Belfast is a place that had been on my radar for years. I am passionate about cultural histories, especially those of conflicted places (Sadly, most). So I always found The Troubles fascinating – the violence, the deeply routed division, the sheer magnitude of the violence involved. Even more so since, a few years ago, I taught a course that involved presenting some Irish history and literature.
So I was totally game when a colleague proposed teaching a workshop at a language teachers’ conference in Spring of 2022. Who’d have thought – one of my first post-pandemic international destinations.
Here are some of my random thoughts on occasion of this trip. I find it hard to provide a coherent account, so let me just share some imagery.
1.- Livin’ Laganside
Now Lagan is not Seine, but it was wonderful to have constant views of it from pretty much any window in the conference venue and, no less, run by its side.
2. Belfast walks and runs
The thing about walkable cities is that – guess what – you end up walking a lot, perhaps too much. Strolling in Belfast city center can be pleasant, but awkwardly so, too, with so many empty lots and derelict buildings. Clearly, this didn’t feel as rich as other parts of the UK.
One consistently pleasant area is that around Queen’s University and the Botanical Gardens. With the added perk of Botanic Avenue, a happening street with lots of dining options.
3. Falls Road and Shankly: conflicting narratives
Given my interest in Irish history, I was pretty adamant about signing up for a walking tour of the famous political murals. Count me in, said my colleague.
The tour, entitled Conflicting Narratives, took you around two neighborhoods, Falls Road (Republican) and Shankill (Unionist), separated by one of the many infamous peace walls (sic) that still separate and allegedly protect communities from each other.
We knew it, but it was striking to see all the Irish flags on one side, the Union Jack on the other. And, like a Little Glasgow of sorts, Celtic jerseys on Falls Road and Rangers on the protestant side.
The tour was led by a former IRA member and prisoner on one side, and by a former loyalist paramilitary on the other. True to the origins of each form of violence, the Republican guide’s narrative was more intellectual, harking back to ideology that was common currency in the 1970s. The unionist guide, in turn, was more emotional, and dwelt on the sheer pain brought about by the IRA’s massive bombing campaigns.
Different narratives on the same troubles, for sure – but, sadly, the same feeling that it will take at least a couple of generations to move on.
4. Pubs galore
Let’s finish on a more festive note.
What’s a day in Ireland without enjoying a pint or two? Top it with an atmospheric venue for great relaxation after so much talk of language teaching and linguistics.
Some of our faves were Kelly’s cellars, The Duke of York, The Deer’s Head and, right opposite our hotel, the historic Crown Liquor Saloon, which consistently makes it on a many a list of the world’s most beautiful pubs.
Here’s to reconciliation!