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The Streets and Graves of Belfast

Soundtrack: _Astral Weeks_ by Van Morrison

Despite what you may have heard, Belfast isn't Beirut. It isn't a wartorn city. Coming from a nation that lives in fear of the next attack, Belfast seems a pleasant break--it's a nice clean city with beautiful Georgian architecture and good nightlife. It feels more like Glasgow than Sarajevo.

Belfast just has to deal with the occasional car bombing, regular bouts of sectarian violence, the occasional shooting, and a yearly "Marching season" where every thug with an axe to grind (literally) comes out to celebrate or protest Marching Season, culiminating in the middle of July, with the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, where William of Orange's protestant forces beat off James II Catholic army and started 400 years of Northern Ireland being controlled by Protestants, with Catholic problems.

Last Day in Belfast

On my last day in Belfast, I went to one of the most lavishly over-decorated pubs of my short life--a small but famous pub called the Crown Liquor Saloon. According to the legend, the original owners of the Crown were a married couple, the husband a Republican, the wife a Loyalist. When they opened the pub, the wife insisted that it be named after the crown in honor of British royalty. The husband consented on one condition: that they put a symbol of the crown as a welcome mat at the front door, so that every patron of the pub could walk over it and pay it the "proper" respect it deserved in his mind. Those Loyalist patrons can, with a little dexterity and the help of long legs, step over the crown.

This seems to me to be a proper metaphor for Belfast, just as the Georgian splendor of the city resembles the roccocco interior of the Crown Saloon, they both hide an undercurrent of unease and disagreement that occasionally bleeds through in dramatic ways. However, for the most part, if Belfast weren't synonomous with religious violence in your head, the average tourist would have no hint there were any serious problems beyond regular Irish alcoholism. Belfast is clean, well-lit, and with lots of restaurants and pubs swarming with people. It's only when you come across a fortified police station, completely with sniper nests, or when a heavily armored police van (more of an armored personel carrier than a police cruiser) that any signs the city has a serious problem with sectarian violence.

Sure, no matter where you go in the city, you'll notice more smashed windows than anywhere else, and the smashed bottle fragments everywhere lend a surreal glitter of violence no matter where in the city you are. But on the bright side, the people of Belfast have managed to do amazing things using barbed wire as a design element. It's incorporated into building plans, integrated much like rain gutters or lightning rods have become commonplace in places where bad storms are de riguer--as essential but possibly distasteful necessities in design.


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