Guarding the passage way into an area called Sandy Row is a mural describing years of oozing hatred and watering tears. But the mural doesn’t just depict history; it’s now.
Sandy Row is known for it’s devout loyalist, Protestant community; a community that no one else dares enter into by bicycle or foot. I snapped this picture with the window up as we rolled up past in a locked car.
Covering the streets of Sandy Row are British flags and posters of the Queen. Many people have chairs and open windows, like the arrangement shown above, so that when parades from the Orange Order pass, they can watch, cheer, and wave their flags. The Orange Order is a Protestant, highly unionist organization that is likened to the KKK by Catholics and said “to just get a bad rep” by Protestants. In any case, the Orange Order from Easter until the 12th of July do a series of marches and parades that have instigated a lot of riots right now in Belfast.
I first came across them in a serene showcase in the middle of the Town Hall in Belfast. Later on, I saw a different group as they were about to start marching. There was an 8 year old boy dressed up in full army suit that was watching his father and mimicking every gesture.
Today, I woke up to pipe playing and marching rocking my already-unstable apartment. Today, I walked into work and almost nobody was there due to heavy traffic and parade delays. Today, I looked at my desktop clock (which I finally figured out how to take off army time) and realized it’s July 12th.
In Belfast, the center of Northern Ireland, you can read the story on people’s faces as they attempt to recount what happened. It’s a terrible story, and one that people have mostly forgotten or don’t know about (especially if you aren’t from the Republic of Ireland or the UK):
Britain ruled over all of Ireland until in 1949 when the two countries after much violence finally reached an agreement. The south of Ireland was to become their own sovereign nation while the north opted to remain ruled by the British Crown. While the North choose to remain under the Crown and the majority in the North wanted it, many are bitter and believe the British wrongfully split the Kingdom and took the part where the money lay in the rich Northern textile and boat building economy. Today, when you cross over from the South to the North, the immediate differences, besides currency, is the side of the road is painted white in the South and yellow in the North.
After independence, the south of Ireland became a Republic and flourished up until the recent financial crisis, while Northern Ireland was in and further went into turmoil. Nationalists wanted to unite Ireland (the north and the south) to be one independent republic, whereas unionists (or loyalists) wanted Northern Ireland to remain separate and part of the United Kingdom. While nationalists don’t necessarily have to be Catholic, 95% of nationalists are. And while unionists don’t necessarily have to be Protestants, 95% of unionists are. Thus more generally, the conflict is referred to being between Protestants and Catholics though religious beliefs have nothing to do with it. In fact, according to a devout Catholic Irish friend named Eoin, the main religious difference is that Catholics believe that communion is actually the body of Christ while Protestant believe it is a symbol and something eaten in order to remember Christ (at least that’s how I understood it).
In the north, from the 20s to around the late 50s, the Catholics were discriminated against by the Protestants. The Protestants rigged elections until they held majorities in all the houses. Employers wouldn’t hire and shopkeepers wouldn’t serve Irish, as the above mural describes, causing Catholic emigration and a even higher Protestant majority. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) formed in the 1910s as a group of freedom fighters for the Catholics. In response, the unionists created the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF); both organizations had the same participants, but the former was legally recognized while the latter a terrorist group. As my friend Sinead put it, “All the organizations were terrorists groups, which committed terrible acts and killed many people. The IRA did it to gain rights for the Catholics while the UDA/UFF acted to protect the Protestants. Both were ruthless, and both murdered.”
The next period of time is probably the worst in Irish history called “The Troubles.” There’s no way I could aptly describe the events. It involved blowing up pubs, bombing police stations (the picture above is of a police station, the reason the walls are so high is to prevent bombing), bullying by the British Army, and so much more. It’s said to be from the 60s to the late 90s but acts of violence still occur today. Everyone living today in Ireland knows because they lived through it. People in Belfast, the heart of the Troubles, have tried to forgive, but Catholics and Protestants alike know it’s too early to forget.
Today, almost everything is the North in segregated into Protestants and Catholics. Most schools up to college are segregated between Catholics and Protestants. An Irish friend told me that you could even tell by what sport someone played if they were Protestant or Catholic: Protestants play rugby, and Catholics play Gaelic football and soccer. Although Newry is in the North, in my workplace, no one cares if you are Catholic or Protestant, though 90% of people are Catholic.
The following are murals around Belfast mostly done by Protestants and Catholics: