The Conflict in Belfast

The true tragedy is that the bitter Ulstermen, those murderous Protestants that used the “Loyalist” moniker, seemed no better off than their Catholic counterparts.

If they had been better off, they’d have had something to lose; as it was, the grinding wretchedness of their lives made them susceptible to manipulation, same as any poor people who see their jobs vanishing.

Before I visited Belfast, as a roaming Swiss-American, I had the Northern Irish neatly divided into the roles of the oppressors and the oppressed. A man I met told me the streets used to vibrate with the tread of the dockworkers going to their jobs at the dawn’s light; they were Protestant. Even without education or connection, you could get a job at the docks.

I visited Belfast in 2015, and after my B&B cancelled at the last minute, my husband and I ended up staying at the beleagured Europa Hotel, which has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed hotel in Europe, courtesy of the IRA. Jerry and I booked Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab tour, which took us around west Belfast.

With our driver we toured Falls Church, the quintessential Catholic neighborhood, and Shankill, a Protestant stronghold that was the home of Ulster Defense Association extremist Stevie McKeag. Neighborhoods were separated by the 18-foot-high “peace wall”, to discourage warring factions from crossing over into each other’s territories. Both neighborhoods had two-story narrow townhouses with small, barren courtyards. Both neighborhoods had murals of their respective heroes. Both neighborhoods gave the impression of poverty, meagerness, and limited options.

McKeag (1)

The Catholic Falls Church residents decorated their desiccated meagre properties with artificial flowers. There were many images and statues of the Virgin Mary. The Catholic’s hero, Bobby Sands, is depicted with long hair, and the amiable air of a hippy bard. Despite his welcoming grin, he starved himself to death in the Maze Prison. One felt the grief of the older women, mothers of their lost sons.

Bobby Sands (1)

The Protestant neighborhoods, represented by Shankill, venerated a high-kill count, in the person of Stevie McKeag, aka “Top Gun”. They also seemed to like pit bull dogs. I would say there was a more macho presentation. Sandymount had a huge mural of William of Orange looking superciliously down at pedestrians.

Sandymount Belfast

There was nothing suggesting luxury or privilege though. It seemed to me we had the impoverished shorn-headed descendants of Roundheads and Scots fighting with the monetarily and politically deprived, yet alluringly poetic, descendants of the Irish. I was told that in prison, the IRA made an effort to educate themselves, while the extremist Loyalists were known for being more interested in bulking up in the weight room.

It seemed neither side had many options.

While in Belfast, I found a book called Rooms of Time, Memories of Ulster People, composed of collected oral histories. Bakers bread was a luxury, and meat for meals was rare, often reserved for the head of the family, to keep up his strength. Women washed by hand, and it took an entire day Starch for ironing was prepared by peeling and grating potatoes, and then boiling them. Heat for the entire house came from one large fire, and spread to the upstairs via a central chimney. Since siblings slept packed together in a bed, at least they stayed warm. Kids played football with a blown-up pig’s bladder; for further entertainment, they would swing off the cross bars of the lamp posts.

Many elderly people had warm recollections of their childhood, with milkmen coming several times a day, and meals made from scratch. There wasn’t much of a safety net though, other than the church, and family. Maybe this…

Orange Widow (1)

Against a background of poverty and a lack of education, prejudice thrives and scapegoats will always be found.