Peace walls stitch the city like sutures holding a battle wound closed until it can heal. Belfast has many tears to mend, but oddly enough, the opposing elements of this city are helping to repair the damage caused by decades of conflict. Belfast is a city of dichotomy: tension and peace, separation and unity, destruction and creativity. Though the scars from ‘The Troubles’ are long yet healed, the people of Belfast are seeing their city rise from rubble into an artistic and cultural hub of which they can all be proud. No one is more proud than local storyteller and travel guide Paul Moyna. I met Paul the first time I was leaving Belfast. He drove my Uber to Europa bus station. Since I was early for my bus, we took a wee tour around The Crown bar, and he told the story of how the cheeky crown came to be embossed on the ground (Hint: a political and marital disagreement). His crackling energy and sparking enthusiasm for the city resonated with me, and when I returned a month later, I went on a day long walking tour with him. Paul studied to become an official Belfast tour guide when he was made redundant at his company of 18 years. But even at the start of the tour, I could see clearly that this path was a better fit for him. “I love talking to people, making connections, and telling stories,” exclaimed Paul. I’m convinced that all the Irish are natural storytellers who can make even tall-tales totally believable with their passion and penchant for humour. But for decades, it seemed all the humour had left Belfast.
Tension and Peace
About 10 years ago, Belfast was listed in Lonely Planet travel guide as one of the “4 B’s” travelers should avoid alongside Beirut, Baghdad, and Bosnia. Lingering tensions between Irish nationalists and British loyalists persisted even after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. “There is still a great deal of separation between Catholics and Protestants, (the Irish and British, respectively), everything from education, to the preferred pronunciation of the letter “H” (ex: Aitch or Haitch), to whether you live in East or West Belfast,” said Paul. Born and raised Catholic in West Belfast, Paul lived through ‘The Troubles’. “Everyone under the age of 20 was born in peace, but everyone over 20 has lived through some type of violence and conflict here,” he says. He experienced discrimination for being Irish, but he says the peace agreement encouraged foreign companies to invest in the city. The international companies created new jobs and placed high value on equal employment of both Catholics and Protestants who began to work together, many for the first time in their lives. “In 20 years, the city went from bombs and bullets to progress and prosperity,” said Paul.
Separation and Unity
Most people in Belfast are both proud and passionate. But those same traits have fueled the conflict between the two groups; each side too proud to concede and too passionate to forget, so though they live in peace, they don’t yet live in harmony. There are more than 60 “peace walls” in Northern Ireland physically segregating Irish communities from British ones. The walls were meant to protect each area from sectarian violence. Though many young people want the walls taken down, those who had friends and family members killed in violent conflict favor leaving the barriers. There are other signs of separation in Belfast. The colors green, orange, red, and blue are politically symbolic: green and orange for the Irish and red and blue for the British. Generally, Street signs that include bilingual text in both English and Irish indicate Catholic neighborhoods whereas signs with only English text are Protestant areas. Even education and perception of history are divided. Around 90% of schools in Belfast are split with Catholics attending Catholic schools and Protestants attending state-run Protestant schools. The Irish-Catholic students are taught that the Potato Famine of 1845 was caused by the British to kill off or drive out the Irish while Protestant students are taught that it was a natural disaster. Despite these deep divides, there are elements unifying the people of Belfast. Language and accents are derived from the English, Scottish, and Irish giving Belfast a unique blend of idioms and expressions. If someone from the city tells you to, “Catch yourself on!”, you better wise up and get ahold of yourself.
Destruction and Creativity
Riots in Belfast bring brick throwing, shattered glass, and sporadic bonfires. This destruction is directly opposed to the intense creativity seen in colorful, hand-painted murals peppered throughout the city. Symbols representing history, ancestry, sports, and even the Titanic are included in much of the street art. Regardless of religious or political loyalties the people here share many of the same traits. They tend to be passionate, practical, determined, and proud. These characteristics are exemplified in the annual Hit the North/Culture Night festival held every September. Local and international street artists transform peace walls and public spaces into open art galleries. Playing on the desire to create beautiful and gritty works of art is a practical way to inspire peace and pride in the city. Over 100,000 people from around the world join the festival to witness painters convert crumbling walls into imaginative illustrations.
A City of Opposites
There are two sides to Belfast and there may always be. One side is loyal, individualistic, and proud; the other, independent, rebellious, and creative, but everyone is Belfast is a living historian. If we combine the best of both, there is no stopping this magnetic city from moving forward in the world. “Our doors are open to ye!” declares Paul.
*Contact Paul Moyna for a guided tour here: