Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Belfast on Orange Day

It's been awhile since my last entry- I haven't had much time for computers lately.
Dublin was becoming a bit too... peaceful... for me, so last weekend I decided to jump on the train and go to Belfast. What I didn't realise until the day before was that it was 12th July, which in Northern Ireland means Orange Parade- formally a celebration of William of Orange, the Dutch Prince of Great Britain and Ireland in the 16th century.

Informally, its a chance for Protestants/Loyalists to agitate the Catholics/Republicans and vice versa, and usually ends in some sort of violence.

So I stumbled onto the 7.30am train from Dublin, and woke up 2 hours later to the sounds of marching bands and crazed screeching teenage girls draped in British flags with an incredible penchant for fake tan. They must have really been going for the orange theme.

I walked through the marching bands which took over the city centre, and onto Falls road for my 3 hour political history walking tour. I'm not usually into tours, but this one was something different. There were only 5 of us on the tour, and it was led by a Republican who had endured 16 years of jail as a political prisoner during The Struggles. He had 200 stiches in his head to prove it.

The tour, although 'unashamedly republican' was really fascinating. The entire tour took place on one very famous road, Falls Road. It began with an apartment block which is a former base for the British forces, and ended at the cemetary where famous IRA/republicans are buried, including Bobby Sands, one of the hunger strikers.

I still find it quite incredible how divided the city still is. A wall runs the length of Falls Road, where Catholics and Protestants still live on their respective sides. There are separate schools for both sides and relatively little interaction by all accounts.

Despite this, the city has come a long way in just 10 years. It's hard to imagine where I was walking was a literal war zone, with frequent bombs exploding and gun fire from both sides. One interesting, bad side effect of peace from this type of war is that there has been a dramatic rise in suicides since the ceasefire. According to the guide, suicide and hard drugs were virtually unheard of during the conflict, but now they are a very serious problem in Northern Ireland.

I walked back from the tour into the city, hoping there would be a lot going on when the parades finished. Alas, it was like a ghost town. Almost everything was closed, including bars and restaurants and it took me over an hour just to find something to eat in the city centre.

I took the train back to Dublin in the evening. The rest of the weekend was suprisingly sunny, although I wont hold my breath that summer has come!

Otherwise everything's going really well here. Tommorrow I'm going the theatre to see The Rat Pack, a Dean Martin tribute play and there's a festival on this weekend on the coast.

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