Belfast is not a normal city to visit. If it's no longer the war zone it was in the thirty years of Troubles in the last century, it is not a city at peace, either. Perhaps Berlin was like that; there were places a visitor could escape the effects of the divided city, but the wall itself defined the experience.
Belfast, too, is divided by walls. Miles and miles of so-called "Peace Walls," designed to keep Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods separated to avoid open clashes between them—and also preventing much contact, change or mutual struggle against the past and for the city's obvious needs.
None of that will be apparent if your visit to Belfast focuses on its center, where the formerly-busy docklands and shipbuilding industries have given way to The Titanic Experience, a huge museum devoted to the doomed ship that was built just by where the museum is located. Nearby are other ships and attractions, along with Segway tours and more.
But we opted for another unique Belfast experience: a tour, by taxi, of the Falls Road and Shankill neighborhoods of West Belfast, heartland of the Troubles, and home to the biggest and most extensive walls. Our guide, like the others who conduct these tours, was of an age to remember the days before the 1998 Good Friday agreement ended the open fighting.
All this was not what we expected. Our media in the U.S., and likely in many other places, have been more than happy to declare peace and report on Northern Ireland's growing businesses. We had no idea that we were visiting areas divided from each other as surely as Israel and Palestine, with gates that close from dusk to dawn. But that is the sad case. We're glad to have visited and learned that, but it's not a city we'd return to for a fun vacation.
The areas we visited are full of very political 'street art.' This wall art, on both sides of the walls, stakes out political positions, attacks the other side, and helps keep alive old grievances; it is part of what keeps the two sides from each other, and focuses attention on sectarian differences, while British and Irish landowners and industrialists benefited from the disunity.
Along the Falls Road, we saw many that spoke of past atrocities and discrimination when Catholics were kept from many jobs and benefits. For that reason, many also praised other struggles and heroes ranging from Frederick Douglass to Fidel Castro, from Nelson Mandela to Obama to Mother Teresa. Among them also memorials to 'martyrs' of the cause.
In the Protestant Shankill neighborhood, where many houses sported British flags, the big walls focused on anti-Catholic fighters such as this one, below, who once claimed fame for having killed more Catholics than any other on his side, and on historical figures, especially King William III, the Protestant king whose 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne marks the start of Protestant domination and Catholic suppression that lasted for centuries.
That battle is the occasion for annual marches every July by the Protestant Orange Order, also celebrated with huge bonfires in which images of political and religious enemies are burnt. The marches used to be occasions of major disorder as they purposefully marched through Catholic areas. Only in recent years have clashes along the route been kept under control.
Although the past twenty or so years have seen less job discrimination and a renewal of community facilities on both sides, nearly all the city's children attend segregated public schools. Overall, between the physical separation and the persistence of graffiti with the letters K.A.T., which stands for "Kill All Taigs," a slur word for Catholics, it's hard to see great hope.
Perhaps the "peace walls" serve the purpose today not only of averting violence but also of keeping out real peace by perpetuating separation. I can only hope that someday, I'll have the opportunity to return to a different Belfast.