a bit.
On Saturday, I took a “Black Taxi Tour” with four friends, which explores the rich yet challenging history of the city, with a particular focus on the turmoil between the Catholic and Protestant communities. To say that I was slightly undereducated on the bloody history of Belfast (and all of Ireland, really) would be an understatement. I don’t intend for this post to be a history lesson, but I will quickly mention the fundamentals of the conflict to create a context for some of the thoughts that I had on the tour.
Very basically, the conflict was a political conflict between the Unionists/Loyalists (mainly Protestant) and the Irish Nationalists/Republicans (mainly Catholic) that happened primarily in the last four decades of the 20th century in Northern Ireland. In 1920, the British government split the country into two separate entities (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), which meant that Belfast and rest of Northern Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. Unionists and Protestants controlled the government of Northern Ireland, which worked closely with the British government. In the mid 60s, the Catholics started a civil rights movement to end discrimination against the Catholic community. This was the catalyst that ignited nearly 40 years of bloody violence and devastating destruction between the two communities known very literally as “The Troubles”.
It would take me pages to describe the myriad of emotions I experienced during that tour. The story of Bobby Sands affected me deeply. Bobby Sands started the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike, which ultimately took his life. This hunger strike was a continuation of the ‘Blanket Protest’ and was enacted to put pressure on the British parliament to restore five basic rights that were previously awarded to convicted paramilitary prisoners (such as members of the IRA like Bobby Sands). These five rights essentially separated a paramilitary prisoner from a ‘common criminal’, and the restoration of these rights cost the lives of 10 men in hunger strike, starting with the life of Bobby Sands. Bobby was survived by two parents, two siblings, a wife, and a son. He starved for 66 days before he passed away. Nine other men starved to death before the British government met their demands.
While listening to the story of Bobby Sands and looking up at the mural that commemorates his life, I started to wonder if I believe in anything with such vehemence that I would give up my life in defense of that belief/cause. I’ve struggled with this question for the past few days, unable to remain satisfied with any potential reply. I could sit here and attempt to construct some kind of neutral philosophical response to this question, but the truth is that I don’t have the answer. And the fact that I honestly don’t know whether or not I’d sacrifice my life for a belief is an incredible luxury, and it would be egregiously disrespectful to those that have done so if I claimed to know the answer.
Perhaps the most moving part of the tour was our visit to Peace Wall. The Peace Wall is a gigantic wall that separates the Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast. The wall is taller and longer than the Berlin Wall and is, by no means, simply a historical monument. These two communities have taken great strides towards integration since “The Troubles” officially ended on Good Friday in 1998, but the process is gradual. Logically, a wall doesn’t exactly symbolize peace; a wall normally conjures notions of separation and anxiety. So it seems a bit counter-intuitive that this massive wall that runs through the middle of Belfast is known as the ‘Peace Wall’. However, after my time in Belfast, I have a better understanding of the wall’s function and the implications of its name.
“The Troubles” took their toll on Belfast and rest of Northern Ireland; no side was left unscathed. There is a palpable sadness about the city; a sense of loss drifts through the air like ash in the aftermath of a fire. The Peace Wall cauterized the gushing wound opened by those troubled days. The wall stands as symbol of hope for the future; the wounds are still fresh for many in the city, and they simply need more time to heal.
While we were at the Peace Wall, our tour guide, Tom, said something so profound that I imagine it will stay with me for as long as I live. Tom grew up as a Catholic in Belfast during “The Troubles” and endured more than a few tragedies. As we gathered around to hear his remarks on the wall, he said quite pointedly, “The only thing that separates us (points to the catholic side behind him) and them (nods his head forward towards the protestant community) is an ideology”. Tom only said the things that needed to be said; he never minced words, and he never imposed his own beliefs on us. This statement was one of the only things he said at the wall. He left us to form our own opinions.
Since that tour and my time in Belfast, I’ve thought a great deal about that statement Tom made at the Peace Wall. At the end of the day, we all share one thing in common; we’re all human beings. The Protestant mothers love their children in the same way that the Catholic mothers do, and the Catholic sons look up to their fathers just as the Protestant sons look up to theirs. Buried somewhere underneath ideology and political interest and personal gain is a simple force that connects us all – love. Before we left the wall, Tom encouraged us to sign the Peace Wall and leave some kind of a message. It was a great honor to do so.