Today I ventured into West Belfast into the area that they are calling the Gaeltacht Quarter, which is dedicated to the promotion of Irish language and culture. This is the week of Féile an Phobail- Festival of the People. While West Belfast, a neighborhood that was at the heart of the violence during the Troubles, has intrigued me the most throughout my research, I have been a little wary about visiting it by myself. After being impressed, however, by the brochures for Féile an Phobail, I decided that I could not wait any longer to find a companion to go with me, and I set off for Chultúrlann
McAdam Ó Fiaich, which is a cultural center for the Gaeltacht Quarter- complete with a bookstore, a café, a tourist information desk, a theater and exhibition space.
Now the big question was how to get there? All of the tourist information said that the best way to travel into the area was in a Black Taxi tour. Black taxis were used by both sides during the troubles and now have become a big icon for the tourism industry. I wanted to get a real sense of the place and gauge how cut off it felt from the city centre, so I decided to suck it up and just walk along Falls Road.
I have read about how the Westlink freeway has cut off West and North Belfast from the rest of the city- and now I know for sure that they weren’t kidding. Here is a photo I took while crossing the Westlink. The Divis tower looms in the background- it is a housing block that was a notorious spot during the Troubles. The British army, in fact, had a lookout post on the top few floors of the Divis Tower, and they used to access it by helicopter.
It took ages to cross the Westlink because many of the lanes are divided and have separate pedestrian crosswalks. I counted ten crosswalks in total.
Walking along Falls Road, I saw some of the famous political murals. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of the old-fashioned black taxis full of tourists stopping by the murals while regular modern-day life operated around them.
There were many people walking along Falls Road, and there was quite a sense of life even in an area with desolate history. It became clear to me that although some awful atrocities took place here, simultaneously did a lot of community bonding, and a rich Irish heritage existed before and through the Troubles. Something felt so real about the place- very different from the commercial setting of other public spaces in the city centre. Chultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich was packed with people when I arrived- I couldn’t even find a seat to get a cuppa (a cup of tea), so I headed to St. Mary’s University College, where there were numerous photography and art exhibitions about the Troubles and there was a discussion entitled “Dealing with the Past.”
The discussion was quite heated and a bit, as one participant called it, morbid. Most of the people in the room had had close relatives murdered during the Troubles. A report was published by “The Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past,” with recommendations for establishing a Legacy Commission and other means to uncovering the truths of the past for victims, survivors and their families. A more controversial part of the report recommended a “Recognition Payment” of 12,000 GBP to every family bereaved as a result of the conflict. The argument was that such a payment would end a “hierarchy of victimhood” where the deaths of IRA members were not recognized by the state as victims. It emerged that many people thought that “compensation money” was an insult,, and that there is no such thing as compensation for what they went through. In many cases, however, uncovering the truth about what happened was important. Many would like to see an independent Truth Commission set up because they do not trust anything connected to the British State, but the problem is that there is no funding for such a thing.
One woman shared that her husband had been shot dead in 1972. She had six children, but three were too young to remember their father. When her mother died a few years ago and was buried on top of her husband, her youngest three children went to the funeral early just so that they could see their father’s coffin. The woman shared that she had become a drug addict following her husbands death, and she does not even remember putting jam onto a piece of bread for her children. She has come through it all 37 years later and is still on medication, and now has ten wonderful grandchildren, and when they ask about what happened to their grandfather, she wants to be able to know so that she can tell them. She is insulted by the thought of recognition money.
Another woman, whose own son was killed in 1992, shared about her sister whose husband was killed when she had eight children and was expecting her ninth. Seven years ago, one of her children committed suicide, and four year ago, another one of her children committed suicide. She is not interested in who killed her husband, and she does not need money, but she knows that some people could use the money, and there has to be some more investment put into the community so that the next generation will make it through.
The topics of compensation, the “hierarchy of victimhood,” and truth and reconciliation are complicated. I felt such community spirit as soon as I entered West Belfast that I wonder if people would accept recognition money if it was put into a community fund, and therefore, the “hierarchy of victimhood” could be squashed without people feeling personally insulted? Such a fund could help to build connections between this neighborhood and the rest of Belfast. The investment put into the Gaeltacht Quarter seems to have a lot of potential for being incredibly successful, but I worry that its historical social isolation will only be compounded by its physical isolation, causing it to only attract tourists in their Black Taxis and not other Belfast residents. If there were a corridor that better physically connected it with the city center, perhaps there would be much greater potential for building social capital.