A Grey Sunday in Belfast

A black cab will take you up the Falls Road through the Peace Wall and back to the city via the Shankill Road for a tenner a head.  The driver will act as your guide.  Even after Friday’s shenanigans this was something we all wanted to do, Sunny Boy, Number One Daughter and I.

At ten Bobby, our driver, stepped out of his cab in front of the hotel and introduced himself.  Within minutes we were out of the city and along the Falls Road which runs for nine miles and is parallel to the protestant Shankill Road.  Linen mills  used to lie between the two  where the meters-high, miles-long Peace Wall now runs.  Belfast women who worked the mills, catholic alongside protestant, would go through their sectarian doors in their own neighbourhoods at the start and end of each working day.  One mill, now converted to a flour mill, still has and still uses the two sets of doors.

We stop at the line of murals which are political in nature, the most recent painted only on Friday night. The black and white replica of ‘Guernica’, perhaps the most famous anti war painting, is beginning to peel off the brick wall. The even bricks make it more like the tiled memorial in the Basque town itself.  Another is in solidarity for Palestine. The pictures are deeply moving, not least because they commemorate history of our living memory that we have ceased to think about.

We stop outside Sinn Fein headquarters and learn a few words in Gaelic and immediately forget most.  Siaorse, popular as a girl’s name, means freedom.  We all remember that.

We hear of Belfast men who aught to be famous but aren’t because the Troubles have outgunned everything:  Dunlop, DeLorean, C.S.Lewis and the man who invented defibrillators, amongst others.

Those who live in the Falls area consider themselves Irish and speak Gaelic.  Those in the  Shankill, with pavements painted red, white and blue and Union Jacks  fluttering, consider themselves British. The two areas, although side by side, even look different.

We follow a coach to one of  the gates in the wall, that open and close daily. We have seen the mainly Spanish tourists at the memorial gardens looking glumly at the lists of names carved in black marble, hearing of fire bombs and martyrs for the cause.

‘They come up from Dublin for the day and carry on to the Giant’s Causeway.’

We feel drained after barely an hour and murmur at their stamina.

‘Their guide’s an IRA man.’

Our Driver has the gift of the gab and could talk for Ireland or England, whichever his preference, but somehow this feels a step too far.

‘You watch now, at the gate.  He’ll get out and let another guide on to take them round the Shankill.’  Sure enough, a thick set man in blue smokes and waits.

‘He’s ex UVF,’  and he laughs.  ‘Bet they never thought they’d see the day.’

At the Peace Wall, Bobby presents me a pen and invites me to leave a message with all the others.  There is a competition for graffiti artists here, even Banksy has been.

A message of hope for peace, what else?  It is obvious both sides want peace.  The world wants peace, the question is how to manage it.

He leaves us to walk through the Shankill murals, before delivering us to our start point.  One with a gunman staring down the barrel of a gun is the most disquieting.  Where ever you stand the gun points right at you.

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