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Trouble Divided

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Nothing is more well-known---or more contentious---in Northern Ireland and Belfast than the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants, and their legacy.

Among the most visible traces of that legacy are the political murals spread out throughout the city of Belfast, most notably along the Shankill and Falls Roads, where the Troubles found their epicenter. The murals trace a sad and acrimonious history through their vibrant but often provocative imagery, ripe for analysis.



We were told that the best way to view these murals and get insight into their meanings was to take one of the famous Black Cab tours, run by local cabbies, both Catholic and Protestant.


Our tour guide for the day was Brian Sands, a relative of the famous Bobby Sands, who was involved in the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. (Bobby Sands himself died in 1981.) Although Brian is Catholic, he gave us a balanced tour of the murals and the history that goes with them.


Although the turbulent period known as the Troubles only technically started in the 1960s, mirroring the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the enmity between Irish Catholic and Protestant goes back as far as 1609, when William of Orange, a Protestant, overthrew the Catholic King James II of England with the help of English Protestants who had felt threatened by James' return to Catholic ways, including increasing patronage of Catholic-leaning nobility and a decline in power of Protestant nobles. William's ascension began the institutionalized persecution of Catholics, particularly in subjugated Ireland, where landlords were all Protestant, with most living out of the country in England.


The details of this history can be easily researched---there is plenty to tell from both sides of the fence---but viewing the murals themselves adds an important visual dimension that helps even the most uninformed visitor perceive the emotion underscoring this generations-deep conflict. An even more stark and visceral reminder of the divide is the actual fence that runs through the middle of the city---30 feet high in most places, with gates opened only during daylight and in some cases closed throughout weekends.


The murals evoke plenty of emotion, and provoked a long discussion between David and me about the impact of religious divides on populations such as those in Ireland, Israel, Afghanistan, and even in the United States these days. Some teachers might be leery of introducing religious conflict as a discussion topic into the classroom (or might even be prevented by school policy), but there are plenty of opportunities for rich research, argument, and analysis to be incorporated into such a discussion.

At the very least, Jonathan Swift's classic satire A Modest Proposal is relevant here. Students should be introduced to the historical context of the piece, which decries the heartlessness of absentee Irish landlords, many of them merchants and businessmen granted Irish land by Oliver Cromwell. These men knew the value of a buck, were often entrepreneurs and investors, and could be counted on, in Swift's experience, to consider their “Popish” tenants as chattel rather than as individual human beings.


The attitude towards Catholics as second-class citizens prompted Catholics to demonstrate on the Falls Road in the 1960s, bringing the weight of the British army down on them and igniting some of the most well-known religiously-based conflicts of the Twentieth century.

The Protestant community in Belfast is fiercely loyal to its English roots, not least because of its sacrifice during the First World War, in which it sent more than 700 soldiers into the Battle of the Somme in support of Britain and saw only 70 return. To Protestants, the Catholic desire for self-rule is tantamount to efforts to cut them off from their own heritage.


Of course, the Irish conflict is not the only religious or nationalistic one that occupies our newspaper headlines these days. Many visitors to Belfast leave their mark on the “International Wall,” the murals that change every two years or so to reflect current events showing sympathy with the Irish problem. On our visit, the murals commented on Cuba, the Basque peoples caught between Spain and France, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other, smaller conflicts that reflect civil rights issues.



Conflicts such as these are always complicated. Teaching students how to build Rogerian or concession-style arguments, looking at the situation from both sides in all their complexity, and avoiding extremes and simplistic conclusions are steps in helping students understand that issues are never black and white, and solutions are never easy; they require patience and understanding. To begin to move toward a resolution in Ireland, often politicians have had to put aside their own deep-seated feelings and see things from the other side while working toward the common good. As Brian, our tour guide, reminded us, it's an ongoing process even after the Good Friday agreement, and even today Belfast remains a profoundly divided city trying to build on hope.


Photo credits: David Kruger