Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Day 14: A Free Day in Dublin

The only organized event today was a farewell dinner, so we were all free to do as was our want.

As for me, I'm pleased to say that I slept in, did some reading, and took an afternoon wander down to the Dublin Maritime Festival. Here are a few photos from the event and the walk... before incoming rain forced me to holster my camera.

(Okay, so I went a bit overboard shooting the rat... but it was cute and everybody seemed to enjoy hanging with the little guy. Besides, he was giving voice to an important social message: Save the Trash.)

And then, that was it. We dined together one last time at The Bank Restaurant, a stylist establishment housed in an old bank.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. Virtually everything went right. Liam even said that it was the single best tour that he's taken--which I think that we can all take as a high compliment. I was routinely amazed by Claire's superb organizational skills which made the whole thing work. The students were great.

They're off for home now. As for me, I'm off to Scotland for a new round of adventures over the next week.

Day 13: Belfast

Today we were up early (couldn't get out of the awful Travelodge quickly enough, I'll tell you that!) to drive to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland and the place where the Troubles started. Our plan for the day was not overly packed, just a tour of the city led by another Aiden (this one financially rather than ideologically driven), lunch at the famous Crown Bar, and a quick tour of the Crumlin Road Jail.

Once again, Claire set us up with a fabulous guide. Aiden II knew his stuff, was brimming with great stories, and told them well. Listening to his banter, it was clear that he is a Catholic, but you wouldn't know it unless you knew what you were looking for (remember, everything is a symbol). Indeed, most of the students thought that he is Protestant because he spent more of the tour in Loyalist areas.

Our first stop was the shipyard where Titanic was built, now being redeveloped as the Titanic Quarter for tourists. We did not get out of the bus, so no photos (sadly).

Next off, Stormont--the political heart of the North.

Let's go back to the symbols idea again quickly. Stormont is the Northern Irish equivalent of the US Capital Building or Britain's parliament at Westminster, but there are key differences. For one thing, if you look at the place from the air, the roads form a Union Jack. For another thing, there is a giant statue of a major Unionist politician, Edward Carson, at the center of that Union Jack. All calculated to make Nationalists feel good about themselves, I'm sure.

With Stormont behind us, we delved into the Loyalist areas of Belfast—looking specifically at the colorful murals that decorate working class neighborhoods. In Unionist areas, the murals are pretty terrifying.

In recent years many local governments in the North started to push for an end to symbols like these. Some even tried to stop Loyalists and Nationalists alike from putting up flags—perhaps the most divisive symbol of all. Evidently this effort is not taking place in Belfast as we saw a Loyalist group putting up flags.

For whatever reason, we did spend more time in Loyalist areas than in the Nationalist Falls Road. Still, we did stop to get some photos of Nationalist murals as well. I particularly like this one... mostly because it looks like a family member if he were to grow a beard. Okay, so that wasn't very intellectual. This mural celebrates the infamous H-Block hunger strikes. In brief, Nationalist prisoners wanted to be afforded the rights of political prisoners including the right to wear their own cloths. When this was not allowed, they started wearing only blankets. When that didn't work they smeared their cells with excrement (the so-called "dirty protest") and when that didn't work, they went on hunger strike in 1981. Ten men died before the British government finally gave in.

Our last major tour stop was the so-called "Peace Wall." When Loyalists and Nationalists failed to get along, the Brits constructed a giant wall between the two communities. It runs for miles and is something like 90-feet high. Today, though things are considerably better in the North, as a cry for the final and total end to conflict, people sign the wall.

Tour over, it was on to the Crown Bar for lunch. This place is the ultimate in high Victorian pub design. It also features great food and some wonderful cask beers.

The ceilings were done by the same craftsmen who did the Titanic.

Finally, it was on to the Crumlin Road Jail we had a tour booked. Funny thing was, when we showed up, the place was under renovation! "What?" you say. Not a very good way to attract return tourists!

Thinking quickly, Claire and I decided to take us to the Ulster Museum for a quick tour. I focused on the history exhibits, but the museum features natural stuff (dinosaurs, for example) as well as two floors of art. An impressive place.

Of course, my great question was how the history would be presented... reasonably well, as it happens.

Once finished, we headed back to Dublin where I did laundry and the students headed out for a final night on the town. Tomorrow is the last day.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Day 12: Derry

We couldn't have asked for a more complete tour, ranging from the town walls (Derry was the last walled city built in Europe), to the Bogside where Bloody Sunday took place in 1972, to the City Cemetery where the toll of the Troubles is written in stone.

For those who hadn't been to (London)Derry, it was an eye-opening experience. This town is decidedly working class. The people here are proud and tough. For outsiders, it can be intimidating. Of course, as soon as you get to know the locals, you realize that they are friendly and open; it is only the exterior that is, as one trip member put it, "rough."

The first thing to get out of the way is that when you pass into Northern Ireland, everything becomes a symbol. The roadways are a little wider, the roundabouts a bit fancier. Hedgerows are cropped a bit closer. Flags really mean something, as do the sports you follow and the teams you support. Even words are loaded. Thus, Derry is "Derry" to Nationalists and "Londonderry" to Protestants. I'm going to call it Derry not for any political reason but because I don't want to type the extra letters!

I'll start off with this photo simply because it is iconic. The Bogside was briefly "liberated" from English rule early on during the Troubles and the gable with "Free Derry" on it remains. Do not let it confuse you. I heard a story that some tourists recently arrived in Derry and would grab things in the shops and simply walk out. When questioned they said: "Isn't this 'Free' Derry?" They were soon put straight. Oh, and that group of tourists was NOT US.

Any road, we met our guide, Aiden, in the Bogside.

He was an excellent guide: knowledgeable and engaging. He was also a Nationalist with a capital "N." This was not an unbiased tour and Aiden hardly acknowledged the existence of one of the city's most prominent Loyalist groups—the Apprentice Boys.

We walked RIGHT past their lodge!

Now, here's the thing. I knew that we were going to get a Nationalist tour. Simply put, the Loyalists do not provide a handy tour that we could book and this tour was done through the Museum of Free Derry.

Aiden was clear that he wants peace. He was also clear that all of Ireland's problem are the fault of English rule. Loyalists did not really play a role in his narrative and we were left to think that they're simply a bunch of hapless victims.

The problem with this view is that Loyalists have very real fears, very real goals, very real traditions, and a distinctive culture. You cannot simply write them out of history and hope to ever truly attain peace. But I editorialize. Back to the tour.

We started by exploring the town wall. The above photo shows the view down the main street in the heart of the walled city. A World War I memorial sits at the center of things.

Aiden pointed out that unpleasant ideas still persist in Derry. The above graffiti says "Taig's Out." "Taig" is a derogative term for Catholics that is taken in much the same way that the "N-word" is in the United States.

Aiden did not similarly point out that RIRA is spray-painted in many places in the Bogside. The RIRA, or Real IRA, is (to the best of my knowledge) the only active paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. In recent months they've shot policemen, planted bombs, and murdered innocents. It struck me that some mention of them was called for, even if only to point out (as Aiden did when I asked) that their support is limited to a few pockets of die-hard Republicans.

After the wall, it was on to the Bogside where we learned about the on-set of the Troubles, the Battle of the Bogside (which established Free Derry), Bloody Sunday, and Operation Motorman. It was an impassioned presentation because, as a young boy, Aiden helped Bogside women make petrol bombs for use in the Battle of the Bogside. He lived events, lost friends. It is all very real to him still.

Our final stop was the City Cemetery. Aiden said he thought it strange that we wanted to visit, but I cannot think of a better place to better see the reality of the Troubles.

Take this Irish National Liberation Army monument at the top of the cemetery. Add to it row upon row of Republican graves, complete with Irish tri-color flags (not flying while we were there), each marked with "Died for Ireland" or "Died in Active Service." The Troubles is not some abstract bit of history stuck away in books. (Personally, of course, I don't think history is ever abstract or should ever be filed away and forgotten). It is incredibly real. Widows stopped at IRA graves while we stood there.

Tour complete we moved into museum mode. First stop: the Free Derry Museum. This site is extremely Republican and focuses on Bloody Sunday. Even recognizing the bias, it is a powerful site. Beyond mere text or video, there are bloody clothes, jackets riddled with bullet holes, rubber bullets, and other artifacts.

Finally, we finished the day with a whirlwind trip through the Tower Museum—the official city museum which negotiates much of the territory we'd seen earlier, but in a more even-handed fashion. It was disappointing that we only had a few minutes left in an action-packed day. This site deserves FAR more time.

Last but certainly not least, a complaint. Our entire trip has been seamless. Great hotels, good food, wonderful weather. Unfortunately our hotel this evening was not up to scratch. Nobody involved with our trip deserves blame--it was impossible to know plus we were acting with very tight budgetary and geographic limitations--but I very much want to let all of you reading this that the Travelodge in Derry is to be avoided at all costs. It is filthy, poorly kept, and over-priced for what you get. The bed springs poked through, the room stunk of old cigarettes, and the other guests were loud and drunken throughout the night. Everybody in our group weathered the storm with few complaints, but all of you should, once again, save yourself the hassle and avoid the Derry Travelodge.