Modern Ireland

By Gerry McGuinness

Edited by Zack Wells


At “half seven” on a misty Saturday night in June, the elegant Grand Opera House in Belfast’s city center glimmered and glowed on its corner of Great Victoria Street. The theater enveloped a sellout crowd into its velveted, gilded interiors for a production of “Dial M for Murder.” Most big cities take nights like this for granted, but not Belfast. In Northern Ireland, a quiet evening at the theater has at times been an impossibility.

“We’re savoring the peace,” said one native Belfaster, settling in for the production. “We’re at the theater, aren’t we?”

On and off for decades, sectarian strife made going out at night a risky proposition. Bombings forced businesses and dramatic venues, including the Grand Opera House, to shut down. Cabbies designated “no-go” areas throughout the city.

Today, however, this ancient capital is again a bustling European city. Northern Ireland is indeed savoring the peace, and the irony is that some Belfasters now are fearful of visiting London, which has become a favorite target for jihadist terrorists.

When Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley shook hands last April with Ireland’s prime minister, or taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, the two unlikely partners ushered in what increasingly bears the earmarks of a new era. The handshake seemed to ratify the fatigue-induced peace and re-started power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans. Whether this peace will end violently and tragically is a question seemingly everyone is asking in the six counties of Northern Ireland, where the task of finding a way to officially remember the more than 3,600 who died or were killed during the Troubles has only just begun, where even what and whether to remember are nettlesome questions.

Ian Paisley shakes Bertie Ahern's hand

Ian Paisley shakes Bertie Ahern’s hand


Visitors to Belfast might sense only vaguely the tensions that still course just below the surface of daily life. Just behind the scrim of normalcy, however, lurk evidences of anxiety concerning the future. Memories of sectarian strife, after all, are still fresh, and the challenge of honoring the dead while at the same time re-wiring the impulses that helped to kill them looms large. Still, merely seeing video footage of Paisley and Ahern shaking hands, not coincidentally a stone’s throw from the scene of the Battle of the Boyne, and of Paisley and former Irish Republican Army leader and Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness sitting at the same table to govern together at Stormont has residents hopeful. (Stormont is Northern Ireland’s parliament building in Belfast.)

“There’s a whole new atmosphere in Belfast,” said Ann Monahan, a native of the city now living in Galway, Ireland. “It’s much lighter. Everyone is so tired of all of the fighting. For so long no one wanted to invest in Northern Ireland. Now I can’t believe all of the cranes you see throughout the city.”

“A lot of investment is coming in from the Republic, which is quite a turnaround from the not too distant past when the Republic was essentially a third-world country,” explained Irish News columnist Chris Murphy. “Now, Dublin real estate is astronomical, so investment has shifted to Northern Ireland. Peace has made that possible.”

Peace has made a lot of things possible, re-defining daily life and making the North once again an appealing vacation destination. Few Belfasters even 15 years ago could have imagined  that the recently restored Grand Opera House would operate again as Northern Ireland’s premier playhouse. Damaged and closed in the early 1990s, the 113-year-old theater has reasserted itself by blending politically current, topical productions, such as “The Interrogation of Abrose Fogarty,” with more commercial fare, like “Annie” and “The Lion King.” That the venue is open again is a triumph, and this is not lost on the city’s residents.

“This wasn’t possible 10 years ago,” said one theater-goer, attending “Dial M for Murder” with her husband. “I can’t tell you how much it means, just a night at the play.”

Sights and History

A visit to the restored Europa hotel next door also underlines just how comprehensive Belfast’s comeback has been. Only Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn was bombed more often than the four-star Europa. Bombed more than 30 times, the modern Europa was a frequent IRA target in the 1970s, then again in the early and mid-1990s. The bombings, which began almost as soon as the hotel opened in 1971, led to drastic security measures, including searching luggage and deliveries, and building security walls along the front of the hotel. Not surprisingly, tourists stopped checking in but the resilient hotel staff made sure the hotel never closed.

It is difficult to picture the destruction of Europa’s kitchen and restaurant, which was wrought by a bomb attack in 1971, or of the bombing in 1993 that led to an $18 million restoration project. Regardless of Northern Ireland’s prospects for long-term peace, the odds of a bomb attack at the Europa now are remote. Ahern stays here when he visits, just as Bill Clinton did twice in the late 1990s. (Ask for the 10th floor “Clinton Suite.”)

The decade-long peace has made further bombings a non-starter, as have the bomb attacks perpetrated by Muslim extremists just across the Celtic Sea in London. In a way, radical Islam helped facilitate the announcement by the IRA in 2005 that it was disarming, emphasizing to the world the priority that should be placed on political solutions rather than violent ones. If the IRA wants to resist categorization with extremists, it also hopes to avoid the public perception that it has become a mafia-like criminal organization. Consider two recent crimes that served to weaken the IRA’s credibility in Belfast, Dublin, London and even Washington, D.C.

In December 2004, a heist of Belfast’s Northern Bank in broad daylight netted its suspected IRA operatives more than 26 million sterling pounds, or about $40 million. Belfast’s police believe the operation was too sophisticated  to have been pulled off by anyone other than the IRA. In January 2005, Robert McCartney, a Catholic, was beaten to death outside Magennis’s pub, a favorite IRA watering hole just two blocks from the Northern Bank and an easy walk from the Europa. The killers, who police believe were IRA members, wiped down the bar, told customers “nothing happened here,” and left McCartney to die on the sidewalk out front. Investigations into both the robbery and McCartney’s killing continue, with no convictions yet secured.

Magennis’s is part of a City Centre that also includes the Crown pub, Waterfront and Odyssey concert halls. The Crown is a quintessentially English pub, and it is just across Great Victoria from the Europa and the opera house. With its assault of colors and textures, the Crown is worth a visit even for non-drinkers. A primrose yellow, gold and ripe red ceiling, gold feather motifs on Corinthian columns, brocaded walls, a Balmoral red granite-topped bar, richly painted and etched glass, and floors of tiled mosaics make the Crown one of the more visually interesting buildings in the whole of Ireland. As afternoon turns to evening and noise in the “gin palace” appreciates considerably, a premium is placed on the ten private “snugs,” or elaborately carved wood booths that ring the bar. The painted glass, ornate carved woodwork, and confessional-like intimacy of the snugs make refuge in one an experience not unlike church, which shouldn’t surprise, because Italian craftsmen working on churches in Northern Ireland in the late 19th century were coaxed into helping with the Crown, as well.

Waterfront Hall, a performance venue, and the Odyssey Pavilion, where the 5-year-old Belfast Giants hockey team plays, are new additions to the harbor where the Lagan River slices into Belfast, an area completely revitalized since the IRA ceasefire in the late 1990s. Importantly, Protestants and Catholics alike cheer on the Giants, one of the few sporting teams in Ireland that unite rather than divide. Perhaps no vista in the city more quickly communicates how far Northern Ireland has come in the last decade, and how eager it is to move ahead, than that offered by the inner harbor, showcasing as it does forward-thinking modern architecture and steel-and-glass structures that hug the Lagan’s banks.

Cross the city, passing along the way beautiful Queens University and its lush lawns and gardens, to see the Lyric Theatre, which serves as a sort of living monument to the Troubles. The Lyric provides a steady diet of Irish drama, including contemporary Irish productions. Opening at its current location in October 1968, just as the civil rights movement was mobilizing, the playhouse has not shied away from controversial productions, even during times of crisis. In 1971, the year before Bloody Sunday and the worst year of sectarian strife, the theater premiered “The Flats,” a play by Irish writer John Boyd that was the first production in Northern Ireland to center on the Troubles. Even during the most turbulent times, the Lyric refused to close.

The Lyric Theatre

The Lyric Theatre

“Coming to the theater became an act of defiance,” said Susan Phelan, the Lyric’s marketing director, during a popular run in summer 2007 of “Dancing at Lughnasa”. The Troubles indeed kept many away, she said, but closing down would have been an act of surrender. Today, the theater is thriving, and Belfast’s hard-won peace is a big reason why. “It’s a different attitude now,” Phelan said. “Everyone is so happy to call normal ‘normal’ again, and you can see that in the audiences here.” So optimistic is the Lyric that its board is planning a new, $24 million, multi-stage theater complex to be built on the present site.

To appreciate the Troubles and the residues of conflict they left behind, visitors to Belfast should tour the Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill neighborhoods, which provide a sort of narrative or history of the conflict. Shankill Road takes you through the middle of a Protestant working-class neighborhood that is punctuated by murals celebrating Protestant and loyalist victories dating back to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, one of the principal battles commemorated during the annual marching season.

The Orange Order marches are staged each July 12, a national holiday in the North called The Twelfth and commemorating the victory of King William of Orange over James II, the Catholic king William removed from the English throne to reassert English Protestant rule over Ireland. Not surprisingly the marches are viewed by many Catholics as provocation, and violence has more often marked the day than has peaceful remembrance. Notably, in July 2007, march season passed nearly without incident, even though tens of thousands of Protestants marched in Belfast and in Derry. More than a hundred were injured in the marches as recently as 2005, when Orangemen were attacked by nationalists with gasoline-filled bottles and hand grenades.

When touring the murals, take with you a scorecard or directory of all of the various paramilitaries and political groups, most of which are represented in some way in the art. To know the difference between the RIRA and the RUC or UDA, for example, is to begin to appreciate the loyalties the murals demand. (The acronyms, respectively, signify the Real IRA, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Association.)

The Shankill area is separated from the Catholic Falls Road neighborhood by only a “peace wall,” a euphemistically named combination of wire and concrete barriers designed to repel rocks and explosives, and to keep Catholics and Protestants from coming into contact with one another. Along Falls Road, the experience is a bit different. Where loyalist murals occupy residential walls those in the Falls area are located more often in purely public areas. Their abundance and public-ness underscore how The Troubles were, and to some extent remain, a state of mind as well as a state of civil unrest. Graffiti, too, is used to appropriate otherwise public spaces, to communicate identity and affiliation, and to exclude, to say who is not welcome. “No Pope Here” and “Fuck the IRA” in the Shankill; “Brits Out” and “Sinn Fein!” along Falls Road (Sinn Fein is Gaelic for “Ourselves Alone” and the name of the Republican political party in Northern Ireland).

Along Falls Road you will see Sinn Fein headquarters. Emblazoned as it is with a three-story mural of Bobby Sands, perhaps the best known of the martyred hunger strikers who died at the infamous Maze prison at Longkesh. The building provided the backdrop for the many Sinn Fein press conferences in the mid- and late-1990s, and it is situated just across the street from the IRA’s Garden of Remembrance. A memorial to the “soldiers” who died in the “war” for independence, the Garden and its political references reinforce claims that The Troubles were much more about sovereignty and land rights than religious differences.

Sinn Fein Headquarters

Sinn Fein Headquarters

Directly opposite the Garden is the largest collection of murals in Belfast, including several that comment on U.S. politics in Iraq and elsewhere. Perhaps the most poignant of these depicts President George Bush siphoning oil from the Middle East by sucking a plastic tube and ingesting the petroleum.

Visitors to Ireland seeking to understand The Troubles, including their legacies and residues, must also visit Derry, and there are a few very different, entertaining and enriching ways to get to Derry from Belfast. The coastal option, while longer than a direct route, offers a feast for the eyes, and quite a bit of the island’s history, as well. Highlights along the way include Giant’s Causeway, a mass of 40,000 hexagonal basalt stone columns that form steps from the foot of the cliff into the sea. Irish legend attributes the unique formations to Finn McCool, commander of the King’s armies, but the stone gallery really is the product of volcanic activity 6,000 millennia ago. A nature walk through and around Giant’s Causeway is worth a day’s activities, or it can be sampled as briefly as time allows. Also on this route is the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which is not for those afraid of heights. The bridge affords stunning sea views to those who are not, however. Also on this route is the Bushmills whiskey distillery, the breathtaking scenery of the Nine Glens of Antrim and the 14th century Dunluce Castle.

The southern route would enable stops in Armagh City, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland and the burial place of legendary Irish clan king, Brian Boru. Saint Patrick built Ireland’s first stone church in Armagh City, which now also is home to the sky-reaching Church of Ireland Cathedral. This route also goes through Omagh, site of the horrific RIRA bombing on the city’s main shopping lane in August 1998.

Following the A2, you would enter Derry from the north, traveling parallel with the river Foyle that divides the city and its Catholic and Protestant residents. Even the city’s name is emblematic of the competing claims that confuse identity in the North. Republicans refer to the city as Derry, while Unionists call it Londonderry, designations that double the city’s identifications on signage, maps and histories. Derry was the epicenter of the most recent phase of the strife, or the modern-day Troubles, that began in the late 1960s, and it was site of the Bloody Sunday massacre 35 years ago.

On January 30, 1972, a civil rights march in “Stroke City” culminated in a deadly confrontation between some of the more than 10,000 marchers and British army paratroopers. In just 15 minutes, 13 marchers were dead and another critically wounded. No British soldiers were killed, but an official inquiry implausibly declared that the soldiers had merely returned fire on armed marchers. We still do not know any of the names of the soldiers involved, though some of their superior officers have been decorated by the Queen. Reminders of the fateful day seemingly are everywhere in Derry. Talk to anyone in Derry’s city center, which is marked by the inner stone wall that has defined Londonderry since it was established in the early 17th century, and rapidly you will discover some direct link to Bloody Sunday.

Derry resident Carol Lynn Toland was 17 years old on Bloody Sunday, and she was dating a member of the IRA at the time. She says the memories are as fresh today as they were 35 years ago, which is part of the problem. Fortunately not all of what Toland remembers is sorrowful. Saturday night at the riots, for example.

“We used to ask each other on Friday, ‘What time are you going to the riots?’” said Toland, looking out over Bogside, the nearly entirely Catholic neighborhood in which most of Bloody Sunday took place, and where her father grew up. “We would tell our parents we were going babysitting.” One night at the riots, on Derry’s William Street, Toland, which connects Bogside with the city center, she and a friend walked into a rock-throwing attack on the RUC, or British police. The Catholic boys called a temporary ceasefire to let the ladies pass. “We walked safely through, and they started throwing rocks again,” she said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The experience of Toland’s first boyfriend represents in microcosm many of the lingering problems of sectarianism, radicalism and divided loyalties. In 1979, Joe was arrested for carrying two grenades and a gun. Toland said Joe and a group of his friends were on their way to bomb a British patrol at the time of his arrest. They had been trained by the IRA in explosives, but one in the group had been coerced by MI5 to become an informant. “He was told by the British that they would shoot his whole family if he didn’t cooperate,” Toland said. The informant identified Joe, and British police picked him up. After three days of intense interrogation, during which never signed a confession, he began serving three years in Longkesh in Belfast.

“I used to pray while he was in prison that he’d never forget me,” Toland said. “My grandma used to pray that I would forget him.” Joe exited Longkesh a very different person than the one that went in, she said. “He came out so institutionalized, so radicalized. He came out with his head all messed up.”

William Street, or Sraid Liam, is a main thoroughfare in the city center, and it is where the British army erected a barricade on Bloody Sunday, on the edge of Bogside leading into Sorrow Square, named in tribute to Ireland’s famine victims. Another barricade was placed where today a large, white “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” wall has been erected, in Free Derry Corner. From this vantage point, visitors can easily imagine the bedlam of Bloody Sunday, and in minutes they can walk to the Bogside Inn or the Free Derry Museum, both of which are essential stops on any tour of Derry or even of Northern Ireland.

The Bogside Inn was a sort of de facto headquarters for the IRA, including for then-IRA leader Martin McGuinness. Inside is one of the best, most comprehensive photo collections of Bloody Sunday’s people and events anywhere. The pub also serves as official headquarters for the “Free Derry Celtic Supporters Club,” making it the place to watch any televised Celtics soccer match. The Celtics of Galway are the team of choice for Northern Irish Catholics, whose wardrobes heavily rely on the team’s green and white. Galway’s Rangers are embraced by Northern Ireland’s Protestants, so people do not wear Celtic colors across the river. Color and language are cultural weapons in Northern Ireland, as even a casual observer quickly notes. (Restaurants commonly forbid patrons wearing team colors or emblems.) Ireland’s tri-color flag waves atop the Bogside Inn, while “No RUC” graffiti shouts from across the street.

The Free Derry Museum, just a block from the pub, is simply unforgettable. Combining video, audio and displays of artifacts from the Troubles, the museum and archive confronts visitors with the chaos and cruelty of the day, and the lack of justice since. Jean Hegarty co-founded the museum to pay tribute to Bloody Sunday’s dead, who include her brother, Kevin McIlhenny. Just 17 the day of the marches, McIlhenny was shot trying to crawl to safety.

“I was away, living in Canada, at the time of my little brother’s death,” said Hegarty, who moved back to Derry in 1995. “I think my guilt kicked in, so I got involved.”

Hegarty said she believes investigations like the Saville Inquiry, a $350 million fiasco that so far has yielded little new information, are a waste of time and taxpayer money. “But what people want has largely been accomplished,” said Hegarty, who was 23 years old on Bloody Sunday. “We know the 14 were innocent. Their reputations have been restored.”

The museum is physically attached to the flats in which another victim’s grandparents once lived. Jim Wray, 22 that Sunday in January, was twice shot in Glenfada Park just in front of the flats and museum, then executed as he lay on the ground. Wray had been dancing at the Embassy dance hall that night, and he’d gone drinking with friends at Castle Bar the night before.

Abutting Waterloo Place off the end of William Street is Derry’s most visually arresting site, the neo-gothic style Guildhall built in 1887. Destroyed by fire in 1908 and rebuilt over the next four years, the city hall offers visitors impressive interiors, including more than two dozen of Ireland’s finer stained glass windows that together offer a sort of visual fugue about most of the more important episode’s in the city’s history going back four centuries. Also dramatic is the floor-to-ceiling, 3,100-pipe organ in the main council hall. Guildhall serves as an important symbol of the Troubles, embodying as it does the ties to London and to the Crown. Witnesses of the events of Bloody Sunday were interviewed in Guildhall as part of the British-run Widgery Tribunal, an official coverup memorialized in Brien Friel’s unforgettable play, “The Freedom of the City,” which visitors to Derry are encouraged to read. The Saville Inquiry of recent years, which seeks in part to correct the wrongs of the Widgery Tribunal, also conducted interviews in Guildhall. The building geographically marks the Catholic-Protestant divide, perched as it is on the river next to the connecting bridge. More than 95% of the population on the Guildhall side are Catholic, but the majority swings the other way when crossing the bridge and onto higher elevations. Derry native Clionagh Boyle recommends talking with residents on both sides of the river.

“If you peel back the layers, there are all sorts of backgrounds and influences,” said Boyle, who is a director at Derry’s Women’s Centre responsible for the Children’s Commission located just off Sorrow Square near Guildhall. “We have a Children’s Commission because we felt we needed to be an intermediary much sooner in n people’s lives. By the time you are in your thirties, so much damage to self-esteem has already been done.”

Boyle said she was 19 years old before she met her first Protestant friend, and she had to go to Dublin to do it.

“The irony was that she was from Derry, too,” Boyle said. “It shouldn’t be that way, of course, and many are working toward creating safe places and spaces for both Catholics and Protestants to interact.” The challenge is getting Catholics and Protestants even to want their lives to intersect because division and strict separation is what both sides wanted, and have carefully built.

“In this world there are only two tragedies One is not getting what one wants; the other is getting it. The last is much the worst.”- Oscar Wilde

To learn more about Northern Ireland and its recent history prior to traveling, here are some resources abstracted to help you.

The Lie of the Land, Irish Identities (1997). Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole explores how Ireland constantly builds and rebuilds its identity, providing along the way rich portraits of the Irish people and the divisions that prevent consensus on just what it means to be Irish.

The Lie of The Land by Fintan O'Toole

The Lie of The Land by Fintan O’Toole

“Something to Write Home About,” from Finder’s Keepers (2003), by Seamus Heaney, in which the Nobel poet explores identity. A native of Derry in Northern Ireland, but Irish Catholic, Heaney looks at how part of who we are is determined or at least influenced by “the other.”

Eureka Street, Ballantine Books (1996). In Robert McLiam Wilson’s tale of love and loss, Belfast is as much a character as the two unlikely friends on whose fortunes the book’s narrative turns. The time is a cease-fire in the mid-1990s, a breath between the bombings that have punctuated life in several Northern Ireland cities since the late 1960s.

“Bloody Sunday.” While it cannot provide truth, Paul Greengrass’s docudrama does deliver verisimilitude, taking viewers into the heart of Derry as one of the 10,000 for that fateful Sunday in January 1972.

“Omagh.” A feature film shot documentary-style that recounts the bombing of a crowded street in Omagh, N.I., in August 1998, and, in its aftermath, the pursuit by city’s grieving families for truth. 106 minutes. Like “Bloody Sunday,” this film stars Gerard McSorley, a native of Omagh.



“Butcher’s Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery,” a poem by Thomas Kinsella, available:

“The Freedom in the City,” a play by Brien Friel set in Derry’s Guildhall during The Troubles.

“Neither an elegy nor a manifesto,” a poem by Ireland’s John Hewitt that contemplates the difficulty of dealing with the dead.

The Guardian newspaper’s exquisite archive of press coverage of The Troubles, up to the present:,,446746,00.html. Includes several excellent Flash movies that summarize The Troubles:,6189,344683,00.html.

“The Bloody Sunday Inquiry,” Ten years and more than $350 million in costs since its launch, the Saville Inquiry, or Bloody Sunday Inquiry, has yet to publish or announce its findings. Only the lawyers are happy.

St. Columb’s Cathedral, on London Street in Derry, is the city’s oldest building, finished in 1633. Inside are marble monuments, stained glass, carved stone likenesses and the cannon ball hurled at the church that carried inside the request for surrender during Londonderry’s siege in 1688-89.

The walls of Derry, which is the last completely walled city in Ireland. Built in the early 17th century, the walls can be walked in less than an hour, and they offer spectacular vistas of the Foyle River, the surrounding countryside, Bogside and the city’s center.

Derry’s murals in Bogside and the Fountain area offer a sort of history of The Troubles, including tributes to the hunger strikers, the victims of Bloody Sunday, the practices of the British paratroopers and the combatants, including the IRA and RUC.

Language classes at the Foyle Language School in Derry, including lessons in Gaelic.

Guildhall stained glass windows, unveiled in 1912 after the structure’s rebuilding. There are groupings of them in the Vestibule, the Entrance Hall, the Mayor’s Parlour, Top Corridor and, for the largest collection, the Council Chamber.

Free Derry Museum and National Civil Rights Archive. Established in the heart of Derry’s Catholic Bogside by the Bloody Sunday Trust, the museum tells the story of the civil rights movement from the Republican perspective. Open M-F year-round, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Bogside Inn, a pub in Bogside, also boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of Troubles photography anywhere. At any moment, the pub’s denizens might join you as a sort of docent, explaining the context or import of one of the photos.

Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in County Down can be visited en route to Derry from Belfast. In addition to one of the better Titanic exhibitions, the museum has more than 300,000 still images representing Northern Ireland’s ways of life over time. Buildings on the property include houses, mills, shops, schools and churches that recreate life in the early 1900s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s