by Sam Hutchinson and Kathleen Lewczyk
After hearing the news of the recent events of conflict between the Unionists and Repblicans, our class unexpectedly had to change our plans. Instead of staying at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, which is unfortunately known as being the most bombed hotel in Europe, we opted to stay in a smaller, out of the way hotel called the Ballygally Castle Hotel located between Belfast and Derry. When we arrived the previous night at the hotel it was too dark too see much of the outside scenery on our drive in. So this morning we were very excited to get outside and take in Ballygally’s view of the Irish Sea and the Antrim Coast.
The drive to Belfast provided us with the opportunity to take in the beautiful landscape. The lush greenery of the hills was blanketed with rain as we drove along the coast. Although we were discouraged by the rain at first, a rainbow emerged through the clouds giving us hope that our trip to Belfast would be an exciting one. As we approached Belfast we were feeling a little nervous about our bus being labeled with the name Cork painted on the side. Cork is a Catholic county in the Republic of Ireland, known as “The Rebel County.” Much of the guerilla fighting in Ireland’s War for Independence took place in Cork. Our bus driver, Phil, told us there may be a small risk going into Northern Ireland because the Republican counties and Northern loyalists have ongoing tension. We drove into the city and parked our bus across the street from the Europa Hotel where we were originally supposed to stay, and took some time to go to the ATM, and withdraw some Sterling (the United Kingdom’s currency) as we would would be spending the next few days in Northern Ireland. After getting some spending money, we hopped back on the bus for our tour. Originally our class had planned to take a walking tour, but due to the unrest in the city and the cold weather, we opted for a safer and warmer option.
Our tour guide Ann Smith works for Belfast’s Housing Executive; she gave us a detailed tour of the city but we had to skip a few districts as they were strongly Protestant and there was the persisting concern for our bus. One of our first stops was the Linen Hall Library, it was built in the 1700s and is the oldest library in Belfast. The next stop was Belfast City Hall which was used from 1921-1932 as a Parliamentary building. The original city hall was moved to the current location after the original was deemed not grad enough. In 1906 when Lord Perry visited the current city hall, he was so impressed by the bathrooms that he used them as inspiration for the bathrooms on the Titanic, which was built in Belfast. Belfast was known as a leader in the ship building industry and has an entire ship yard district, but they don’t forget to remember the biggest, and most famous ship to be anchored in their harbors. In addition to a museum dedicated to the ship, The Titanic Belfast is a building located at the exact location where the Titanic first took sail, commemorating the first voyage. It stands five stories tall, the same height as the Titanic, and is shaped like a star because the company that built the ship was called White Star Line.
Another notable building detail in downtown Belfast was red bricks, a key design to Victorian building structure. This made Belfast remind us a lot of old England, which is a recurring aspect in Belfast. As we continued along our tour into the more residential districts of Belfast, Ann began to talk to us more about her job working for the Housing Executive, and how it was their responsibility to rebuild and restore older housing in Belfast which had been damaged or worn down throughout the years. The Housing Executive restores living spaces, and then offers them at a discounted rent adding to the restoration of Belfast itself. One of the Executive’s biggest challenges is getting Protestants and Catholics to live together, trying to create some unity within the city residential districts. However, we noted the insane amount of United Kingdom flags which were raised in throughout the city–in Protestant neighborhoods–in protest of the recent ruling which calls to stop flying the Union Jack flag year around. This was one of our first real observations in regards to the split that has been in existence in Belfast for centuries. Street after street was filled with United Kingdom flags in protest, which Anne told us police did not want to take down in order to avoid any further conflict. This made us fully aware that Belfast, and most of Northern Ireland was a split nation, between Unionists that wish to join the rest of the Irish Republic, and loyalists that want to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
We continued to drive through Belfast, and after seeing a couple of neighborhoods with the orange, white and green Irish Republic flags raised outside, the bus came to a stop on the sidewalk. It was nice to stretch our legs as we had been in the bus for a while, but Ann continued to tell us why we had stopped here. We were at Bombay Street, a place that had marked the rebirth of IRA activity in Northern Ireland after the riot that occurred there in 1969 which resulted in the entire street being burnt to the ground. Bombay Street has since been restored, but the effects of this riot are still in existence. In addition to plenty of memorials recognizing the Unionists that had been killed in related events, there is a tall standing wall separating this Unionist neighborhood, from Loyalist neighborhoods across the street. Ann called this a “peace wall”, as it splits the two areas in an attempt to keep the peace. It was shocking to our class to see that the conflict was so strong between the two groups that a wall was required in order to stop further violence.
Some of us went to the Crown Saloon that Ann had mentioned earlier while others went to a sandwich shop and an Italian cafe called Cafe Nero. We did not want to spend too much time in Belfast, especially after dark so we headed back to the hotel. Because it was Robby’s twenty-first birthday, we all met up at the bar downstairs after dinner to celebrate. After a long day of excitement, we decided to go upstairs and explore the local legend of the ghost room, a room in the Ballygally that is said to be inhabited by the ghost of a woman who was forced to stay in the tower when the Ballygally was still a castle!