Belfast City Hall in Black and White - Belfast, North Ireland- by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Belfast City Hall in Black and White – Belfast, North Ireland- by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – http://www.MissMaps.com

Speaking in hushed voices, the young man seated next to me told me of his country’s recent history.

“We’re too young to have experienced it,” he said, “but we still live it day to day. Our parents. Our grandparents. It’s all real for them. It’s part of their past and is still part of their identity.”
He was speaking of “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland. Other areas of the world would call it a Civil War, but Northern Ireland calls it something more gentle, more forgiving: “The Troubles.”

“My Granddad was killed by a bomb,” he continued with a whisper so quiet I had to cup my hand around my ear to catch the sounds. I imagined his Granddad to have been a strong soldier running through Ireland’s open fields, diving for cover a moment too late.

This was not the case. He had not been in a field as a soldier, but rather was a civilian sitting at a bar enjoying a drink with friends. The bar was blown up by someone of the opposite religion, killing everyone inside. At the time, Northern Ireland was segregated: Christians and Protestants keeping their distance from one another. A wall was built directly through the backyards of one community, distinctly separating the two religions. Christians were on one side, Protestants on the other.

The wall didn’t work. Bombs were still thrown across. People were still killed. So they were built higher and higher. Over 3600 Irish were killed during a war that lasted 30 years.

Click on an image to view photos of Belfast up-close:

 

Without knowing the history, visitors to Belfast would be hard-pressed to find physical evidence of The Troubles. They’re there, definitely. Streets have battle wounds and neighborhoods of the older generations are still segregated. And the walls still stand. More than anything, the story lives on in the hearts and souls of the population.

“We’re trying to change our ways of thinking,” his girlfriend chimed in. “Parts of the city still are divided. But slowly, we’re changing. By the next generation, the conflicts will be less emotional. It’ll always be a part of our history, but by then the living memories will have passed.”
“My dad would be quick to tell you that he wants nothing to do with the other side.” But because of new laws, public spaces are now fully integrated. “He works alongside a guy, a really great guy, and they’ve become best friends the past few years.”

The catch? Her father Protestant. His best friend is Catholic.

“Even my dad is surprised!” she laughed.

Later in our conversation the young couple, recently graduated from Queen’s University, asked where I am from.
“Minnesota?” the girl asked with delight, “I’ve been there!” (side note: she is only the third person I’ve met while traveling who’s been to Minnesota. Apparently it’s not high on the list for must-sees of international tourists)

“When I was eleven, I went there on a three week exchange. I lived there with a Catholic family to experience ‘their life’. It was part of our desire to integrate. But doing something like that within Northern Ireland would be catastrophic. Even going abroad was chancy. My family was very hesitant to send me and every time I crossed myself at their dinner table, I said a silent “sorry” to my father. But it was a lovely experience. The best memory of my childhood.” She went on about her time there, and it was clear that she’d thoroughly enjoyed it and that it had helped shaped her into the open-minded spirit she is today.

 

Click on an image to view photos of Belfast up-close:

 

A week in Northern Ireland welcomed several stories of a similar theme. Locals shared their own experiences willingly, always speaking in hushed tones. Even if we had been standing in a soundproof room or on the mountaintop, the tales seem to be impossible to tell at a normal speaking level.

Today, as Belfast’s Troubles stand behind them, a friendly welcoming city has taken shape. The streets are clean, locals are friendly and happy to walk a few blocks out of their way to keep the conversation going. As a tourist, it’s easy to find plenty to do. There are history museums, free tours of the stunning City Hall, and trails marked throughout town leading to areas of interest. One can choose to delight in the arts or the history, and can travel north a bit to the Titanic Quarter to see where the grand ship was built.

There are mountains and rivers, and live music on every corner and in every pub. There’s a happiness about the city that is contagious and inviting. So inviting, that I left with invitations to return by four different lovely locals: Invitations which I will definitely be answering to – to see the Irish folk and to witness the continued progress: The Troubles Untroubled.

 

Iron and Wool Jam Session - Northern Ireland - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Iron and Wool Jam Session – Northern Ireland – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – http://www.MissMaps.com

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