Hey, let’s tour an entire country in three days! That’s an amazing idea!
It isn’t. Even though Northern Ireland is small and not even a country unto itself, it’s still going to wear you out when you try to traverse the thing and see everything there is to see in the span of 72 hours. Never the less our program crammed it in, throwing us through Derry-LondonDerry and Belfast, shoving in everything they could into hours upon hours of walking tours and an ever-revolving door of buses and hotels. The only constant was Rocky.
Luckily for us the whole excursion saw us traveling on a single method of transportation. A small tour-bus with a Republic of Ireland based tour company. Our driver was an older gentlemen named Rocky. Rocky was a gentle sort of man, for 30 years he’d worked various sales jobs. He hated that work, and was more than happy to settle into quasi-retirement as a tour guide, where he could crack jokes as he drove Americans around to show them the beautiful island he lived on. He was an easygoing, jovial sort. He suffered no fools, but not because they irritated him, but more because he knew well enough how to simply work around them. But for a moment during our trip, even Rocky was made a darker man.
Rocky did tours of Belfast every fortnight. Unless you’re going for the titanic, the main attraction in Belfast is The Troubles. The Troubles were an all-out guerrilla war between mostly-catholic separatists looking to join the Republic of Ireland and mostly-protestant Unionists looking to stay with the United Kingdom. The Troubles were our program’s focus, and for that reason we’d set up our own bus tour around Belfast.
On an unassuming causeway we took on a tour guide about Rocky’s age. This tour guide was a Belfast native. He was a young man at the time but he’d lived through the troubles. He summed up the violence best with a story from his sister. She was sitting in her boyfriend’s living room with his mother when a strange man entered carrying a rifle. The man walked through the house, and exited out the back. The mother turned to the guide’s sister “do you like cream or sugar with your tea?” Who was that man? An IRA combatant, likely on a mission to kill soldiers or police. He was using the house as a shortcut, as was typical for this house, as was typical for all the houses on that block, which is why they all left their doors unlocked. That was the level of the violence in Belfast, people died every day, and everyone had gotten used to it.
That story was only the beginning of the tour, as time went on we proceeded deeper and deeper into the neighborhoods of Belfast where violence had been most active. The violence had split the city, literally. Large sections of the city were divided from one another by “peace walls” meant to divide Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. The walls were still up, not due to come down until the 2020s. One would find the gates locked at night, and backyards that ran up against the wall had to be encompassed in “ulster conservatories,” metal cages meant to catch rocks thrown over the walls by rowdy kids.
The last stop on the tour was the memorial of Stephen McKeag, “Topgun” as he was called. Topgun was the title given to members of the Unionist paramilitary group Ulster Defense Association for the greatest number of Catholics killed. McKeag killed people, he killed them for the sake of killing them, and he would whistle Follow the Yellow Brick Road on his way home from killing them. He died in 2000 from an overdose of painkillers and cocaine, and a memorial was painted to honor the brave service he gave for killing a bunch of mostly unarmed people because they were Catholic. On the way home after the tour everyone couldn’t help but notice all the Union Jacks residents were flying in the Prodestant Unionist neighborhoods, along with flags of the Orange Order, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and Mckeag’s own UDA. Even Rocky, who toured Belfast regularly but never went to these neighborhoods, was off put by events of the day.
The next morning Rocky, who parked his bus near our hotel and taxied to and from his own accommodations, had a story for us. On his morning taxi ride the driver had asked him if he was from the Republic. He was, so he said yes. The driver praised him on his courage. The Unionist flags were commemorating marching season, where the Protestants would march all around the city extolling their loyalty to the English Crown. Bonfires of donated industrial palettes would be burnt in honor of the Unionist cause, and had Rocky parked his car in the same neighborhood he’d been sleeping in the taxi driver said, they would have burnt that too. Rocky however, responded by telling the driver off. Belfast is safe, the Troubles are over. It’s unrealistic to expect that decades of violence built on centuries of tension are going to go poof the minute a peace treaty is signed, of course the visage of conflict is going to linger. The peace walls are a tourist attraction now, and the marching season is slowly morphing into an inter-sectional coffee klatch. The thing that serves as a danger now is the kind of attitude displayed by that taxi driver. Rocky, the tour guide, and anyone else who knew how bad it was back then knows how much better it is now, and it does no one any good to treat a healing place as if the wounds are still being inflicted.