If you came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, like I did, Belfast is one of those cities that probably raises images of people running down burned-out city streets, chased by British security forces. Or maybe you remember Belfast as the site of the 1980 hunger strikes that took the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republicans. Either way, Belfast, when I was growing up, wasn’t a place that your folks took you on their European vacation nor even a place you dreamed of visiting one day.
That’s because from 1969 to 1989 Belfast was the epicenter of a period of Irish history that’s known as the Troubles. In 1920, the British government agreed to partition the island and twenty-six of the counties were allowed to break from the British empire and govern themselves. The remaining six counties remained with Britain and became the state of Northern Ireland. For its first 50 years, Northern Ireland was a simmering cauldron of political and religious discontent and then in 1969, after Catholics (and some Protestants, too) started a civil rights movement that was based on the American Civil Rights movement, Ulster loyalists grew restive and violent against people participating in the civil rights marches and then, ultimately, against ordinary Catholics. The minority Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry became targets, and in this charged and violent atmosphere the IRA emerged (to some extent) as the perceived defenders of the Catholics against the vigilante violence of forces like the Ulster Volunteer Force. Both sides committed atrocities and horrors, and by the time the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in April of 1998, over 3,000 people had been killed.
Throughout the twentieth century, while much of the rest of Europe was shucking off centuries of religious thought and practice, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remained mired in religious narratives and fueled by ancient religious prejudices. It makes sad sense, then, that the Irish would find a religiously-inflected name for this dark period of their history: to be troubled is to be overcome with fear and dread and to go through trials and tribulations like Christ did in the lead up to his death. Placid waters are troubled by dark forces and the act of being troubled means there’s no quick solution and there’s no easy way out.
I visited Belfast for the first time in 2000, just two years after the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. I was living in Dublin at the time, and while the Good Friday Agreement was still very much in the news, you couldn’t really feel the effects of the 30 years of communal violence that had just (mostly) ended. Aside from being quite a bit wealthier, Dubliners in 2000 went about their lives pretty much like they had throughout most of the twentieth century, and the Troubles felt like a distant and fading echo.
This was decidedly not the case when I took the train north and visited Belfast one late winter weekend in 2000. The place felt like a boxer who had been knocked down, bloodied and battered, and was wondering if it might be a better idea to just stay down and take the count. I stayed in a dingy hostel near the Europa–a hotel in the city centre with the infamous distinction of being bombed out more than any other European hotel (29 times over the course of the Troubles). The manager at the hostel recommended I take a black cab tour, so I booked a cab and spent the better part of Saturday riding through the burnt-out streets, looking in awe at the ‘peace lines’ that divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, the murals telling stories of the ancient hurts that each community had suffered at the hands of the other and flags, emblems and painted kerbs, all marking loyalties and flashing warnings. I can’t quite remember, but I’m sure that I ate alone and drank more than I should have that evening.
Seventeen years later, I returned a changed man to a changed city. In 2000, I was, as they say, alone as a stone, and troubled by what seemed a certain fate. Then, Belfast city felt like an eerie reflection of my own life, present and future, and when Sunday finally rolled around, I couldn’t wait to board the train and beat it back to Dublin.
In 2017, I arrived in Belfast with Sujata, my children, my dear friend Andy Auge and 12 bright and curious students from Regis University. Like me, the city had changed for the better. Belfast seemed to have risen up through its rubble. We found an Indian restaurant that served some of the most delicious chana masala I’ve ever had. We drank cappuccinos and espressos in an cozy Italian cafe. We rubbed shoulders with locals in Belfast’s oldest pub, The Crowne, and we walked up and down streets with passersby from all over Europe and the world.
Here are some photographs of our weekend in Belfast.