The most famous of the Peace Walls, a menacing structure on Cupar Way, is a frequent stopping point for tourists who are encouraged to ‘add a message of peace’ to it’s already graffiti-strewn face. The Berlin Wall was also a well-known drawing board, and after all, who doesn’t want to be part of history? After spending an hour taking in as much as possible and analyzing the scribblings, I can safely put them in three distinct categories:
1. “I was here.” Nothing fancy, just names, dates, a record of a visit.
2. Religious stuff. Bible quotes, a lot of John 3:16, some Corinthians. I skimmed as they tended to be quite long, but they struck me as appropriate for the context.
3. Actual messages of peace. By far, the most popular was some variation of “make love not war/walls” but a significant number fell into a sub-category I will term “condescending messages of peace.” Below is the worst one, I actually felt enraged when I saw it.
This graffiti strikes me as insensitive, ignorant, intrusive, and a hundred other things but suffice to say this sort of message really bothers me. People just waltz in, take a look, put their thoughts in ink, and leave, returning to houses that will never be threatened by petrol bombs or be in danger of having a 60-foot wall block their sun.
And in general, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which the Peace Walls and the Troubles have become a tourist attraction. All day along Cupar Way, open-topped buses whiz past, the guides shouting about how they are now crossing the frontline of the conflict. The doors fly open and people spill out and up to the wall, break out their permanent markers and add to the mass of words on the wall. Belfast’s open-topped buses would have been an inconceivable addition to the landscape 15 years ago, but today they blend into daily life oh-so-naturally. The same people will likely not speak to those who actually live in the area, spend time in the neighborhoods, or walk anywhere near the interfaces. They will not take the time to achieve a fuller understanding of Belfast’s past and present with the Peace Walls.
At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I fully acknowledge that my own time here has been incomplete, intrusive, and unusually focused on seeing the worst places in this otherwise beautiful city. I cannot claim separation from this system.
And of course, it’s all right for tourism. Belfast is booming with the Titanic commemorations, a sparkling and busy city center, and becoming a reasonable tourist destination like other European cities its size, for the first time in 40 years. And the people who go on these open-bus tours and the like are certainly learning something about the conflict and its current manifestation. Surely that’s better than sweeping it under the rug entirely?
To make another comparison to Berlin, the biggest question tourists ask of the city today is: ‘where is the Wall?’ I’ve met some Berliners who bemoan the passionate and irreversible destruction of the Wall, thinking of the tourism and educational opportunities that slipped through their fingers. But this is of course wildly inappropriate because the conflict here is not entirely over, and these walls remain a massive problem for the city. Even if the Berlin Wall had been left intact, or more pieces of it, can you imagine the inequalities this would have created in the modern urban landscape? The East would have remained the East solely because of the presence of the Wall and all the mental walls it reinforced.
But I believe the point stands and the question remains: how do we encourage people to visit Belfast, learn about the Peace Walls and the Troubles without people’s lives and neighborhoods becoming an unholy spectacle? How do we achieve a style of tourism that is both respectful and educational? Maybe we could start by putting some of the 7 pounds for a bus tour toward bringing down the Peace Walls they drive by.
Before I arrived in Derry/Londonderry last week, I posted this tweet: “When in Derry/Londonderry do I….A. Avoid saying either name. B. Awkwardly say both. C. Know exactly who I’m talking to and what they say??” I got a helpful response from my friend Dave telling me I could refer to the town as ‘stroke city’ if I wasn’t sure of my company but felt a pressing need for accuracy.
Ah…What’s in a name?
As you may have guessed, the name of this smallish city in the west is a point of contention between Loyalists and Republicans. In fact, the prefix “London” was added in 1613 after the town received a royal charter, so you can see where that might hit some nerves. The official name is Londonderry, but as I rolled through the countryside by bus, I saw countless signs where “London” had been defaced or painted over.
This quiet city was the site of Bloody Sunday, and its residents have not forgotten their not-so-distant past.
There is just one Peace Wall in the town: this anonymous-looking structure, reinforced with dark green mesh fencing. There’s a secondary fence behind this, providing a second layer of protection against bottles, rocks, and heaven forbid, petrol bombs.
The Fountain neighborhood looks like a little suburban fortress, shielded from surrounding enemies by a few fences and walls, and gentrified by small pathways, nice gardening, and identical townhouses. Despite these territorial markings, my Catholic-born, Atheist-in-practice host said he didn’t feel too uncomfortable walking around the area.
I met a Protestant student who refused to accompany us to a bar because he said, half jokingly that “some ex-IRA member will speak Irish to me” and realize his affiliation when he couldn’t respond. I went anyway, and was not surprised to see Palestinian flags and Bobby Sands magnets amongst the decor. I met a Catholic student who works as a door-to-door salesman. He told me he changes to “Londonderry” when hawking at Loyalist homes. You could say that this divide doesn’t seriously affect lives here anymore. Are these examples ‘serious’? An impeded social life and and the slightest shift in vocabulary? The students didn’t seem to care too much, it’s just the way things are. Half a mile from campus, the entrance of the police station was blown up last year with a car bomb. You can see where they have repaired the wall.
This cannon is aimed at the Catholic Bogside neighborhood from the height of the city walls. Historically, Protestants lived inside the city walls while Catholics were confined to slums on their outskirts. The fort remains a symbol of oppression, its black walls, painted with slogans still loom menacingly over the houses.
This statue in the city center is meant to symbolize bridging the divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities, a representative from each side reaching out to the other. My host suggested that the remaining gap between the stoic figures is more significant, answers and questions in the negative space.