We were greeted for our first morning in Belfast by both our tour guide and some traditional Irish weather. Our quite rainy walking tour took us through many locations deeply connected to the time of the Troubles. It was during this walking tour that we were quickly confronted with the very real and lasting impact of the Troubles – the Peace Walls.
The Peace Walls were built between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast as a temporary effort to minimize the conflict beginning with The Troubles in 1969. Rae-Anna Sollestre noted that “as we drove around Belfast, the stark contrast between the Peace Walls and the surrounding communities left an impression on me. The walls started out short and grew with time. The walls separated the two communities, closed off the streets connecting them. They were and still are a physical manifestation of the conflict that remains quite high in some places. Multiple generations have grown up with these high walls dividing communities, and it’s normal for them.”
Sollestre made a connection to the walls personally. She wrote, “When thinking about my childhood and my own life, the freedom to move from one neighborhood to the other, the ability to cross in and out of different neighborhoods was something I took for granted. To be physically separated from another community is something that I could not fathom, and yet these communities experience it every day. School children have painted murals in efforts to make the wall more aesthetically pleasing, friendlier, and yet the the immensity of the walls maintains and emphasizes the division between the Catholic and Protestant communities. It would seem that for the community to move forward much more work needs to be done before the walls could come down and both communities to move forward in the aftermath of The Troubles including acknowledgment of wrongs done by both sides.” We also were struck by how the walls are also used to celebrate other struggles for human rights.
Or to commemorate history that seemed frankly ancient to us and yet ever present here.
After seeing the peace walls and their murals, we next went to the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum. First opening in 2007, the museum itself is located primarily in one room, filled with over 5000 artifacts and mementos from throughout the 200-year history of the trouble, including a jacket worn by an IRA member while in prison, a small camera that was smuggled into a prison, and a large array of images, posters, and newspapers related to the conflict. Rebecca Meyer remarked that “by far, the most moving item in the museum was a picture taken from inside the jail with the small camera. The museum guide showed us a picture of women smiling–and then pointed out her sister was one of them.”
Our day concluded with a visit to the infamous Crumlin Road Goal. As Kylie Kaltenberg accurately noted, “A tour of the Crumlin Road Gaol is certainly not for the faint of heart.” Established in 1845, little has been done to update or renovate the Gaol, although it continued to house inmates until 1996. “The tour begins by going deep into the underground tunnel connecting the Gaol to the courthouse. The dark damp tunnel is eerie at best. Being ordered to line up just as the inmates did and standing in the dark depths of the tunnel, one can almost feel what it would have been like to be subjected to life at Crumlin.” She went on to say that “over the 150 years of operation, the Gaol housed over 25,000 prisoners including murderers, bank robbers, suffragettes, loyalist and republican political prisoners, and so many others.” Although the tour’s use of sound effects helped, walking inside the Gaol provided a realistic overview of what it would have been like for many of the 25,000 prisoners.
For Maggie Frawley, “by far the most notable part of the Crumlin Road Gaol is being taken into the cell that would house the men set to be executed. In this cell, we learned about how the prisoner lived in the time leading up to his execution and the guards that lived with him. When the execution was set to happen, the guards would take the prisoner in to this bathroom area to prepare him. Then, they would suddenly push the cupboard aside exposing a secret door to another room . . . the gallows. The idea was that the prisoner would be in such a state of shock, that they wouldn’t realize what was happening. I couldn’t help but think there was a touch of humanity in this type of execution. Private and quick, rather than dragging the prisoner out to an open air gallows passing other prisoners while the whole time knowing they are walking to their death.”
As a future criminal defense attorney, going into the jail had a special significance to Kylie. She recalled, “Seeing the Crumlin Gaol cells and learning the prison conditions makes it more difficult to believe incarceration is always the answer. Certainly, there were individuals in Crumlin who needed to be incarcerated . . . . Regardless of your political affiliation or stance on mass incarceration, standing on the ground where over 25,000 prisoners stood and being inches from the rope that took the lives of 17 men, provides the ability to obtain a deeper understanding of prison and prison life.”