Monday, May 23, 2011

Belfast-Go-Round

I tried to get up this morning, but jet lag kept me asleep until my "emergency" alarm set for 10am went off. Fortunately I woke to a lovely day: the forecast had said rain, but it was sunny-interspersed-with-showers. If you've ever wondered why people in the UK and Ireland talk about the weather so much -- it's because there's always something to talk about! After dragging myself out of my comfy and stylish bed at the Radisson Blu, I made the 10-minute walk into the center of town. There I picked up a double-decker tourist bus, as previously recommended by my cab driver.

The tour took us all over town, most interestingly through the Shankill Road, Falls, and Sandy Row sections. These are the neighborhoods that outsiders think of when they think of Belfast: violent, sectarian, and separated by gated "Peace Walls" erected to prevent cross-border car bombings. Fortunately this is all in the past, as "most sensible" Belfasters just want to live in peace. At this point in time, with so much political and economic progress made, it's considered to be just a radical fringe that keeps any problems going. Heck, the 2002-2003 Lord Mayor of Belfast was a member of the Sinn Féin party -- now that's saying something for political progress. The bus driver gave us a brief history of the conflicts, and as usual they are much more longer-lived and complex than someone who grew up outside of Northern Ireland would immediately imagine. Hundreds of years ago, Catholics and non-Conformists (i.e., non Church of England) were economically and politically persecuted. For instance, they couldn't own land, and they weren't allowed to hold public office. The story is long and involved and as it evolved it wasn't simply a matter of Catholics and Protestants killing each other over religious beliefs. I'm not going to go into it here, though, until I've read a good book on the subject. I will say that it's painful to look at a neat and tidy working-class neighborhood, made up of buildings that have been standing for about 100 years, and thinking that within my lifetime it was a war zone. People were living and working and shopping there then, as they are today. There but for the grace of god go I. If sectarian violence could happen in a place like this, among otherwise normal people, then where else could it happen? The USA, as a country, must continually find ways to take care of each other and get along.

After the bus tour, which also wended its way past what the bus driver claimed that Prince Charles said was the ugliest building in Belfast, I paid a visit to a far prettier edifice. Belfast's City Hall has a lovely rotunda and lots of interesting glass, and we even got to sit in the City Council chambers. A big conference was going on in the Great Hall, a bunch of technology/manufacturing companies were in town discussing doing business in the Belfast area.

I got caught in an intermittent rain shower and returned, soaked, to the Radisson. There I sat in their comfy bar listening to excellent tunes (it's as if they had Groove Salad on) and drank some delicious Magner's Irish Cider.

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