Day Two: A Library and A Walk
We began with a visit to the Linen Hall Library. The original building was constructed in the 1880s, and they have recently added a new wing. They have a massive (+250,000) collection of material from The Troubles (the conflict that erupted in Northern Ireland beginning in the late 1960s). They are able to have such a massive collection because a member of their organization had the idea to keep all the political pamphlets that were being handed out during the Civil Rights Movement.
They were able to build such a remarkable collection through the personal networks of its members, and more recently through the donations of individuals who are ‘cleaning out their attics’. Early in the process the library received special assurances that they would not be prosecuted for holding such material – an important step as they brought together controversial political material.
Currently on display is a collection of political propaganda posters which highlight the sentiments of each group throughout The Troubles.
We toured a loyalist neighbourhood and a republican neighbourhood, each time lead by a member of that community. Both tour guides spoke of great violence done to their community by the other side. They both told of a history of righteous struggle. I have tried to capture some of what they said below, but other things (such as the Peace Wall, the Hunger Strikers, etc.) deserve their own posts which will come in the next couple of days.
The Loyalist Neighbourhood
We received a tour from a member of the community, who had been a political prisoner. While conveying a ‘loyalist’ (just as in any conflict, labels can be limiting – but for the sake of clarity useful) historical perspective on the conflict he conveyed a deep sense of loyalty to the United Kingdom. He painted the conflict as one related more to class than anything else, blaming the separation of the communities on intentional actions of mill owners who sought to suppress revolution and uprising. The influence of mill owners was significant because in most cases they were also an individual’s landowner as well as their MP.
The picture to the left is of ‘two by two’s’ found in Belfast. They were built by the mill owners, and contained only two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs. This was were the majority of factory works lived, and is an example of the type of house our tour guide grew up in.
The roads here are long, having been built on top of farm field borders. According to our guide, this made drive by’s particularly easy before the Peace Wall went up.
He also made a quip about the reason for lack of housing on the Catholic side of the Peace Wall, claiming contraception (or lack thereof) as the primary reason. I will say for the sake of balance that there was serious inequality in the allocation of housing at the time, but our guide thought the joke was funny.
He also spoke of the 36th Ulster Division, a portion of which were awarded the Victorian Cross (the highest honour in the British Military). These were men from Belfast that had never been training as part of the British Military, but rather was composed of volunteers who banned together to protect their interests in Northern Ireland. 770 men were sent to the front lines of World War I, where the British military was in a stalemate with the German forces as each were dug into their trenches. The British military began a campaign to bombard the German trenches, with the intent that at the end the British military would be able to cross the ‘No Man’s Land’. When the British military began to cross it quickly became clear that the German military had not been defeated as thought. More men died on that day than any other day during any other battle in British military history. But the 36th Ulster Division made it all the way to the German front lines, when none of the other British military force did. Our guide equated it to an amateur soccer team winning the World Cup. They eventually had to fit a retreat later that same day as the rest of the British forces had retreated. Less than 80 men returned.
Our guide ended his tour with the following thought: Why did these men sacrifice their lives like that? Because they believed that if they gave their life to the British government then the British government would prove their loyalty to the community of Belfast.
The Republican Neighborhood
We quickly learned from this tour guide that the peace agreement came out of the recognition that the British Army couldn’t defeat the IRA and the IRA couldn’t defeat the British Army, thus beginning our tour of the republican neighbourhood.
We learned about the women in the neighbourhood who would bag the lids of their trash cans on the street in protest if, for example, the police came to arrest a member of their household. A solider who had previously been with this guide on a tour had commented when he was young he was deployed to Northern Ireland, “dressed like Darth Vader”, he still remembers how unnerving the sound of those trash can lids against the street was. The solider had found it difficult to believe that these women who looked like his mother and sister were the enemy.
Our guide also told us about the many protests that the political prisoners underwent to secure their rights. They started by refusing to wear the criminal prisoner uniform and wore only a blanket. The British government decided to apply pressure by saying that prisoners could only leave their cell if they were in prisoner uniform. Thus began the no wash protest. It lasted two and a half years. When their rights were still not recognized there began a hunger strike. As I said earlier, the notion of prisoner protests deserves is own post.
This guide spoke of a partitioned Ireland, and spoke with a certain air of eventuality that Ireland would be united sometime in the future. He took pride in the fact that his children attend a Gaelic speaking school, as this would not have been possible in the past.
He said that oppressors take away your sport and your language, and after those are gone then you are one of them.
We also visited the Milltown Cemetery. It is there that many heroes of the Republican movement are buried, including those that died in Hunger Strikes. The cemetery is massive, stretching almost as far as the eye can see and is largely cared for by the families of those that are buried there. This implies that many of the heroes buried here still have family alive and well in Belfast, bringing home the extremely personal nature of the conflict.
This tour guide very interesting said that while he was happy that alternatives to violence were available he was not against armed struggle, adding that if things were as bad as they were in the 1970s he would join the fight again – but expressed great optimism that things would continue to move forward.