Terri and I don’t do well when it comes to off-limits areas. In fact, if there’s a sign that says KEEP OUT or AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, chances are we can be found on the wrong side of it. It’s not that we don’t understand the message. It’s just that it’s so damn tempting to find out what’s so special that we aren’t allowed to see it.
We have the same problem when there’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity that may or may not be allowed, at least by civilized or legal standards. So imagine the attraction, nay, the overwhelming obsession that we felt when we were traveling through Belfast on a Black Taxi Tour, and our guide, Billy Scott, took us to see one of the art- and graffiti-coated Peace Walls. These huge chunks of concrete practically scream out for a writer to grab the nearest pen and go to town (or in this case, warring suburb).
Why are there Walls?
The walls were built in response to the 1969 North Ireland riots that are most often referred to as “the Troubles,” in which upwards of 3,500 people died. About 38 such walls still exist in Belfast, separating the Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from the Loyalist and Unionist Protestant areas. Most are adorned with spray-painted art, quotes and slogans memorializing the struggle, remembering those lost or thankfully, encouraging peace and reconciliation.
The security-gated walls, some of which are 25 feet high and three kilometers long, were meant to be temporary. They were built to separate hostile factions and to help maintain peace in these areas, many of which still fly the flags of Britain or the Republic of Ireland. These platforms that divide the city also became canvasses for people’s thoughts, hopes and fears…making us want to share our own.
Leaving Our Mark
Billy slowly cruised along the wall, sharing information about the paintings and stories of those who were lost. Stopping to watch an artist at work, he mentioned that some of what was currently being created was commissioned public art, encouraged by local arts agencies as a way to reach across communities.
Vanessa: Oh my god. This is just so beautiful. And so sad. And so heartwrenching.
Terri: I can’t believe how many people have written on it. There’s so much history here.
Vanessa: Can I write on it?
Billy (handing me a pen): Well, it’s technically illegal to put graffiti on government walls…
Unfortunately, Billy didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence, as Terri and I were both bailing out of the black taxi while ripping the pen caps off with our teeth. We may or may not have actually written on the wall (depending on who is reading this and if it will cause an international incident). While there are pictures, there’s not technically proof.
Terri: What did you write?
Vanessa: Write? Nothing, of course. That would be wrong.
Terri: And illegal.
Vanessa: Possibly unethical.
Terri: So move and let me read it.
You Don’t Have to Break the Law
Even if you don’t plan to leave your mark on the walls, you should definitely make plans to visit these monuments before they are gone. In 2013, the North Ireland Executive (a government branch) laid out a plan to remove the walls by the year 2023 “by mutual consent.” This is still being met, not surprisingly, with arguments from all sides. Even if they do agree, there will probably still be some delay. Northern Ireland has been without a government for two years (can’t we all just get along?) so the wrecking ball probably won’t be swinging any time soon.
I personally would hope that the walls would end up in a museum somewhere, as the area’s history—both good and bad—is displayed so movingly through its artwork.
A Guide to Walls…and Whiskey
As for whether to visit the area, it is safe for travelers. While memories of the Troubles are still strong, the rioting and civil unrest of those tumultuous decades is over. I’d definitely recommend going with a guide, though, so that you don’t miss anything. The Black Taxi tour drivers are well-versed in the area’s history and art, and can take you to areas of town that you wouldn’t know to visit. Somehow we ended up in a bar, and a whiskey shop, and a wildly painted courtyard on the other side of a pub. Let’s just say that Billy had a good grasp of what would interest us.
The bonus, of course, is that you also get to listen to beguiling Irish accents, hear some off-color jokes, and make lifelong friends. We stay in touch with Billy through his Facebook page, and I remain jealous that he’s drinking some fine Irish whiskey without us. (Save me some Writers Tears, Billy!)
If You Go
The walls can be found in numerous cities in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast. To learn more about things to see and do in the city, including Black Taxi Tours and walking tours, visit http://www.visitbelfast.com/. To hook up with Billy’s tour, visit http://www.touringaroundbelfast.com/. Just don’t believe any of the stories he shares about us.