The Peace Walls – Belfast.

Following the 1969 Belfast Riots and the start of the period known as The Troubles, the Peace Walls were erected. Originally intended as a temporary measure, they proved so effective they quickly became a wider, longer and more permanent structure currently stretching over 21 miles across the city. The most prominent section of the Peace Wall separates the Loyalist Shankill Road from the Republican Falls Road in West Belfast. This four mile square flash point, where one fifth of all those killed during the Troubles died, is home to over half of the city’s peace walls.

Perversely, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 bringing violence in Northern Ireland to an end, the number of walls has actually increase. A 2012 survey revelaed the number of walls, fences, roads and ‘interfaces’ now stands at 100, a steady increase from the original 18 errected in 1969. These walls are still routinely closed at 7PM each evening until 7AM the following morning and remain closed throughout the weekend.

Despite the fact that almost 2 in 3 people living in areas segregated by the peace walls cannot envision a time that the walls will not be necessary, Northern Ireland’s power sharing government have nonetheless set 2023 as a target date for them to come down. According to research led by the Ulster University, 58% of all peace wall residents were worried about the police’s ability to maintain peace and order if the walls were taken down. 37% fear violent incidents, but only during anniversaries/dates or marches with 27% of those fearing there would be constant violence. Conversely, among the general population, 76% would like to see the peace walls come down with 64% feeling it should be a big priority for those in power in Northern Ireland. 60% can envisage a time where there are no peace walls.

While it’s easy to say that Belfast should follow the example set by the German government in 1989 with the toppling of the Berlin Wall, a not dissimilar structure which, for decades, cut an urban landscape in half like an ugly scar, this attitude reflects a very real dissonance between the politicians, general public, residents of the interface and the dozens of ‘conflict tourists’ who visit the walls daily. While visitors are content to take their pictures next to masked UVF gunmen and a larger than life Bobby Sands, for residents living in the shadow of the walls, these murals and the sectarian violence they represent are all too real.

What has struck me most everytime I visit Belfast is the close proximity of these neighbourhoods to each other. I always imagined that the Falls and Shankill Roads were miles apart, on opposite sides of the city but, in actual fact, sometimes all that separates both is a wall. A peace wall. Staunchly Catholic homes often share a garden wall with vehement Loyalists. With a whopping unemployment rate of almost 48%, particularly among the youth, it’s easy to see how tensions can flare and, in such a volatile area, can often be the spark to ignite further violence.

With segration costing Stormont an estimated £1.5 bn per annum, there have been some recent successes in terms of cross-community relations but, for the most part, progress is slow. In 2011, a so-called peace gate was installed in the 3.5m iron fence in Alexandra Park (Europe’s only public park bisected by a wall, which was built in 1994 to stop the open space being used for sectarian clashes) and, since then, has operated largely without incident. However, attempts to do likewise in other areas of the city, for example Flax Street, have been met with resistance. Although residents on both sides have agreed to a similar peace gate, plans have come to a standstill with the authorities saying they are unwilling to introduce expensive traffic calming measures.

Recent tensions threatened to once again devolve and destabilize the Stormont Government this summer following the involvement of IRA men in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, the ongoing issues with the Parades Commission and occasional violent incidents on both sides. There is little political will to reach agreement on many issues, including the peace walls and, according to Rab McCallum, a republican ex-prisoner who works for the North Belfast Interface Network (NBIN) “There is no momentum, there is no resources and the government haven’t provided a vision of a united community. They haven’t sold the benefits and opportunities”. Although there have not been any large scale inter-community violence that the walls were designed to prevent in over a decade, the lack of political will coupled with the lack of agreement from those communities most affected, mean it is uncertain when, or even if, the walls will ever be taken down.

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The Remorseful Day

There was very little to be remorseful about on our whistlestop tour of Oxford and it’s actually a cleverly disguised Inspector Morse pun. Clever, aren’t I.

Colin Dexter’s fictional character Chief Inspector Morse is, in fact, one of the city’s most famous exports. John Thaw starred as Inspector Morse alongside Kevin Whateley (Inspector Lewis) in the TV adaptation of the same name. 33 episodes were flmed in and around Oxford city and it’s myriad universities so we took to the streets to visit some of the most famous scenes.

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Here’s Dad at The Trout Inn which appears in “The Wolvercote Tongue” episode.

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The Morse Bar at the Randolph Hotel also appears in the ‘Wolvercote Tongue’ and the cast stayed at the Randolph Hotel during filming in 1987. The Morse Bar also boasts a mouth watering and indeed eye watering (average price per cocktail is £25) cocktail menu.

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Here we are at the University of Oxford Botanical Gardens which appears in ‘The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn’ and is the oldest botanical garden in Britain.

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Magdalen College where we caught evening vespers, features in ‘The Dead of Jerico’.

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We saw an Andy Warhol exhibition in the AShmolean Museum which also features in ‘The Wolvercote Tongue’. On a side note, the Andy Warhol exhibition was fabulous.

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The Bodelain Library  the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. With over 12 million items, it is the second biggest library in Britain after the British Library. It features in ‘The Wench is Dead’ and is also home to the Divinity School which is featured in ‘The Setting of the Sun’.

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Now, if you’re not completely nerded out, some further trivia. Both the Bodelain Library and Divinity School feature in the Harry Potter movies. The Bodelain Library is used as the Restricted Section of the Hogwarts Library and the Diviniy School doubles as the Hospital Wing where a petrified Hermione was taken in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the hall where Minerva McGonagall prepares the students for the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

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Bet you didn’t see that coming.

36 hours in London

While my students were off ‘doing Europe’ for Spring Break, I thought it was high time to take a Spring Break of my own. 36 hours in London with the parents in tow. Let’s do this thing!

Friday

We arrived at the hotel at 9PM on Friday evening, dumped the bags and about turned out the door with food firmly on our minds. It was late and as we cast around desperately for anywhere that wasn’t a kebabaria, we stumbled onto Cabana, a very cool Brasilian Barbeque spot on the Islington High Street. Food was fab, staff were lovely and the decor was very funky; a stroke of luck. 13016604_1580760792236293_683599116_o.jpg

Back to the ‘otel where a slight mix up with the rooms meant we had one double bed between the three of us. Not unaccustomed to roughing it, I gallantly offered to sleep on the floor and all credit to Hilton’s choice of carpet fabric, I slept like a log.

Saturday

Saturday morning was a slow starter, mainly due to the fact I had to go in search of actifed for my ever bothersome sinuses. That and the fact I wanted to make full use of the H&M around the corner. (We don’t have a H&M in Galway so when the opportunity presents itself, I usually pounce)

Saturday was also match day; Arsenal v Watford. You can read all about that here:

https://downtherabbitehole.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/arsenal-v-watford/

After Arsenal’s 4-0 win, we mosey’d to the nearby 12 Pins. As one Yelp review eloquently surmised: ‘This is a grubby dark dingy pub. Not many would venture here on a weekday. But on Arsenal or Premiership games this pub comes alive.Probably the best atmosphere to watch a football match. Even better than going to the stadium in truth. It’s a hardcore Gooner pub with a lot of memories to go with it for most. So for a football pub, especially if you’re an Arsenal fan this is a must gameday.’

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In 2011, I spent a semester on Erasmus in Toulouse in the south of France. By virtue of our native tongues, quite a few of my friends there turned out to be Welsh/English/Irish and, having finished college, several of them had settled in London. Cue messy drunk night out/ catch up/reunion. XOYO in Shoreditch was our chosen venue to see Ben Pearce supporting the inimitable Greg Wilson.

I digress momentarily at this point to tell you the most stereotypical Paddy abroad story ever. The aul lads were not keen on their pride and joy heading off out into the (wet and miserable) night in London town nursing what transpired to be the beginning of sinusitis and did everything in their power to persuade me not to head out. Undeterred, I zipped up my bright blue Regatta jacket (the height of style) and Dad escorted me to the bus stop. By my calculations, Shoreditch was a 10 minute hop from Islington. 25 minutes later I was still on the bus. 40 minutes later we still hadn’t arrived and I was becoming suspicious, wondering had I somehow missed my stop. By the time it dawned on me to check Google maps, I’d reached the terminus of the bus. Terrified of running out of data (roaming charges are a disaster) and being left at the side of the road in the middle of London, I ran to the front of the bus to ask the driver how to get to Shoreditch. To his credit, he tried to stifle the laughted as he explained I’d got the bus going the wrong direction and would have to stay on the bus for another 50 minutes to get back to more-or-less where I started. I was  literally too embarassed to answer the phone when my friends rang to see why I was so late.

XOYO was absolutely immense on the night. On previous outings when we’ve seen Ben Pearce he’s played mainly Deep House but he rpoved his versatility with the funkiest electro set I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing him play and the entire sweaty, smoky dancefloor were out on their feet groovin’ for two hours straight. Greg Wilson was actually quite disappointing. His set included a lot of more expiremental noise and distorted sounds repeated on a loop. Just as he was about to lose the dancefloor, he pulled it back with the 80s classic Frankie Goes To Hollywood ‘Relax’. Sometimes all the punters want is a song with a few words. The night wound up shortly after and, unwilling to risk another 5 hour round trip on the Nightbus, I got my first Uber.

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Sunday

As is by now an O’Malley family tradition, we spent our last morning in The Breakfast Club, Angel. Although the queue is usually bananas (you could be waiting anywhere up to an hour) it’s worth the wait. Inspired by the iconic 1985 film of the same name, the cafe is littered with memorabilia and stills from the movie and has a huge all-day breakfast menu. Hard to argue with the sugar rush from a giant stack of pancakes after a night on the hooch.

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Flights Aer Lingus : Shannon – Heathrow return

Accom : Double Tree by Hilton, Islington