Unstoppable Redemption (Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom)

“Be prepared to be amazed by the fastest and most luxurious high speed ferry service in the world” the ferry PA cooed.

Thank you, I will.

It was just like being back on the QM2, sort of. It had all the glitz and none of the butt kissing for which my ego was truly sad. The Stena Voyager is well appointed with four restaurants, three lounges, and a casino. One of those restaurants is a Burger King where a burger, small fries and a coke will set your travel budget back £4.99 pounds or about $9.00 US.

There are also five flat video monitors and they were all displaying dramatic vignettes of animals killing other animals for food. I’m sure subliminally this is make you feel better about dropping a small fortune on non-threatening anonymous chunks of cow.

There are no Rolls Royce stablizers on the Voyager so the crossing was three hours of gentle rocking that was just like the fetal days of being weightless in amniotic fluid. I know this for a fact because my mother’s womb did not possess Rolls Royce stabilizers.

* * *

There is no mistaking Belfast. When I was a child I remember watching the violence unfold here countless times on the news. Yesterday was the day of the White Rock Parade in West Belfast and the Parade Commission decided in the interest of safety to prevent the procession from marching in front of the very homes of the nationalists they despise.

Rioters keeping warm on West Circular Road
Rioters keeping warm on West Circular Road

West Circular Road was turned into a war zone with two Army Land Rovers set ablaze by Molotov Cocktails. Six police officers were hurt during the rioting – reminiscent of the time that they call “The Troubles” around here. As is the case with mob mentality the nationalists were also out in full force taunting the loyalists and that only escalated the situation. The loyalist supporters then blocked all the streets in and out of Shaftsbury Square where I was staying at the YHA and that’s what I walked into after my day of traversing the streets of benign central Belfast.

Armored police carriers were blocking all the roads into Shaftsbury and the troops were ready to rumble, they were not amateurs.

Overhead a police helicopter hovered taking in a God’s eye view of the city because there was violence in many more places in the city. Violence much worse than this. I had seen enough.
The first thing I learned when traveling to areas of turmoil was to avoid public demonstration and discontent wherever you see it. In most countries crying “police brutality” will just result in the officer saying “My heavens! Goodness me! Why it certainly is!” before clubbing you again. It’s not America which, as we all know, is home to the world’s kindest and most loving police forces.

I took a few pictures and some video and immediately went inside the YHA.

Northern Ireland is still a very dangerous place sometimes, but it is also a place of redemption.

I decided to go to Carrick-a-Rede where you access the island by way of a rope and plank bridge. It is 60 feet in length and is suspended 80 feet above the crashing waves and jagged rocks. This proved an interesting and occasionally heart pounding experience as the bridge bucked all the while I was crossing it.

Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge
Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. It's a long way down.

The wind was very strong making you feel as if you were going to be blown away at any moment. The scenery was gorgeous with seagulls circling over steep, sheer chalky cliffs and turbulent whitecaps.

I’m sure if someone more talented than I were describing it to you, you’d be thinking “What a great and dramatic place to die”. That is until you heard the punchline: “Uh yeah,….well… umm… he fell off a rope and plank bridge”.

It’s another heart pounding experience, one of a kinder nature, that I want to mention right now. En route to the bridge is a small protestant Church of Ireland with a dwindling congregation that could not afford to fix it’s roof. The nearby Catholic church took it upon itself to raise money, and not only had the roof restored, but also renovated the whole place.

The driver Patrick, a young, proud and likable young man said “Of course you never see this in the news”. That brought to mind the Elvis Costello song “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding”. He is right, peace sells and no one buys most of the time.

Despite it’s reputation for violence Belfast is changing for the better and I dare say I like it here.

The rioting is an uncommon event and in no way represents modern Belfast. It doesn’t even represent old Belfast. Nationalists and loyalists groups are shells of their former selves and are now nothing more than well dressed thugs carrying tattered flags that used to mean something.

I have taken pains to not say unkind things in my dispatches, but this violence is senseless. I am a realist. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for violence and I know that sounds remarkably odd for a Buddhist to say, but I offer you this: it cuts down on Sylvester Stallone’s dialogue. That is the ONE exception.

Belfast is a safe city with a friendly people and a rich history, something the city wants you to understand. The Titanic was built here, something that leads residents to joke “It was okay when it left Belfast!”.

Elaborate murals, long a symbol of the sectarianism, now sport web site addresses proving that in the rising tide of progress that all boats must lift or perish.

* * *

I was amazed by Belfast and it turned out to be much more than I expected. Beautiful Victorian buildings, a thriving cultural scene and the arts flourish at every turn.

I think back to the ferry announcement and I certainly am amazed. I am amazed that Belfast is in most respects a normal place despite attempts by hoodlums to mar it with violence.

Note: Since this dispatch was written the rioting went on for three more days resulting in more than 80 officers being injured by Orange rioters. It’s amazing that no one was killed in violence that randomly and routinely used molotov cocktails and live gunfire. Orange Grand Master Robert Saulters refuses to denounce the rioting. And so the gang wars continue……

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