Sunday, December 5, 2010

Too Full of Memories

My enchantment with Belfast—with its charming Christmas spirit, its exciting markets, its handsome Victorian pubs with great trad music—ended abruptly when we commenced our “Black Taxi Tour”* on Saturday morning. Other city tours I have been on have taken in all the major buildings of the city, discussing all sorts of miscellaneous facts along with history, taking topical detours to point out something important even if the tour has a theme into which that something doesn’t fit. Tour guides are enthusiastic and convey a love of where they are even when exploring somber topics.

When we got into our cab to go learn about the Troubles, I guess I assumed we were going to drive around and see the sights and hear about religion and politics along the way. Instead, we left the city centre at once and went straight to the troubled neighborhoods, divided by a wall, and stayed in that part of the city for the next hour and a half. This was not a tour of city halls and churches and historic homes, but of bloody streets and memorials and political murals. The driver wasn’t eager to share, or even bored; he was bitter.

As we got underway, the cab driver glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if any of us were Catholic. We looked around at each other awkwardly. The boy sitting next to me said yes. “Well,” said the cabbie, “You and I couldn’t live in this neighborhood, just because of being Catholic.” He then pointed out a side street down which was a shop or two that would be closed by the police by five or six in the evening, “just in case there’s any trouble.”

“That’s how daft this city is.”

We stopped first in that Protestant neighborhood, which is filled with huge murals of assorted historical figures, as well as one of a camouflaged gunman who, eerily, seems to keep his painted gun trained on you wherever you walk. One of the murals is of a man who, according to our guide, single-handedly killed fifty-something Catholics.

“In most countries, that would make you a serial killer. Here, it makes you a hero. You get your face on a building.”

He told us about how the two groups are distinguished in a conflict where race and appearance don’t differ, where you can’t tell on sight who’s different from you: names. Catholics have names that are Irish and/or Biblical: Patrick and Matthew, Niamh and Naomi. Protestants have English names: Victoria, Elizabeth, Henry, Winston. William can go either way—but Protestant Williams are called Billy and Catholic Williams are called Liam. What I took away from this? Obviously there were times someone targeted a whole neighbourhood populated by one side or the other, but as for individual killings? They weren't random, at least not all the time. You knew who your victim was.

We went next to the wall dividing the Protestant neighborhood from the Catholic neighborhood. On the Protestant side, it’s painted and visitors write their names on it alongside messages of peace. On the Catholic side, there is a memorial garden with plaques listing the name of various categories of people who died because of the Troubles. The list of murdered civilians gives their ages. Two of them are little girls aged four and five.

After some more murals and depressing exposition, we headed back to our hotel. “See those taxis over there?” asked our driver as we started down the street from our last stop. Apparently, they only operate in that part of the city. The drivers won’t take you from there to, say, the city centre. If the potential destinations are restricted to one area, then if “you get into one of those taxis, you know you’ll get home safe.”

This is not the way things were. It’s the way things are.

“Are things getting better?” asked the guy in the front passenger seat.

“I think this is as good as it’ll ever be,” said the cab driver.

* Our taxi was actually painted with a multicolored checkerboard pattern. Whatever.

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