DISCLAIMER: I don’t give a damn if you don’t agree with what I write here. This is MY journal, MY story, MY feelings, MY opinion. MINE. Not yours. I fully admit I do not have the entire story. It would be impossible for me to. It would be impossible for anyone to, because you can never fully understand both sides in an issue such as this. But some of what I do know, the evilness of it can’t be argued. I follow my gut and my instincts, and my gut and instincts are not up for debate. If you have something constructive to say that differs, I am 100% open to that discourse. But if you’re just here to be a keyboard warrior, I’m already bored with you.
I developed a nasty cough last night. I don’t feel sick, but something’s up. I think I’ve just been running too hard. I haven’t had a full down day since Iceland, over 3 weeks ago. Plus, I have a wee bit of sunburn from yesterday (standing outside for an hour with no shade when the bus broke down didn’t help 🙁 ). Dear Ireland, No one told me to pack the sunscreen, sunhat, and sun glasses! Love, Mary. I had planned to do a free Belfast walking tour and then walk around the neighborhood and find murals. I think walking miles and miles is just out for the day. Body is telling me it needs a break, and I have to listen. I still have a month and a half of travel ahead of me. When I’m at home, I seriously do not walk further than from the couch to the refrigerator to the bathroom to the bedroom on most days, because I’m working constantly. When I’m traveling, I’m in hyper walking mode, and average 5 miles a day. Plus, I’m getting about 6 hours of sleep a night when I’m a full 8 hours kind of girl. The sunrise at 4:45am is about to kill me. Enough is enough. I had heard of the Black Cab mural tours and thought maybe having someone drive me around would be a better option. I went to several websites, and none offered “day of” booking. I did find one that said to email them for availability, so I’m sitting in bed at 8am, waiting to hear back from them.
I waited until 9:45am, and no reply. I called Taxi Trax and yes, they do have availability and can be here in 30 minutes to pick me up at my door! Woo-hoo! And in true “things happen to me that are meant to” fashion, I ended up with Michael (Mikey) as a
guide/driver friend. I’m about 3 days late writing this- much more behind schedule than I like to get. But I’ve had to let this one marinate in my mind for a while. This one is hard. The hardest post I’ve ever written. Because what I learned on this day is not history. It’s present. It’s real. It’s people lives TODAY. It’s shocking. It’s scary. It’s a part of Belfast that I think few people know or understand if they haven’t lived it. I haven’t lived it. Mikey did and is. See, Mikey is my age. He grew up during what is referred to as “The Troubles”, which is a pretty low key term for daily warfare on the streets of Belfast for decades. Troubles, indeed. Now, you know I love to give a quicky history lesson. But you aren’t going to get that today. I can’t give a summary of this. I just can’t. It’s too personal to people who are still living, who are still living THIS. If you want the background, research it. That’s all I can tell you. What you need to know for this journal is that Ireland isn’t one country. It’s two. The southern part of the country is the country of Ireland. Independent. A member of the EU and not a part of the UK. The northern part, commonly called Northern Ireland, is under the control of the UK and will have to leave the EU when Brexit culminates. In Northern Ireland, you have two main groups: the Unionists are primarily Protestants who identify with Great Britain and want to remain a part of it. The Nationalists are primarily Catholics who identify with Ireland and want to be a part of it again and get out from under the rule of Great Britain. And the power struggle between these two groups are what caused/cause “The Troubles”.
Mikey is a nationalist. Not a practicing Catholic. He, like I, has no use for religion. He wants his 3 children to embrace their IRISH heritage- to speak Gaelic and know that part of themselves. And they do! This wasn’t possible a couple of decades ago. Mikey told me stories. Personal stories. Stories of pain and suffering of family, friends, and himself. Of having friends shot dead in the streets. Of going to prison for 2 years. Stories that are his to share, not mine. I don’t know what happened when I got into Mikey’s cab, but something clicked- I think as soon as I asked, “May I sit in the front seat with you?” and added, “I’m a history teacher. Don’t go easy on me.”. He immediately began pouring history out, filling the cab and my mind with it. (We later discussed how this is so cathartic for him, to be able to speak of it. Many have bottled it up, and have serious mental and social problems because of PTSD.) We sat in the cab talking for a solid 30 minutes before we even got out at the first mural. This was a 90 minute tour. He looked at the clock and said, “Oh! We need to get moving!”. I said, “I will pay extra for extra time. I don’t care what it is. Tell me your story.” He said he didn’t care about the money, that he doesn’t do these tours for the money. He does it to release it from him. He doesn’t do 4 and 5 tours a day like some people. He just so happened to get a last minute call this morning and decided to do this one (thank you, universe). Once he understood that I was listening- not hearing, but listening- and that I got it, and was making the connections, and was engaged…that’s what he wanted. Not some nidget jumping around for instagram worthy shots of murals. To me, the murals were illustrations of Mikey’s story- that’s all. The story was the important part. The murals were decoration that emphasized his topics.
He had picked me up at 10:15, we were supposed to be done at 11:45. He looked at the clock again after I told him that I wanted his story and said, “Ok, let’s start the clock now and we’ll call it at 12:30.” He showed me murals, he explained them. He explained how they fit in with HIS narrative. With HIS childhood. With HIS young adulthood. Those connections- those are priceless to me. He told me of the Potato Famine, and that it was NOT a famine and he would never call it that. The British allowed over 1 million people to starve. I will never again call it a famine either. It is An Gorta Mór- The Great Hunger.
He told me of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes. How Bobby Sands is someone he looked up to so much as a young boy. And how Bobby’s quote, about “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children”…how he couldn’t imagine it when he was a young man. But he sees it coming to fruition now. How his children have never seen armed conflict. And how happy he is of that. But how some people are still so mired in what happened to them and their families, that the conflict is still just as real in them, and they pass that conflict to their children in a vicious cycle…
He told me about solidarity with other peoples around the world in similar situations- Cuba and South Africa. Places I’ve been and could talk to him about- especially Robbin Island in Cape Town where Mandela and his fellow political “terrorists” were held and how similar those men’s stories were to his. See, you’re a terrorist when you’re doing things the government doesn’t like. When progress is made, the terrorists become the heroes. I remember growing up and hearing about the IRA on the television and how they were “terrorists”. If fighting for your rights and beliefs under an oppressive government is terrorism, well, I’d be glad to be called a terrorist.
Mikey said he was supposed to pick his daughter up at noon, but he’d call and see if he could get someone else to do it. I told him to do whatever he needed to do. I would be happy to be along for the ride. We went and picked up his 8 year old daughter and dropped her off. Then, we resumed our tour. When I had seen this mural, it really stuck in my mind. Finally, I had to ask, “I saw something about bring the wall down- was that metaphorical or physical?”.
It IS physical was the answer. Present. Tense. And I was just this side of a state of shock. A wall? In Belfast? In 2018 separating the two groups? Yes, indeed. And wait until you hear its name…the Peace Wall. What fucking wall ever built in history was built out of PEACE??!! And he showed it to me. And he told me about it. Wait…I’m saying “it”. That’s wrong. THEM. Because there are about 100 of them spread around the city!!!! And this fucking gate (and many more like it), IN GOD DAMNED 2018, is locked EVERY NIGHT to separate the two communities!!!!!! WHAT THE HELL???? I just. I just can’t. Walls do NOT solve problems. Ever. Dividing people rather than coming up with compromise and viable long term solutions is a band aid on a broken leg. An easy, temporary “out” for ignorant, lazy people. But a wall never solved anything. Listen up, Trump wall supporters… Do we really want to go down that path? Because where does it stop. Think about the divisiveness in the US right now. Think hard about it. Think about Belfast. Just THINK instead of react.
Mikey held out a marker to me and said I could sign the wall. It was covered. I told him I didn’t want to write over someone else. He pointed out a faded patch and said I could write there.
Remember- if you don’t understand history, you are doomed to repeat it. LEARN. LISTEN.
I can’t tell you how long we sat at stops, talking, before we ever got out to look at a mural. He had to remind me to take pictures. I was that engrossed in the stories. We visited memorials to the people who lost their lives- many of whom he knew. Many of whom he was friends with.
As we drove past one of the walls, there was this huge, and I mean HUGE stack of wood pallets. Mikey told me those were for the bonfires to celebrate July 12, and that as this was just the end of June, they weren’t even finished building this one yet. It would be FOUR TIMES THIS SIZE by the 12th! This is the date that is to celebrate when William the Orange (Protestant) defeated King James II (Catholic King of England and Ireland), and began the rule of Protestants in Ireland. It’s mainly celebrated in, you guessed it, Northern Ireland. These huge bonfires, and there will be many of them, are not always just peaceful celebrations. They can have very dark and sinister tones to them. And it’s a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, or whatever you want to call it to the Irish Catholics/Nationalists. Why? Because many times the image of the pope is burned in effigy on these bonfires. Or the Irish flag. How in the hell can the UK condone this?? It’s like a damn government approved KKK rally burning the effigy of Martin Luther King, Jr.! Or a Nazi rally, burning the Israeli flag! This is not free speech. It’s hate speech. How in the hell is this in any shape, form, or fashion tolerable? Divisiveness. It’s ugly. Listen up, United States.
These pictures I didn’t take, but I want you to understand what I’m talking about…
We then drove through a gate. I shit you not. A GATE. To go to the other side of the wall. The Unionist side. The tone of the murals I saw here was different. Very militaristic and frankly, a little scary. There’s a lot of backstory that I won’t get into here. Mikey is self admittedly biased towards the Nationalist side, and I wasn’t helping that bias as it is mine as well. So I do not feel qualified to tell the story from that point of view.
This was (thankfully) replaced with the women’s mural below. Much better message.
The houses on this side of the gate were all decorated with flags. Ok, I can get that. Nationalists might not like it, but I get it. Because like it or not, this is the UK, not Ireland. But the divisive bonfires? I can’t even fathom how that is allowed. What purpose does it serve other to further incite hatred, decisiveness, and violence?
We stopped and Mikey bought us waters. We talked. Non stop. It was over 3 hours when he dropped me back off, twice the allotted amount, and it was still too soon for me. I did slip extra cash in with the 35 euros. What he had given me was priceless and in a way, sacred. Because he didn’t give me a tour. It wasn’t some practiced regurgitation of what he had seen and lived through. It was deeply, deeply personal. He said giving tours was cathartic for him. I can’t imagine there are enough tourists in the world to get rid of such a pain. But Mikey has hope, has purpose, remembers the past but tries not to live in it. You have to live in the present and look forward to the future. Otherwise, you’re doomed. Many are doomed. Mikey isn’t. And for that, I’m glad. He deserves everything wonderful in life, and to watch his children grow up speaking Gaelic, laughing, and embracing their Irish spirits. Because in the end, that is how you win. That, as Bobby Sands said, is the revenge.