“Nearly two per cent of the population of Northern Ireland have been killed or injured though political violence […] If the equivalent ratio of victims to population had been produced in Great Britain in the same period some 100 000 people would have died, and if a similar level of political violence had taken place, the number of fatalities in the USA would have been over 500 000“…
Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry from the “The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland”
They began building walls in the early 1990’s. Snaking their way through Belfast splitting neighborhoods with their bodies of recycled bricks and twisted wire fangs -the British government called them “Peace Lines”. The “Lines” were intended as an emergency response to the intensifying violence which had begun to incinerate entire street blocks. Officially the riots are explained as a clash beginning in 1969 between the Catholic Nationalists demanding Northern Ireland unite with the rest of Ireland and the Protestant Unionists fiercely protecting their connection with the United Kingdom.
18 “Lines” were originally constructed but due to their relative success maintaining control over volatile areas, an additional 40 walls were built – 25 ft high and traversing over 21 miles of the city the walls typically have a gate patrolled by police in the middle where citizens can move between sides during the day. After reading testimony of individuals living near the “Peace Lines” it becomes clear that the walls have abstracted , transforming into a potent identifiers.
I had planned to continue my journey north from Glencolumbkile to Belfast in Northern Ireland by public transportation, but this quickly proved impossible because of the date I had planned to travel. It was the beginning of the second week in July and Belfast was a tense place to be heading. In 1921 there was what has been called a three-way struggle between the IRA, the Unionists and the British Crown. The conflict was so violent that it has since been called “Belfast’s Bloody Sunday”. I stopped in Letterkenny to reevaluate my plan, the time I had planned to stay in Northern Ireland had already been reduced to a single day in Belfast and I was feeling anxious. My flight was leaving in two days so I needed to make a decision and skip Northern Ireland or to somehow get there more creatively.
Letterkenny was not a place I wanted to stay regardless, so I asked around until the hotel groundskeeper agreed to drive me to the edge if the highway. I was biting my nails again, this would be my first time hitch-hiking alone, much less attempting to pull one of the Big Rigs headed for Belfast off the road and then convince them to take me aboard. The complete transparency of my anxiety prompted the groundskeeper into taking the lead. Within five minutes he had a driver pulling his fluorescent monster of a truck off the highway in front of us, assaulting us with cloud of dirt and gravel as it did so. Sauntering up to the truck he launched my pack up and into the gaping mouth of a cabin. I stood half gaping at the enormity of the machine in front of me. Once separated from my all of my belongings I snapped back to the situation at hand. Reaching on tip-toe I grabbed ahold of the handle and pulled myself precariously into the unknown truck driver’s world.
For the next several hours I rode, swaying in the passenger seat as if I were adrift at sea. The driver, lacking any sustained conversation for what seemed to be a very long time, talked almost continuously. He had a drug problem, loved driving trucks, just started again after being jailed for killing several people on the road…and then finally that he could not take me all the way into the city but that I should be able to get there walking through the industrial area where we had stopped, opened the door and signaled that it was time to disembark. The absurdity of my expectations became shamefully obvious when I tried to imagine the 18 wheeler driving through the downtown streets of Belfast to find me a hotel for the night. So I started walking. Not sure exactly where I was or if I was in any danger I tried to keep my eyes open and maintain a strong sense of composure. A few laps around the same factory block and a quick glance at the tiny city map in my Europe travel guide and I could see the buildings start to change and the streets begin to populate.
Coming upon a “black taxi” stand I hired the driver and was happy to sit down. Belfast taxi drivers have started giving tours of the “Peace Lines” from the safety of their back seats. In addition to the tour of walls I was shown many of the murals which have become emotional touchstones for entire communities. My driver was Catholic but he also admired the word of Protestant artists and we had a lively conversation about each mural we passed. Where it was safe he stopped the taxi so I could get closer to the paintings, standing in front of them respectfully. Finally I asked my driver to drop me off at the train station so that I could return to Dublin that evening. Unsure about the transportation in the morning I decided to sleep in the airport to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight.
In theory I would find a waiting lounge and try to get some rest draped across the plastic seats and on top of my pack. Arriving at the actual airport I found that it did not correspond with the imagined version I had decided would be tolerable. The only lounge like area I had access to was full of like-minded travelers and I was turned away to face the wasteland of cold linoleum and push carts…. wait and push carts. Commandeering a pair of flat-bottomed push carts I oriented them next to each other and facing into a corner of the airport lobby. For a few blissful hours I slept spooning my pack against the wall alone. At around 6 in the morning a young airport steward woke me angrily reclaimed the push carts and returned me to the linoleum. The airport was quiet and my mind wandered to the imagery I had seen during the day, of walls and the thought of murderous neighbors.