As I said in my previous blog, the Catholic areas in Belfast tend to be symbolically demarcated primarily with murals, while the Protestant ones are festooned with flags. The distinction is not absolute, and you can see the Irish Tricolor (green-white-orange) in two photographs in the previous blog. Still, they are mostly found in the cemeteries, such as at the County Antrim Memorial in Milltown Cemetery:
In fact, when traversing Republican areas in Belfast, I’ve seen more Brazilian flags than Irish tricolors (because this was during the World Cup).
In Protestant areas, you see a variety of flags, plus a lot of red-white-blue bunting, as in this neighborhood in East Belfast:
The most common flags are the Union Jack, the Red Hand of Ulster Flag (you see both of them in the photo above, the Ulster Banner is the one with a red cross on white background), and the Orange Order flag. Here’s what the Orange Order flag looks like:
This photo, actually, was taken just around the corner from where our hotel was. Although, as I said, our hotel was in a neutral area, by walking 100 feet from its entrance you would cross into the staunchly Loyalist neighborhood of Sandy Row. The building above is the Sandy Row Orange Hall. Also note the banner with the British royals (another very common Loyalist symbol).
A bit of history: the Orangemen take their name from William of Orange, the Dutch Elector who successfully invaded England in 1688, defeated the troops of the last Catholic English king, James II, and was crowned as King of England. These events are also known as the Glorious Revolution. On July 12, 1690 William and James fought the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland , in which William was victorious. The Orangemen now commemorate the date of the battle with a parade and huge bonfires.
We were in Belfast just a week before July 12, and preparations for the celebrations were in full swing. I don’t have pictures of the huge pyres that Orangemen constructed all over Belfast, so here is one published by the Guardian:
A loyalist waves the union jack on top of a pyre that will be lit to mark the start of the annual 12 July Orange Order parades. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
July 12 celebrations are highly divisive in Northern Ireland, since the Catholics are obviously not enthused about commemorating the battle that ensured the domination of Ireland by the Protestants for more than two centuries.
When the bonfires are lit up at night, they create another kind of symbolic landscape:
The Shankill area is another Loyalist stronghold:
Note the tattoo on the forearm of the man in the foreground. I’ve never seen such a density of tattoo parlors anywhere else.
The blue flag on the lamp post is that of the Ulster Defense Association, one of the two main Loyalist paramilitary groups:
There is an interesting interaction between ethnicity and class in Belfast. From what Kevin told us and we saw, Belfast seems to have three kinds of areas. The better-off live in mansions and stand-alone houses situated on elegant ‘leafy’ (lots of greenery) streets. These neighborhoods are innocent of any sectarian symbols, whether they are Catholic or Protestant (and some are, I believe, integrated).
The middle classes live in two-story brick row-houses, utterly familiar to anybody who has been to London suburbs. Such neighborhoods are usually clearly demarcated by sectarian symbols. However, the highest density of symbols we saw were in poorer neighborhoods where people leave in multi-apartment buildings, as in the photo above. The ones I saw were mostly Protestant, and there you see flags in profusion. Anything and everything can be adorned with flags:
And if you still don’t get the message, it is spelled out for you:
Although flags are the most important type of Loyalist symbols, they also use murals and memorials, which are similar to the ones I saw in Catholic areas. For example:
Apparently, there used to be many Loyalist murals with pretty menacing images of masked paramilitaries armed with automatic weapons, but I haven’t seen any. There was recently a push to replace them with either neutral or even nonpartisan, or “trans-sectarian” future- and peace-oriented ones. Like this one:
Some may dismiss the sentiments expressed in this mural as naive and wishful, but I disagree. More generally, Northern Ireland has two lessons for all of us who are interested in the matters of war – and peace.
First, we think of Western Europe as a place that has moved beyond such archaic, non-civilized occurrences as societal collapse and sectarian bloodshed. Yet Northern Ireland shows that even Europe is not immune. We just don’t realize how fragile our civilization is; how easy it is for social cooperation to unravel.
Second, and perhaps even more important, Northern Ireland also shows that it is possible to exit a seemingly intractable conflict. I remember the Troubles during the 1970s and 1980s. It seemed at the time that differences between opposing sides were so deep that they could never be reconciled. Yet it happened during the 1990s, and the peace has held since then. There is no guarantee that it will continue to hold (and there are some worrying signs that it may not), but still it gives me hope.