Belfast: A City Divided (no, really)

BELFAST — The first thing to greet us in the Belfast train station was a large, white mental health awareness billboard asking “Are you Ok?”

It was a significant departure from the kitschy green billboards that welcomed us to Dublin. Evidence of Belfast’s post-Troubles suicide epidemic that has claimed nearly 300 lives, this billboard was one of many signs we had officially entered into a society whose wounds have yet to heal.

After venturing down Falls Road — a historically Republican neighborhood in West Belfast — the political tension became palpable. Light posts were littered with anti-police leaflets and Irish Gaelic political posters. Politically-charged graffiti covered brick walls not already occupied by massive murals commemorating Republican casualties and prisoners of war.

All of this was in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly British presence not only in Loyalist neighborhoods such as Sandy Row, but also in the City Centre where our hotel was. Euros were replaced by pounds bearing the Queen’s face. Our train platform and hotel street were both named Great Victoria. Even accents seemed to get more crisp and proper.
These observations seem contrary to the fact that next month Belfast will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Good Friday Agreement, the diplomatic end of the Troubles. In a society so clearly fractured both physically and psychologically, it’s shocking to see dozens of American and European tourists paying to go on guided tours of a conflict whose wounds still seem so fresh. Black cabs cart tourists around contentious areas, with drivers telling stories of bombings, justice killing and riots they themselves had experienced first-hand.

It was easy to see why our tour guide for the city described Belfast with a deep sigh.

Ignore the elephant in the room and it becomes easier to see Belfast as a vibrant metropolitan city with great infrastructure, food, and people. In fact, as I sat in a little coffee shop off Falls Road writing this reflection, I’ve already gotten two pub recommendations from a couple of friendly locals.