Nothing in Ireland is black and white, and yet everything is as different as black is from white. There is still a black and white nature to Belfast, the leafy green and upmarket side where we stayed in our hotel, and the side that is grey, bleak and as vacant of houses as a ghetto. I recall Ireland in black and white, in the days when the 'troubles' featured on our TV screens every evening, but I was too young then to remember now the slant on the troubles from an NZBC perspective, although I do recall the "tut tutting" by my parents and grandmother (who lived with us then) as we dutifully watched the News at Six. I imagine that the Empire ruled our house and our minds and the "left footers" (as my dad called them), were always at fault.
My life as I grow older is punctuated with memories of the past, and small segments of the troubles in Ireland, armoured Police stations and vehicles (still to be seen today), and the Vietnam War are occasionally played out in black and white in flashbacks in my mind. It was some of these that persuaded us to take a Black Taxi Tour in Belfast. The tour itself is of the sections of Belfast where events occurred (in many cases - little changed, the two up two downs with outside toilets and no hot water from the 60s are still there, some derelict some being repurposed) and where tributes and memorials now punctuate the landscape of 2016. The tours are taken by veterans of the events, hard to know or be able to guess the depths to which each has been involved, but our tour guide, (a man in his mid 60s) remained distant from a direct connection apart from letting slip on one occasion of the scar he still wears on his calf as a result of a rubber bullet.
The tour, which was to be 90 minutes, ended after two and a half hours as we chatted and were taken to more and more historical sites. To be honest there were many moments when the conversation was bleak, the reasons behind the anger, the repercussions and reprisals for criminal acts on both sides, the status held for people whose acts can be described as nothing other than cold blooded murder, their shrines visited and accorded sacrificial status left me bewildered and sad.
Parts of Belfast are still walled off in an evening and opened the following morning, this was initially to protect sides from violence, but in recent times has precipitated a new violence of drugs (crack cocaine and heroin) by feuding gangs within the walls. Of the rest of the city the walls to divide still do their job and have a strange domination over sides segregated by religion. To see houses that nestle up against the wall with their own steel designed protection shelters for their backyards (similar to prison yards) was chilling and yet there to protect from a still real threat. Sharon asked if "this was living?", and I guess it is but it's hardly free for body or mind.
There are loads of ceremonial walls and gardens where the names of the killed, murdered, and lost are carved in bronze, where murals are painted and where connections are made between the martyrdoms in Ireland conflicts with those across the globe in Nicaragua, Cuba, South Africa and Iraq, where recently the word Orlando was added in tribute to the mass killing. The imagery on one side is memorialised though images and sayings, flowers and emblems, the other inflammatory images, guns and death. Even in these there is no black and white.
What was particularly interesting was the allowance by the authorities of communities to fly illegal flags, hold illegal marches and do nothing when huge fires are built to celebrate events. We saw a bonfire being built in a square very close to houses but our driver told us that the houses are boarded up and the people moved away. The pallets at the base of the bonfire were worth €10 each and there must have been 1500. Tell me that's not mad, but then I remember the driver saying "don't try to bring logic to the troubles, you'll end up on a mental institution".
When the tour concluded our driver dropped us off at the indoor Market full of life, music, food and treats, we shared a table with a couple for an hour or more and spoke about Ireland and New Zealand. We spoke about the 'troubles' and it's hard to imagine this Belfast Market as anything other than a homogeneous sample of the city population, living, working and enjoying each others company. But then this is but a few days after BREXIT, and now those who can are trying to secure Irish passports, so these people say. Another case of black and white.
Our new dining friends even drove us back our Hotel and promised to look us up if they ever came to Christchurch, and have a daughter coming next year. Maybe we'll see her.