- a short weekend trip to Belfast
by Tan Wee Cheng

N.I. Banknote Showing Queens University

Imagine this: Off the coast of a faraway, misty land, two chiefs on separate boats were competing to reach the shore.  The stakes are high: the winner will get all the land beyond.  Both tried their best, rowing as fast as they could but it soon become apparent that one of them was way ahead of the other.  Just as the winner was about to reach the shore, the losing chief cut off his hand, threw the blood-dripping hand onto the shore and won the race.

Bizarre ? Spare me that hair-raising tale, you may say, but a whole people have adopted the Red Hand as their national symbol - a symbol to defend and die for.  Bizarre ?  This is Northern Ireland (NI) where Irish Catholics - 1/3 of the population today - struggle for unification of the region with the rest of Ireland, against the pro-UK descendants of Scottish settlers, who came after native Irish Catholics were displaced (some say, almost ethnically cleansed) after a major rebellion against the English crown was crushed in the 17th century.  The Red Hand was originally the symbol of the O'Neills, a major Irish Catholic clan in Ulster, as this part of Ireland is known as, but have been adopted by the Ulstermen, as Protestant Scottish settlers of the Plantation era became known as.  Plantation refers to the settlement of NI by the Scots.

I woke up at 4:40 am this cloudy morning, rushed to Heathrow to fly to Belfast.  Arrived in a wet, cloudy Ulster and took a bus to Europa Bus Station, which was next to the famous Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in the world.  From then, I navigated my way to Belfast International Hostel to the south.  Dumped my luggage at the hostel and then began my exploration of Belfast in rain !  Belfast is an surreal city of amazing contradictions.  The city centre looks just like any other in "Mainland" UK, with Marks & Spencer, Boots, Tesco and the usual high street names.  Beyond this is the war zone and wasteland of West and East Belfast, where rival communities compete to wipe each other out.

I started from the Sandy Row area - this is a Protestant zone just next to Belfast International Hostel, where I stayed, and within minutes I saw my first Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) mural.  The UVF, UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) and the like are Northern Ireland (NI)'s Protestant paramilitary groups, set up primarily to counter the influence of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the INLA (Irish National Liberation Front), which aims to unite NI with the Republic of Ireland.

As in all other conflicts elsewhere, such paramilitary groups - both the Protestant and the Catholic ones - were initially established to protect the local community or to achieve specific political aims, but frequently degenerate into glorified versions of local criminal gangs and terrorist apparatus.  At the Sandy Row, other themes glorified by the murals include the Union, the Queen and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary).  The RUC is the local police force of NI and an object of hatred among the Catholic community, who sees the RUC, rightfully or wrongfully, as pro-Protestant and anti-Catholic.

The Union Jack and the NI flag - St George's Cross with the Red Hand of Ulster in the middle - were hung from many buildings.  I have never seen so many Union Jacks in my life - even more than the UK "Mainland", where people flying the flag are more likely to be seen as those in the extreme right wing.

Walking northwards through a run-down deserted area - the "no man's land" with barbed wire, fortified shelters, shuttered shopfronts and lots of rubble - and then I saw my first Irish flag.  I have entered the Falls Road area - the Catholic Ghetto of Belfast.  Here the theme is the opposite – an united Ireland, peace, the Potato Famine (during which more than a million people starved to death - the "Genocide" of Ireland, as some slogans here claim), Hurrah-To-IRA, Down-With-RUC, etc.  Some road kerbs were even painted green-white-orange, the Irish national colours.  Plus murals on
Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Catalonia.

I tried looking for the Sinn Fein HQ but couldn't find it.  It must be that huge ugly building I passed but didn't investigate.  A website printout says that the building was surrounded with huge boulders to block off car bombers and the like.

Just north of Falls Road is the Shankill Road - Protestant area.  A "Berlin Wall" separated the two parts.  Similar to Sandy Row but longer and livelier, with shoppers and fruit stalls.  I walked into a shop selling Ulster political souvenirs.  Among various interesting paraphernalia, it sells an anti-Pope poster (showing His Holiness agonising over Drumcree plus designations such as 666 and Anti-Christ on his forehead) and a UVF 2000 calendar glorifying the anti-Catholic struggle.

The rain began again and I became totally drenched.  Rushed downtown and sought refuge in St Anne's Cathedral where Edward Carson, founder of NI was buried.  Born in Dublin and once solicitor-general of England and Ireland, he became famous during the Oscar Wilde trial.  He was once thought of a possible candidate for the Downing Street but decided instead to fight the separation of Ireland from the UK.  It was he who mobilised the Irish Protestants into militias and became the leader of Ulster.  He resigned from politics in 1921, embittered by the partition of Ireland. The creation of Northern Ireland, ironically, is the symbol of his greatest personal failure - that of the preservation of Ireland within the UK.  Whatever it was, Carson has become a hero among the Ulstermen, a symbol of their separateness from the Republic of Ireland.

After a short rest, I navigated across town in rain again - this time to Queens University and the Ulster Museum.  The latter must be one of the best national museums I have ever visited.  So much to see and I was simply amazed by the exhibits they have put together for a region or country with only 1.5 million people.  A must see for any visitor to NI.

On the second day, I joined a tour to the Giant's Causeway organised by the hostel.  Again, it was a terribly wet day and it was pretty much pointless driving through the supposedly beautiful glens of Antrim when you couldn't see anything beyond a few meters.  A World Heritage site, the Causeway looks like a bundle of stone columns symmetrically carved and put together on the seaside.  In reality, it's a natural creation, the result of chemical reaction on volcanic lava, the process of which is too complicated for me to understand.  Easier to understand is the ancient myth about a giant trying to build a causeway to Scotland but obviously didn't complete his job.

After the Causeway, we braved the rain to visit Dunluce Castle.  I can't describe it, as we spent 95% of the time in the museum shop and the other 5% of the time running from the mini-bus to the shop, and back.  The storm was so vigorous that my umbrella was nearly blown off to the Irish Sea.  Thank goodness, it didn't and I didn't as well.

I asked the driver which religious community he belongs to.  It's the company policy not to disclose one's religion, he said.  Not surprising.  A news report today is about how some Protestant militia members rang up a Catholic taxi agency and then killed the Catholic driver.  The report calls it “Dial a Murder.”  A live lost just like that.  Thousand have been killed the past two decades simply because they belonged to a different denomination.

By the time we returned to Belfast, it was 5pm.  I popped by a cybercafe, had dinner at a Chinese restaurant and spent some time reading Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow.  A little disgusted by the spat between two of my favourite writers.  Went to Belfast International Airport, flight delayed, reached home in Regents Park 1 am.

Despite the short stay and the non-too-exciting weather, I found NI a nice place to visit.  The people are very friendly and warm too.  It is hard to imagine how long The Troubles have lasted and the toll it has taken.  Seems that most tourists these days are here to visit the political murals.  Let's hope one day they will be here for the beautiful countryside and friendly people as well.

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