On a tour through a city of walls, storytelling resounds

Tour guide Pádraic MacCoitir stands in front of a memorial in Belfast as he recounts his imprisonment during the Troubles. Photo by James Keys.

BELFAST — Our tour guide had already alluded to his time in prison when I turned from looking at a wall of murals to find him introducing our group to his old cellmate. They’d served time together in the early 1980s, and now the cellmate was a tour guide, too. They threw their arms around each other, grinned and posed for a picture.

“This was my biggest brother,” our guide, Pádraic MacCoitir, said. “I haven’t seen him in ages.”

The walking tour Thursday took us through the nationalist Falls Road area, and it maintained a mood I’d been in since arriving in Belfast. It felt like a city of walls.

Perhaps barriers have been on my mind because of my own reporting — on the peace walls that sprung up, erected by the government, sporadically from 1969 through the early 2000s, and which separate Protestant-unionist-loyalist and Catholic-nationalist-Republican neighborhoods that saw some of the period’s most intense conflict — but every step I took in the city seemed to run along a wall, a fence, a high gate. Spikes and razor wire crowned some. In places, they made the streets feel sunken, as if this post-conflict city was sprouting around me.

A wall seemed to backdrop every stop on our tour. Pádraic met us near the Divis Tower, a 20-story building once partially occupied by the British military and pointed across the street, where a peace wall separated a string of low brick homes from the unionist neighborhood on the other side. At a time, he said, every house we could see had been burned out by loyalist mobs. He swore everything he told us would be true.

“I’m an atheist, so I don’t have to say, ‘So help me God,’” he said. “So help me Marx.”

He gave us more history and local trivia than I could manage to take down in my notes, then tried to lower our expectations.

“There’s not much to see,” he said. “Well. Belfast …” He trailed off, then let out a sigh that told us it was all more complicated than he could hope to explain in an hour and a half.

A few minutes later, we stopped near a long wall covered in murals that reflected the neighborhood’s political leanings. A painted tri-color Irish flag flew over passing cars. Fidel Castro’s face stared out at the street. A phrase bordering a heart declared solidarity with Catalonia.

Across the walls that separated this from the unionist Shankill Road area, Pádraic told us, the murals looked quite different — depictions of Union Jacks, British war dead, the Royal Family. He had no desire to spend time there.

“I couldn’t even go over there anyway,” he said later. “It’d just be too dangerous for people like myself.”

On a later stop, a memorial for the fallen civilians and Irish Republican Army members of the neighborhood, Pádraic unspooled his personal history: four arrests, a couple of convictions, a forced confession, a decade in prison after — he said — he returned fire at a police officer who’d barged into a house he was in. He didn’t have a way out of that one.

“Literally a smoking gun behind me,” he said.

Pádraic’s frankness fell in line with a trend I noticed in Northern Ireland of a lack of hesitancy to talk about experiences in conflict. Storytelling, I think, can be a form of self-care, of healing, of activism. It can smash the walls between us.

The journalist part of my brain told me that, if I wanted to really delve into Padraig’s story, to relay it in depth to the outside world, it would take a lot of fact-checking and further reporting. But the part that was there as an outsider, the part that believes most people wholly believe the stories they tell about themselves, totally bought in. How couldn’t I? He’d sworn it was true.