When preparing to go to Northern Ireland, I think about the practical things: using pounds instead of euros, how to get from place to place. It’s also necessary to bear in mind the politics and the history, both recent and ancient.
As Lonely Planet points out, Belfast was “once lumped with Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia as one the four ‘B’s for travelers to avoid.” Why? Many people would point to the IRA, the bombings, the Troubles. As so many cities often do, Belfast is moving on and building up – starting with the celebration of the Titanic. Celebrate a sunken ship? A doomed voyage? Aye. “The Titanic Experience” is an exhibition focusing on the epic timeline from conception of the ship to recovering the wreckage. It’s something I will miss, given the timing of my quick visit North – but an interesting piece of Belfast history.
When my students came home last summer from a month-long tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland, I was not sure what to anticipate. As with any first time returnee – I expected “awesome,” “sick,” “amazing” in response to my questions. What I actually received in return for my questions, was very different. The group of fourteen girls had met with locals who lived through the Troubles and as a result, learned more than they could have possibly imagined. Some turned to Ireland as heritage seekers, looking to the Aran Islands as the departure point for a grandparent or family member. Others turned to the country as a platform for their course: Intercultural Communication. To my knowledge, not one was expecting lessons in conflict resolution – but this is what they found on the Emerald Isle.
I hope to see the murals that my students photographed so much. Wikipedia reports that almost 2,000 murals have been documented since the 1970′s. I gravitate toward images and art as a people’s expression of time, and am looking forward to seeing these images up close. Both nationalist / republican and unionist / loyalist present colorful propaganda that I’ve read about in the weeks leading up to my trip.
For a far more visual take on the Troubles, I watched the 1993 film In the Name of the Father with Daniel Day Lewis. Even now as he plays Abe Lincoln on screens across America, he played Gerry Conlon in this film, a wrongly convicted Irishman who served as a face for a revolution. Based on a true story, it is both fascinating and terrifying (and not so bad for a movie made in the 90′s!). Click here for a YouTube trailer.
On a far lighter note, Belfast also holds for me a dear friend and two years worth of catching up to do. So while I anticipate a far less historical visit than I first imagined, it will be my first touch with this controversial place – and surely not my last.