The big Irish divide

Last month I finally visited Shankill and Falls Road after taking time out to see “the other part” of Ireland: Belfast in Northern Ireland. I’ve been living on this green island for 10 years now and had been in Belfast on shopping trips before, but had never seen the inner city and the famous Shankill and Falls Road areas. Somehow I felt like I knew a lot about its history already; that this knowledge shaped my idea about the centuries old divide… that was until I saw the areas affected by it. ‘Loyalist‘ or ‘Unionist‘ (those who prefer to stay under the British flag) and Nationalist or ‘Republican‘ (those that want an independent and united Ireland, where Northern Ireland is returned to Ireland) weren’t just words anymore; they became areas, people, stories and feelings.

Seeing a Loyalist marching band practice loudly through Shankill on an early Saturday morning gave me goose bumps, seeing Union Jack flags shaped by wind and eventually seeing the Solidarity Wall… it gave me an uneasy feeling… one I wasn’t and still can’t place in my mind even though Belfast got firmly under my skin… it’s a vibrant, young and bustling city and just the way I like my cities: alternative.

Union Jack flags in the Shankill (Loyalist) area of Belfast

However, driving through Belfast I had this nagging feeling of “do there really have to be Union Jacks on every corner of the road in Shankill and in other parts of Northern Ireland?” Or: “is it really necessary to have Orange marches through catholic areas?” And also “if I am feeling uneasy about it, how do the people living here deal with it?”

Perhaps this feeling stems from the way I remember Belfast while growing up in Belgium: as a kid I would see daily news reports on Belfast and the big divide between Loyalist and Nationalist people, the fighting and the killing, the bombing of cars and shops. It always made me wonder why in that particular day and age, people just couldn’t get along. Especially a country that was so close to my native one and what was supposed to be a civilized country. Seeing it all played out in front of my eyes driving through Shankill and the Falls Road last month, it felt like I knew nothing at all and that I still had a lot more reading to do aside from generalized books on Irish history. It was much more than those news reports of 20 – 30 years ago. This was reality.

The bus tour we were on was definitely more orientated towards the Loyalist part of Belfast and Northern Ireland and that was a pity, because from online research it seems we missed a lot of great Irish murals and stories, and the chance to see how Nationalists live their daily lives. Are there as many Irish flags in the Falls area as there are Union Jacks in Shankill? Are the ongoing Orange marches provocation? A hint that the British are still calling it home turf? Is my loyalty to Ireland shaped as such that I don’t want to know about the other side of Ireland?

Bobby Sands, MP & hunger striker in Nationalist area of Belfast

Seeing the Solidarity Wall, the people of Shankill and the Falls Road and the murals, I finally realized that we’re all just one people on the island of Ireland, we all had grief and distress during the conflicts and some still are but in the end, we really are just people striving for what we thought was and still think is right. People across the dividing line are exactly the same as down the border, we live and breathe under the same sun and moon and we really just want to live in peace.

The murals opened up my eyes to all this and I am so glad Shankill and the Falls Road taught me a lesson or two about Irish people. They are a continuing testimony that this should never happen again but if it should, that we should see it from both sides, and not just from a Loyalist or Nationalist standpoint.

Each side has reasons why Northern Ireland should stay British or should be returned to Ireland. Each side is trying hard, very hard to move away from history and to embrace a new life together. The visit of Queen Elisabeth to Ireland in 2011 was a huge step forward, if not a giant step forward. If the Queen of the British Isles can do this, so can everyone else.

I hope that one day, we will find other, brighter paintings on the walls of Belfast but for now… they show us that we finally conquered ourselves, and that there is peace on the whole Island of Ireland.

One thing I really want to add is this: you haven’t seen the real Ireland if you’ve never set foot in Shankill and the Falls, if you haven’t tried to put your feet into the footsteps of those before us, those that have died for the cause and those that have lost loved ones for their ideals.

Belfast may have shaken up my ideas about it a little bit, in the end Shankill and the Falls will forever be intertwined, and now they are glued together in my heart also. I may still think that hundreds of years of British domination has tragically reshaped Ireland and its people, I too now have my eyes firmly fixed towards the future, and not the past.

© Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2012. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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