Some pictures from Belfast and a rant.
June 2001 – December 2003
I moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland in July 2001 to start in a new job. I spent two and a half years in Northern Ireland. Two good years and one half a year which was not much fun due various personal reasons. I returned back to Scotland at the end of 2003. My time in Belfast changed my outlook on most things in life. I am not sure I have become a better person, but it certainly gave my life a new perspective. I went to Belfast as a naïve man and with some views I did not have when I left Belfast.
My house in a side-street to Botanic Avenue, 10 minutes walk from the town hall.
A mural at Sandy Row where I worked for two years.
Belfast is full of murals like this. This is a way of declaring the borders between the two communities in Belfast. The Catholic/Republican communities also had their murals.
These murals was a bit unnerving to a naive Norwegian, but I soon started to accept and even admire some of them. I doubt you find any murals like them anywhere in the world. These murals gives Belfast it's own identity and I am glad they will be kept on as a warning to all future generations.
The road from the Sandy Row mural to the building where I spent two years in my job.
The Christmas 2001 with snow in Belfast and on the mountains in the background.
I now want to express my feelings about the tragedy that ravaged every family and every community in Northern Ireland/Belfast between 1970 and almost to this day. This tragedy is called The Troubles. Please read and study this link carefully because it describe an important part of the history. Although I did not experience any problems myself (actually, Belfast is the safest city I have ever lived in), I was always aware of what I did and where I was. I was also always aware of what I said. I did not want to hurt anyone and I did not want to get hurt myself.
I was a bit wary in the beginning and that feeling was not helped by the very unwise decision from the local council to allow everyone, for the first time in forty years, to buy and unleash many tonnes of fireworks during the first weeks I spent in Belfast. This was the marching season or something like this. The end result was fireworks going off every five minutes. With Belfast's reputation as a bombed out city...... I was relieved when the council saw sense and banned fireworks the following year. But I soon settled in and my work mates helped me with the “what to do and what not to do”.
I have only positive things to say about the people in Belfast and Northern Ireland. They are the most friendly and helpful people I have ever met. How they have managed to keep the spirit up and being so friendly after the years of The Troubles, I do not understand. I can only admire them.
My childhood was twenty years of peace and harmony. Their childhood was twenty years of being scared beyond comprehension and experiencing things no child/teenager should ever experience. Still, the people in Northern Ireland could not be more open and friendly. That is why I admire them.
The figures speaks for themselves. Of one million (1 000 000) inhabitants, almost 50 000 was injured (the figure is probably higher) and 3650 was killed. This means every family in Northern Ireland either lost a family member or a friend. What started as a justifiable civil rights movement at the end of the 1960s turned into a unjustifiable civil war. The civil rights campaign was justifiable because the Catholics was regarded as second class citizens at that time. Their civil rights was as suppressed as the coloured people in the USA. The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was therefore pretty much modelled on Martin Luther King's civil rights movement in the USA. But where the civil rights movement in USA took a peaceful path (despite of the tragic murder of Martin Luther King), the situation in Northern Ireland spiralled out of control and into a civil war. Both communities was responsible for The Troubles. I quickly learned that there was no angels and no justice in this civil war (The Troubles). Only suffering. 35 years with indescribable suffering. No political or religious cause can justify this amount of suffering.
I do believe that the political powers in Northern Ireland should had been shared between the Protestants and the Catholics from the separation from the Irish Republic in 1921. The six counties of the new Northern Ireland was also the home of hundreds of thousands of Catholics. They remained second class citizens in Northern Ireland like they had been for the last 200 years.
Between 1921 and the late 1960s, the likes of Ian Paisley and the Orange Order bitterly fought against civil rights for the Catholics with every means possible. Ian Paisley personally have to shoulder a considerable amount of responsibility for the death of 3650 human beings. So does
IRA too who took the civil rights movement down a military route. It has to be said; under severe attacks from the Protestants and their paramilitary organisations (later organised as UDA) who waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Belfast. I understand and respect why IRA had to protect the Catholic community against this ethnic cleansing. But from there on, IRA did things nobody can defend. Nobody can defend a civil war and the loss of 3650 lives. Nobody.
It is also a moral dilemma that The Troubles was started and ended by the same people. I do admire and respect Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein and IRA) for the peace process they brokered which finally ended the civil war.
Both of them probably believe the actions they took before and during The Troubles was justified. I disagree with their views. But that does not change a thing. Peace and prosperity has now broken out in Northern Ireland and nothing else matters. But I wonder when the wounds will fully heal.
A big part of my heart will always remain in Belfast and Northern Ireland. As the old saying says: “You can leave Belfast, but Belfast will never leave you”. That is so true.
I am a protestant by birth. My cultural heritage is Protestant. I do not believe I have to celebrate my culture by intimidating members of other cultures and religious beliefs. The Orange Order disagrees with me. Mainly because they believe they are surrounded by enemies (The Catholic community). The same Catholic community believe they are surrounded and attacked by the Protestants (including the Orange Order). This creates a situation which I as an outsider regards as totally bizarre. Both the Protestant and the Catholic community disagree with me. Anyway, I regarded The Orange Order as both offensive, troublemakers and a nuisance. They were marching everywhere they could intimidate the Catholic community and celebrate their culture. Their drums and their flutes was noise pollution and a nuisance. The following three pictures is taken from a Orange Order parade at Shaftesbury Square, 100 meters from my home.
The front of the Orange Order parade.
The Orange Order parade.
Another picture of the Orange Order parade.
The evening ended with a bonfire and the burning of the Irish flag. I do not understand this confrontational culture where communities live side by side and intimidate and hold each other in contempt. I think this is very sad.
A bonfire in a council estate just behind my house.
In order of creating a balance here; I did not like the Catholic parades
either. The idea of intimidation is not an idea I share.
My sadness and love for the Northern Ireland is also based in the fact that Northern Ireland is a very beautiful place. It is also a very resourceful place. The landscape is ideal for both farming and tourism. The people is very resourceful. Titanic was built in Belfast, remember. Many other big ships (and with a lot longer lifespan than Titanic) was built in the Harland & Wolff shipyard. Northern Ireland should and could had been a very good place. The Troubles destroyed everything. That is a tragedy on a large scale and it saddens me. I have seen Northern Ireland and I love the place. I wonder what it would had been without The Troubles.
As a final image of Belfast, I took this picture overlooking Belfast from the south. The city centre in the background.
Belfast from the south-west.
But I do not want to give the impression that Belfast is a war-zone. Today's Belfast is probably the safest town in Europe. It is most certainly one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Both due to the recent past and the qualities of the town itself. I am here trying to explain why I love Belfast so much.
There was no major trouble when I lived in Belfast. A postman was killed because he was a Catholic delivering mail to private homes in a Protestant area. That was the only sectarian murder I can remember from my time in Belfast.
Belfast is the best place I have ever lived. My flat was a dump, but the rest of Belfast was nice. Belfast had and has a big heart. It was vibrant and fun. The people was fantastic. It is a great place to be.
I lived in the Botanic Area just around the corner from a small cafeteria where the likes of Van Morrison frequently had his newspaper and breakfast. He is a very private character who obviously liked to be treated like a normal person. But he greeted me a couple of times. I also spotted Bono in U2 in the same place a couple of times.
Botanic Avenue has a very bohemian and arty feeling. There was several art galleries and book shops in this avenue. This area is between the (during The Troubles) often bombed out Ormeau Road and theLisburn Road area. I often did my shopping in a grocery shop where five people was killed in a bombing just twenty years ago.
I really liked Ormeau Road. It was split between a Catholic area on the lower Ormeau Road and a Protestant area on the upper Ormeau Road. The divide was the bridge over the river. This was a flashpoint and one of the Orange Order parades tried to cross it and into the Catholic area on a regular basis. They were stopped by the police. The result was traffic chaos. These incidents was peaceful when I lived in Belfast so I cannot complain. These parades down to the bridge was a pathetic sight though. But this is their culture and religion.....
There was a big shopping mall at the end of Ormeau Road, 3 km from where I lived. I normally took the bus up to this shopping mall and enjoyed the fantastic views over Belfast from here. Then I did some shopping and walked down back again to my flat. I loved this walk because it was always full of wonderful sights and sounds.
The town centre of Belfast is nice and compact. It has a surprising big variety of shops. Most of them was very good. I rate the shopping in Belfast higher than similar towns like Glasgow, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Oslo. I also think it is better than in Dublin. The Belfast town centre is dominated by the very pretty town hall. This is one of the prettiest town halls I have ever seen.
Belfast also has the most bombed building in Europe; the Europa Hotel. I walked past it on a regular basis. The big bus station and a train station was on the back of the hotel. The bus station was brilliant. It was both very user-friendly for bus passengers and a social hub. The train station was a part of the bus station and shared the amenities with the bus station. The main train station down at the river and 2 km away was also superb. Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland was very good on public transport. Scotland has a lot to learn from Northern Ireland in this respect.
Other good places in the town centre was the Thursday markets in the big indoor market hall. Traders came from the whole of Ireland to sell their produce here. Fresh fish, meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables was sold alongside computer stuff, electronics, books and ever other type of goods. The prices was good and the sellers really friendly. I spent a lot of time and money on this market and I really miss it.
It is said that Belfast has the best bars and pubs in Europe. I do not know, but I found the social scene very good. The pubs were really good. But I preferred the local breakfast places in Botanic Avenue. They did some superb breakfasts. That is what I remember about the social scene in Belfast.
Outside the town centre but still within Belfast, I really enjoyed the Catholic/Republican area of Falls Road. The Falls Road graveyard is a scary place though, even in daylight. This is where a paramilitary protestant man threw hand-grenades into an IRA funeral for open camera. I still vividly remember these horrible scenes from my childhood. It was pure evil on a scale I did not understand back then. I am sure you can find this film on Youtube, but I have no wishes to share out the link here for moral reasons. I have been on this graveyard a couple of times and it really disturbed and scared me. Walking down Falls Road to the town centre is also an experience I will never forget.
The much talked about peace walls is also a disturbing sight. These was put up as a protective barrier between two communities who went to war against each other. The peace walls has been very effective. But I find it very sad that we in this day and age need big concrete walls between two Christian nominations. Did Jesus really die on the cross for this ?
I also visited the Protestant communities at both Sandy Row (where I worked for two years) and the famous Shankill Road. This area was the scene of a large scale ethnic cleansing in the 1970s. Both communities was torn apart. Shankill Road is therefore very staunchly Protestant and has this “besieged” feeling. It is an interesting experience.
The police stations in Belfast was pretty impressive and unnerving. All of them were built like castles with protective and self-defensive means. The police stations in Belfast and Northern Ireland was attacked on a frequent basis during The Troubles and many people lost their lives.
It was also a bit strange to see armoured British Army and police vehicles in the streets in Belfast. Sometimes, I also met army-patrols with fully equipped infantry soldiers. That was a bit unnerving.
How do you react to being approached by an army-patrol ? I was smiling and trying to relax although I was clearly nervous. I was thankfully largely ignored though.
Of the more “normal” places to visit, I really enjoyed the Belfast Castle. Not so much the small castle itself, but the views from this castle and the surrounding park towards the harbour and the town centre.
Belfast Zoo was also very good with it's large collection of exotic animals. That include some scary lions. The Titanic Museum is also said to be very good.
Belfast has a lot of really good public parks and green places. The Botanic Garden is superb and so is the other parks, I have heard. Belfast is actually a very green town. Most of the avenues and main roads (like Botanic Avenue) is tree lined. The pollution level in Belfast is very low compared to other towns and the air was both crisp and clean. My lungs really enjoyed Belfast.
The big dominating feature of Belfast is the big mountain to the north called the Black Mountain. This four hundred meters high mountain totally dominates the skyline in Belfast. It was recently opened up to the public after being closed during The Troubles for obvious reasons. I would love a tour to the top of this mountain. It is said that both Scotland and the Irish Republic is clearly visible from this mountain.
The geography of Belfast is pretty interesting. Belfast is situated at the head of Belfast Lough, a 10 km long fjord from the Irish Sea. In the south, Belfast is dominated by some low hills going over to Strangford Lough and County Down.
In the west, Belfast stretches through a valley through the infamous West-Belfast towards the city of Lisburn. The valley is rising towards Lisburn and is at places pretty steep along the river.
The Black Mountain totally dominates the northern part of Belfast. Some roads are bypassing the mountain on both sides (see the Lough Neagh tour). These roads are pretty steep.
Belfast Lough dominates the east part of Belfast. Some parts of Belfast are also situated to the north and the south of Belfast Lough.
The town centre is flat as a pancake. It is also placed to the north of River Lagan. There has been a lot of new town-regeneration on the south side of River Lagan. That include some new shopping centres.
That happened after I left Belfast.
During The Troubles, Belfast was divided into South, North, East and West Belfast. These terms are still in daily use in Belfast. West-Belfast also includes Falls Road. Hence it's notoriety. Many battles was fought here during The Troubles. Most of these battles included the British Army.
As I said in the beginning of this piece, I do not want to give the impression that Belfast is war-zone. Today's Belfast is probably the safest town in Europe. It is well worth a visit and I would recommend Belfast to anyone.
A visit to Belfast is highly recommended.
As a footnote: I fell in love with a girl when I lived in Belfast. We got (unofficial) engaged and I almost married her. Due to some tragedies in her life in the aftermath of The Troubles where I found myself powerless to help and support her, I left her. Without The Troubles, I would have married her. I will forever wonder if I did the right thing by running away. This is a personal matter and it will always remains a personal matter.