I find it difficult to locate the words to describe my experience of the city of Belfast. Unsettling, harrowing, unnerving, and depressing all come to mind as descriptors of my feelings during our trip to Belfast, but I don’t feel they do justice to the surreal experience of walking through the city. The stories of Peter Maguire were unbelievable. Hearing about the terrible acts of violence committed by both sides of the troubles made me feel very pessimistic about the human race. The idea of murder gangs patrolling the streets and the gates on certain streets being closed at night were shocking. Before we even began to hear the stories and see the gates, I felt a certain degree of discomfort; I got a very uneasy feeling about the area we were traveling in. The streets seemed unusually quiet and devoid of life, yet I certainly felt a vibe of danger and anger boiling beneath the surface. Belfast made me nervous because you could feel the tension in the city; more importantly, you could feel that the conflict was still alive. Peter talked about his experiences and he would belong to the same generation as my parents. It is frightening to think how little removed we are from the horrors of murder gangs, street burnings, and bombings in Belfast. The violence and the wounds of the troubles seem to still sting.
The memorials and murals on either side of the wall on the one hand commemorate the men believed to be heroes by the respective factions. On the other hand, these murals perpetuate the divide between the Catholics and Protestants and keep alive the sense of mutual animosity, by passing along the legacy of the struggle to the younger generation. The most memorable mural was of the masked man with the rifle that followed you no matter where you changed your perspective. It had KAT- “kill all taigs” – tagged upon it as well. While walking back to the bus, I saw a little girl no more than ten years old walking home in her soccer uniform, medals around her neck. I wondered what it must be like to grow up in an environment of such great contention between people, people who are literally separated by a wall to prevent them from committing acts of violence. The little girl has probably accepted the way things are as the only way she knows the world, but I can’t imagine growing up in a place like Belfast. I know religion has long been used to perpetrate violence in human history, but the firsthand experience of Belfast made me even more incredulous of the absurdity. A city in Ireland separated by a wall to keep people from throwing bombs at each other. Ultimately, the experience of Belfast made me quite sad and very angry to see the extent of human vice, but with the current state of relative peace there is hope for a better future for Belfast.