Belfast and Northern Ireland. For many these words sound out like warning, a beacon of trouble and a place to avoid. After watching the relatively recent depiction of Belfast on the popular series “Son’s of Anarchy” I couldn’t help but feel my heart drop at the stereotypical, archaic and frankly offensive portrayal of a city and country very much on the up! We stepped foot in this miss understood country for the first time not too long ago and discovered the reality behind the myth!
Now, in many ways it is a good job we didn’t watch Sons of Anarchy (which for all its inaccuracies it is a damn entertaining show!) before visiting Northern Ireland, if we had we would have been forgiven for thinking that it was an underdeveloped and war torn nation. Part of me was outraged and the other couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the depiction was. But as I thought about it more it started to really bother me that this wonderful place we had visited only a few months before has been beamed across the globe for all to see in such an obscene way.
Ok, so nowhere is perfect and it’s a good job we are not ones to quickly judge…partially because we come from quite a “rough” town on the outskirts of Manchester. But Belfast has most certainly gotten a bad reputation over the years that evidently it is still trying hard to shrug off.
Now I have no doubt there are still lawbreakers and trouble makers on the streets of Belfast…but where is there not!? But the Belfast of today is a far cry from the IRA gun running capital of the world! Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges, but that has now become its own unique charm. Just like the gruff and guttural tones of the Ulster accent, the harsh and unforgiving coastline and city streets that have seen the lot, Belfast is a loveable rogue worth of a second look rather than a fearful glance.
Of course, Belfast has seen it all and it’s reputation in all fairness is built on a history of trouble and violence dating back decades. Stories of people being gunned down in the street, the IRA controlling sections of the city and the brutal occupation by the British Army are all based on solid fact. This city and this country has a bloody past and one which it will never and should never forget.
Exploring the city at times it is easy to forget where you are. Much of the centre is just like any other British city or town with its grand and beautiful old buildings, high streets lined with eager shoppers and the same signs and uniforms we see back home.
Unlike the republic of Ireland which at times feels quite distinct from the UK, details such as duel language street signs, the uniforms of the “garda” and the currency give it away despite a sense of familiarity. Crossing over the border the change is so subtle many might not even notice the shift in fonts of the road signs, the change in colour of the train station names and the pound signs appearing on billboards. But for many that change is life defining.
Wander out of the city centre and tales of the past become clear, the Irish Tri-colour, originally designed to represent the Catholic St. Patrick in green and the Protestant William of Orange across from the white of peace, appear flown from every available mast. Self made Bi-Lingual signs cover up the typically British format and the usually red post boxes have been repainted green by the Nationalist Catholics of the area.
Walk only a few paces across the “peace line” and you are in Unionist turf where the elegance to Great Britain is still as strong as ever. Union flags fly just as proudly and the red, white and blue of the UK is painted across curbs, lampposts and bollards. Quite often it feels like walking across an international border.
Bright and bold murals depict scenes of historical importance, violence, slain martyrs and the dark period of The Troubles of Northern Ireland. Paintings of masked men carrying AK-47’s sit as the backdrop to children playing and everyday folk make their way to work. Even as someone who grew up with the Irish conflict being the headline of almost every news outlet week in week out, to see these murals is a sobering experience.
In a lot of ways for us Brits coming to terms with where Northern Ireland is now might just be the hardest. For years it was the backdrop to many generations childhoods, the city I call home: Manchester, was also a target in 1996 when I was 8 years old. I remember the bomb like it was yesterday. If we would have made this same journey years back we would have been targets, having to cover up our English accents and second guessing every turn.
But the reality of the situation now is that these impressive and often juxtapositional murals are the last remaining remnants of Belfast’s troubled past. The political situation in Northern Ireland will always be a complex one but since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 it has become a city in which national identity and culture can be displayed and celebrated in a non violent way…and these murals allow that to happen!
This is a city of two very strong cultures which have clashed over the years, but in todays Belfast they have found a way to coexist. In living and working together these two cultures now enrich this country and give it a very unique atmosphere. Coming to see the murals is now like visiting an open air museum, locals, no matter your accent, will happily point you in the right direction or tell you personal and very moving stories.
Northern Ireland is also one of the most stunningly beautiful countries in the world, it again has an edgy and untamed feel to its rolling hills, rugged coastline and picturesque rural landscapes. The UNESCO world heritage site of The famous Giant’s Causeway, amazing Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, the quaint but dramatic Ballintoy harbour and wonderful fishing villages such as Carnlough are well worth a visit too.
Belfast and Northern Ireland are a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover, of travelling with an open mind and allowing experiences to shape your opinions. What we found here, much like in Ukraine, was a country far removed from the sensationalist headlines and instead a warm, friendly and characterful country!
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