Standing on the top deck of the ferry, I could see the smoke from several fires scattered across the city curl up into the sky. It was mid-August 1969 and I was in Belfast waiting for the overnight ferry to Glasgow to pull away from the dock.
I was a hippy assistant professor then, backpacking through Europe in my last long summer vacation before getting serious about my academic career. For the previous two weeks I hitchhiked through Ireland before heading to Belfast to catch the ferry. As I traveled north, I tracked the news about the civil disturbances in Londonderry, hoping that I would get to Belfast before the "troubles" did. I barely made it.
When I got off the ferry in Glasgow the next morning, I bought a local newspaper and read that several people had died in Belfast during the night. The Troubles had finally reached the city.
I had not been back to Belfast since that night, but I have followed the news from Northern Ireland with great interest over the years. By all accounts Belfast is now a very different place. I returned to the city last Fall to witness the changes for myself.
Walking down the leafy, peaceful streets shortly after my arrival, I thought about what it was like the last time I was here. I was struck almost immediately by the sheer normalcy of the city. In the neighborhood around Queen's University, where I was staying, students hustled up and down the streets carrying books and talking on cell phones. Tattered posters taped to lamp posts advertised upcoming rock concerts. It could have been almost any college neighborhood in the Western world.
For the better part of my first afternoon and the next morning in the city, I wandered the streets and explored the Botanic Gardens, as tranquil a place as any I have found in a major, modern city. After a couple hours of serenity, it was time to tackle Northern Ireland's bloody past. I began with the excellent exhibit on the history of the Troubles at the Ulster Museum, near the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. I spent an hour or so reading exhibits, listening to taped interviews, and watching old films and videos, trying to reconstruct my memories of my visit many years before.
Several minutes of reading, listening and watching affirmed that I had indeed been here at the beginning, when the civil disturbances morphed into riots and bombings. The modest thrill of being a witness to a turning point in history was more than tempered by sadness as I absorbed the exhibits' accounts of fear, despair and loss.
I continued my exploration of the city's dark past by walking a couple of miles to Falls Road in West Belfast, the working class Catholic neighborhood that was the primary locus for the Troubles. The main attraction on Falls Road is the murals. Back in the day, the bold, colorful murals were inflammatory, now they are merely provocative. The anti-British, anti-Royalist murals have been replaced by murals of a more general international and political nature, targeting such issues as racism, labor struggles, and Palestinian statehood.
The "Peace Wall," a twenty foot high barrier of concrete, steel and chain link separating the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, is an imposing, sobering reminder of the past. Although relationships between the neighborhoods are much improved, the continued presence of the wall is more than just historic and symbolic. Tensions still linger, though they rarely erupt into the violence of years past.
The last time I was on Falls Road, heading to the ferry terminal, I could see store owners boarding up their windows with sheets of plywood. Falls Road today looks a lot different than the Falls Road of my memory. Shops, cafes, and restaurants line the busy street. The few boarded-up windows I did see reflected the recession, not fears of civil unrest.
By now, I was ready to focus on the lighter side of Belfast. Besides, I was getting thirsty. I headed to the "entries," the narrow alleys that comprise the oldest section of the city, and wandered from one atmospheric pub to another.
I ended up at McHugh's Bar, located in the oldest surviving building in Belfast. McHugh's, which dates back to 1711, is all dark wood and good cheer. I hung out for a couple of hours, drinking, talking to the locals and a few English tourists, and listening to a group of musicians playing at a table only a few feet away. Maybe it was the setting or the beer, but this was some of the best Irish music I have ever heard.
I spent most of the next day exploring the Protestant side of the Peace Wall. Instead of walking on my own, I took a taxi tour from a driver who lived most of his adolescent and early adult life immersed in the Troubles. He showed me the murals on this side of the wall - more historic and cultural and less political than those on the other side - and other neighborhoods that were also at the center of the conflict. He described what it was like then, and most important, what it is like now. "Everything is better today," he affirmed. "Nobody wants trouble. Protestants and Catholics get along better, especially the kids. There are still flash points, but progress is steady...gradual, but steady."
My short visit convinced me that Belfast is a pleasant, peaceful city where people live their day-to-day lives pretty much like everyone else in the Western world. Recent bombings by IRA splinter groups make it clear that things are far from perfect, but no one I spoke to expressed sympathy for the groups nor felt that they would be successful in derailing the peace process.
In any case, it's not a concern for visitors, as long as you avoid contentious parades through "interface areas" during the "marching season" (check locally for details). You can walk most anywhere, speak to anyone (or just stand around and they will come up and talk to you), enjoy the architecture, the history, the beer, the music, and most of all, the people. As a fellow drinker at McHugh's noted: "There is much more to Belfast than our dark and troubled past." I couldn't agree more.