Union Jack banners fly in the wind overhead. Food vendors peddle their burgers and fried confections. The streets are lined with eager spectators. On the surface, this looks like any happy patriotic event. But as the parade begins to pass by, this is clearly something to which we are not accustomed. Where are the decorated floats? The waving local celebrities? The children throwing candy? Solely in their place are marching bands. Group after group percusses past us. Their detached drum beats are like gun shots. With each strike, our reflexes jolt. Two blocks behind us, on the other side of a graffitied wall, lives an entire community that is not welcome nor wishes to participate.
This was our first immersion into the ongoing conflict between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland.
The day began with a two-hour whirlwind overview of nearly 500 years of Irish and English history. (Please bear with me as I attempt to capture the essence of this extremely complicated story as concisely as possible.) Before the 16th century, the Catholic Church represented nearly all of Christianity. In the early 1500s, King Henry VIII created the Protestant Church of England and imposed its doctrine onto all of his subjects, both in England and Ireland. The victory of Protestant William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 reaffirmed the rule of the Church of England for the people of Ireland and England. Through all of this, the devout Irish secretly maintained their Catholic faith.
Following the Irish War for Independence and the Irish Civil War (1916-1923), there arose a divided Ireland. There was the Irish Free State, which was independent of English rule and proclaimed itself a Catholic land. Six counties in the north-east opted to remain part of the United Kingdom because their population was largely Protestant after years of English immigration. Herein lies the start of the modern conflicts in Northern Ireland.
On one side, there is the Protestant majority (also known as the Unionists or Loyalists). Even though they live on the island of Ireland, their loyalty remains with the Crown and the United Kingdom. On the other side is the Catholic minority. This groups opposes the separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland and fights for the creation of a single, united Ireland, leading them to be called Nationalists or Republicans.
In America, whether someone is Catholic, Methodist, or Presbyterian is not likely to cause significant conflict. However, in Northern Ireland, a person’s religious affiliation stands for much more than theological beliefs—it represents their national allegiance. In essence, if one is Protestant, he’s British and if one is Catholic, he’s Irish. Unfortunately, the relationship between these groups is far from amicable. The twentieth century was filled with tension, violence, and riots as the Unionists suppressed the Republicans through inequalities in representation, voting, jobs, housing, and justice. Every year, these conflicts reach a boiling point around July 12th, when Protestants commemorate William of Orange’s victory with city-wide parades and bonfires.
Following our history lesson, we were guided through western Belfast so we could see how “The Troubles” pervade every part of daily life. Starting in a Catholic neighborhood, we were met with countless larger-than-life murals and memorials that commemorate the disparities faced by the Republicans and those who died in the violence.
We then approached a three-story wall and a small gate that marked the division between the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods. We freely passed through and I felt as though I had entered a different country. The Loyalist parade described above was just beginning and we watched as they began to celebrate a 326 year old victory. At its conclusion, we walked just a few blocks and were delivered among the unaware tourists of downtown Belfast.
I challenge you to step into the shoes of a Catholic man or woman living here. As the 12th of July approaches, the Protestant celebrations grow larger and louder. They are commemorating a victory over your people. You sit in your apartment and you hear the parades pass by. The Protestants have gone out of their way to march through your neighborhood. Scores of bands play flutes and drums past your window. Their gunshot-like beats reverberate through your living room for hours on end.
As an outsider, I am currently conflicted and unsure of how to approach this situation. On one hand, I recognize the 12th of July is historically significant to the Protestants’ religious and national identity. They have the right to celebrate. But I also sympathize with the Catholic minority, which has been marginalized since the creation of Northern Ireland. It is as if these parades and demonstrations are meant to antagonize the Catholics and to trap them within their homes. It will take time to process the realities of this tremendously complicated conflict. This post is merely an introduction. Over the next few days, I hope my peers and I can better understand the depths of Belfast’s history and relate our insights to you.
Written by Andrew Smith