Goodbye to the Decade – My 2018 Trip to Belfast, and Why I Love Day Trips

This post is part 9 of my 10 week retrospective looking back at a specific trip from each year of the 2010s. Read more about the series here. Today I’m talking about the 2018 day trip I took to the Belfast, Northern Ireland. Previous editions of this series include

In May of 2018 I’d been working as a temp at an office job in Dublin when I found out my contract was ending. I liked the job, but I knew it was temporary. When I found out it was ending a little sooner that I’d hoped I decided I’d come home to Canada in early June. I spent the next few weeks traveling, around Dublin, but I also went back to Belfast, Northern Ireland. I’d gone to Belfast the year before and spent a couple nights in the city. I wanted to go back to Belfast for a day trip to see some of the political murals in the city.

I’m going to attempt to give a little background on Irish and Northern Irish history, but I won’t be able to cover this topic the way it deserves. So here’s a brief, but also not so brief summary.

Ireland (as in the whole geographical island) was once under British rule. During this time some people wanted to break away from British control (known as Nationalists or Republicans). Others people wanted to remain under British rule (known as Unionists or Royalists). There was more nuances to it than that, but I don’t want to write a thesis paper on this complicated topic. Several independence movements started, which lead to a civil war (the Irish War of Independence) from 1919 to 1921. In 1949 all the counties on the island of Ireland voted whether to become an independent republic, or to remain under British rule. Six counties in the north Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone voted to remain under British rule. They formed the country of Northern Ireland and joined the United Kingdom (along with England, Scotland and Wales). The other 32 counties became the Republic of Ireland, which we refer to as Ireland today. Belfast became the capital of Northern Ireland ,and Dublin the capital of Ireland.

But the story isn’t over and that’s where The Troubles come in. This was a period from 1968 to 1998, when violent conflicts and bombings took place in Ireland and Northern Ireland (and some in England as well). These acts were done by both paramilitary groups and the British army, and mostly stemmed from political ideologies. The main two being about how Northern Ireland should be governed, and whether or not it should join the Republic of Ireland. During this period communities, neighbourhoods, and even families were divided into Republican/Nationalist versus Unionist/Loyalist. 3,500 people died (52% being civilians) from violent conflicts and bombings. On Good Friday 1998 the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) was put forth. Both sides surrendered and a ceasefire was declared. In The Northern Ireland Assembly both Republican and Unionist parties should have equal power. As well at any time a referendum could be held for Northern Ireland to vote on whether to stay in the U.K or join the Republic of Ireland.

That brief overview was quite long, but also I’m sure I missed a ton of stuff. I do apologize for that, but there’s no way I can cover this topic in depth. But the too long didn’t read summary is; the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland is very complicated. Nowadays (or at least in 2018 when I was there) you can travel freely from Northern Ireland to Ireland and vice versa without any issues. I’m not sure if that will change with Brexit. I hope not because it’s from my understanding that a hard border (one with border patrol) between the two countries would likely cause problems. However Belfast still has some scars from it’s time in The Troubles. There are “peace walls” in certain parts of the city separating Unionist/Loyalist neighbourhoods and Nationalist/Republican ones. In these divided neighbourhoods are murals to pro Unionist/Loyalist or pro Nationalist/Republican members. And depending on who you ask the people on the murals might be seen as heroes or they might be seen as villains. History, and people are complicated, and there’s no singular truth or easy answer.

There are companies that will offer tours of these murals in Belfast, and that’s why I went back for a day trip. The tour I took was about 90 minutes and we went through several neighbourhoods. I didn’t actually take a lot of photos on the tour (although I was able to get it at most of the places). While you could do a walking tour on your own, I recommend finding one of the cab/car companies that do this tour. You’ll get a perspective on the murals from someone who lives in Belfast and knows the history of the city and Northern Ireland. If I’d walked around on my own I wouldn’t have any context for what I was seeing (plus I’d likely get lost cause that’s how I roll).

One of the peace walls in Belfast.

Mural of Republican activist Bobby Sands, who died from a hunger strike. There’s actually a really interesting documentary about Sands called 66 Days that’s worth checking out if you’re interested in learning more about Northern Ireland and The Troubles. 

There are also murals done by community members calling for peace. 

The legacy of The Troubles is a complicated one. While a peace wall doesn’t make sense to me I also understand that living through something is different than just hearing about it. One thing I came to appreciate about my time in Ireland and Northern Ireland was learning more about the history of these two countries. Belfast is an interesting city, and the energy there is very different from Dublin. It’s only about 2 hours from Dublin to Belfast by train and is a great place to go for a day trip (or even better for a few days). Aside from seeing the murals I also spent some time checking out at market at Belfast City Hall, and wandering around The Cathedral Quarter.

I would like to go back to Belfast and spend some more time there, and see more places in Northern Ireland at some point. However, I am happy I got to go back to Belfast for a day trip and learn more about the political murals there.

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