A #vqrtruestory for Virginia Quarterly Review's Summer 2018 issue
He searches the names on Belfast’s most famous “peace wall” and finds his. LARGiE. But Noel Large is just about 5’5” tall. “You’re not very big, are you?” his teachers used to say. His voice is a pinched brogue. He’s slightly hobbled by a knee injury that shattered his football dreams. He’s 61 years old.
“But there was a time when I was the hardest man where I come from,” he says, pretending to cock a gun. His eyes dart like a bird’s in his gaunt face, missing nothing.
During the Troubles, which claimed over 3,600 lives in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998, Noel was an “operator” for the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary which essentially existed to fight the Irish Republican Army in a “tit-for-tat” war. “I was involved in murders, attempted murders, armed robberies, procuring weapons, stuff like that. I pleaded guilty to all counts and was given four life sentences plus 357 years in prison.”
He looks away, doesn’t elaborate. After serving 16 years, he walked free with over 400 paramilitary prisoners who were controversially released as part of the Good Friday peace agreement. Many are now politicians, cab drivers, community workers; some, like Noel, guide tourists like me through West Belfast, a historical flashpoint of sectarian violence.
I add my name to the peace wall along Cupar Way, one of a cluster in this working-class area that separates two religious communities with irreconciliable national aspirations. The wall is 800 metres long and 14 metres tall—blastproof concrete topped with metal sheet and mesh. On one side: Shankill Road, home mostly to Protestant unionists or loyalists who want to remain in the United Kingdom. On the other: Falls Road, home mostly to Catholic nationalists or republicans who want a free, united Ireland. The divide that dates back centuries, beyond Ireland’s partition to its colonisation by British settlers.
“I was 40 years old before I set foot on the Falls peacefully. I would have been there before, but only late at night and always when I was up to no good.”
Noel peers at the wall and spots a message that makes him smile.
“Peace, love and Georgie Best. Aye.”
Robert McClenaghan grew up around Falls Road and was 11 years old when the Troubles broke out. “This is where I enter Irish history,” he says, with a joviality that belies what he’s about to tell us as we begin our tour outside Divis Tower. Along the street, a Royal Mail postbox has gone rogue, its red coat concealed in green. // Over just two days in August 1969, the two communities just west of the city burned each other out of their homes, displacing 1,800 families—1,500 Catholic—and reinforcing patterns of segregation. “When the police come, we think they’re going to stop the violence, but instead, they start firing their machine guns on the Divis flats,” killing a nine-year-old boy and a Catholic British soldier home on leave. Near the boundary with Shankill Road, a 15-year-old boy was shot by loyalist paramilitaries while helping to salvage furniture from a house: Gerald McAuley, with whom Robert had played football and hung around street corners. // The Catholic community felt the IRA had failed them, and the walls said as much: I Ran Away. They didn’t have any faith in the British Army as peacekeepers either, not after July 1970, when soldiers wrecked their homes and killed four men in an extensive search for arms. “They didn’t come to protect us from the loyalists or the police. They came to protect the state”—which, to Catholics, was a state controlled by a Protestant majority that discriminated against them in voting, housing and jobs. More men joined the IRA as it became dominated by the more militant Provisionals; some, like McCabe, would have been former British soldiers. The conflict escalated. The Divis flats became a battleground. The soldiers commandeered the roof and the top two floors, moving in and out by helicopter as the IRA shot up at them. // When he was 17, Robert joined the fight. “Geraldo’s death had a big impact on me. My wee head started to change. He was one of the reasons I wanted to join something.” Later, he was convicted of carrying weapons and explosives and served 12 years in prison. “Of my graduating class at school, 20 out of 30 ended up dead or in prison. I was one of the lucky ones.”
The most famous mural on Falls Road is on the side of Sinn Fein’s office: a smiling Bobby Sands, famously portrayed by Michael Fassbender in the film Hunger. Sands was the leader of a series of hunger strikes in jail, which eventually claimed his life and nine others before Margaret Thatcher agreed partially to IRA demands to be recognised as “political prisoners”. // “I would always recommend the movie,” says Peadar Whelan, who was interned with Sands at the Long Kesh prison. “In 1978, I was sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to kill a policeman and served 16 years. The Long Kesh was known as the university of revolution. It’s where we developed our political struggle”, which was propelled further by Sands’ election as a member of parliament before he died in 1981. Peadar didn’t go on hunger strike, but he participated in the No Wash protest, where IRA prisoners refused to leave their cells, even to piss. “Every time you left your cell, you would be beaten. So we stopped washing, and eventually, we started spreading our shit on the walls. We were using the conditions we were in—the only means we had—to undermine the system. The screws had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with us. They would force us to squat over a mirror while they inserted their fingers into our anuses to search us.” In retaliation, the prisoners sent word to the IRA on the outside identifying the prison officers who had abused them. At least 30 were killed. // Originally from Derry—not Londonderry—Peadar came of age with the civil rights movement there which preceded the Troubles in Belfast, and was politicised by events like Bloody Sunday. For him, the conflict was all about politics. “It was a political divide along unionist and nationalist lines. Unionism and loyalism were defined by sectarianism, but for us, it was an anti-imperialist struggle.” For Peadar, Northern Ireland doesn’t exist, only the Six Counties—a view reflected in a stretch of murals that claim solidarity with liberation struggles around the world: Palestine, Catalonia, Kurdistan. For republicans, Ireland was England’s first colony, and still is.
“Growing up, I had Ian Paisley way up here,” Noel says, referring to the incendiary preacher who rode to popularity among Protestants on anti-Catholic rhetoric. “He told you it was a waste of time joining the security forces if you wanted to fight the IRA because the British were secretly talking to them. The message was clear. I knew I had to join a group that would go outside the law.” // Then, Bloody Friday: a clear summer’s day. The IRA ignited 19 bombs across Belfast in 80 minutes, killing nine, including Noel’s friend William Crothers, a 15-year-old who had just started a summer job in the city. “On the evening news, you could see firemen collecting parts of bodies into black plastic bags,” Noel recalls. // Walking along Shankill Road, I notice that the murals strike a more uncompromising stance than those on the other side of the wall. Outlawed loyalist paramilitary groups still loom large as “defenders of the community”, with smiling UVF men wielding guns, though the balaclavas have gone. Crosses of poppies hang on shopfronts as signs of tragedy. A memorial dedicated to the victims of the Bayardo Bar bombing—mostly Protestant civillians—features a “montage of atrocities” committed by the IRA, including the bombing of a furniture shop that killed two babies. A poster reads: IRA–SINN FEIN–ISIS: NO DIFFERENCE. Noel says, “The IRA will sit in the same room as me today while we talk to student groups and they’ll say that Bayardo wasn’t sectarian. I’ll say, how was it not? It was nakedly sectarian, just as I was nakedly sectarian. Yes, that was me. It was wrong.” // Somewhere in the police’s interrogation notes, Noel is said to have laughed as he confessed to shooting a man in the head. It’s hard to square that chilling portrait with the man who stands in front of me now on a street curb, hunched against the Irish winter, reciting a poem he wrote in jail about a time before the Troubles “filled with hopes and dreams and adventures”. For Noel, these tours are about telling a story of what happened here in an abnormal time. “It’s about telling people we weren’t all monsters, and letting them make up their minds.”
In West Belfast and other segregated neighbourhoods, the past—marked by rival flags, memorials and murals—is everywhere. “But in the shared space of the city centre, everything is kept neutral to avoid offence to anyone,” says Paul Donnelly, a former conflict mediator who now guides walking tours about the Troubles through downtown Belfast. “We still can’t agree on how to deal with the legacies of the past. We can’t even agree on who constitutes a victim. Cross-community dialogue is necessary but not always productive. Sometimes people are revisiting old anger, and you think, do we keep having the same conversation over and over?” // On first impressions, Belfast looks like any European city, with the usual high-street stores and Caffe Nero chains. The Abercorn restaurant, which was bombed in 1972, is now a shiny Liverpool FC store, with nothing to remember the two young women killed or the 130 injured. And the walls here embrace a wider range of identities, like the city’s shipbuilding heritage and its C.S. Lewis connections. “The sectarian murals never represented who I am,” a local street artist tells me. // Still, the invisible past hovers. “Come here after 6pm, and virtually everything is closed. We still have a dead centre,” Paul says, as we stand outside City Hall. It’s a hangover from the Troubles, when the city core was barricaded by a “ring of steel” built by the British Army, which prohibited entry after 6pm everyday. At the checkpoints, everyone would be searched, even babies in prams. “We haven’t completely emerged from the patterns of behaviour the Troubles produced. Even now, some of us will never sit with our backs to the door in a pub or a restaurant. That’s classic Belfast.” // That’s why Paul calls his tours Dead Centre Tours, which also reflects his politics. “I’m secular Protestant and left-wing,” he says—a consequence, perhaps, of the mixed marriages in his family between unionists and republicans. He was invited to join several political parties from both sides of the divide, but turned them all down. “I find life here very frustrating. There’s not an awful lot of political space for someone like me.”
When they first appeared at the outbreak of the Troubles, they were lines of burned-out buses, corrugated metal, scaffolding, furniture, whatever the people could get their hands on. The lines were built by the two communities to defend themselves from each other’s stones, bullets and petrol bombs. When the British Army moved into Belfast to restore order, it replaced the makeshift barricades with barbed-wire fences meant to be temporary, but they grew more solid over time. // There are still about 100 peace lines in Belfast today. Some went up after the Troubles. Most are not as imposing as the one along Cupar Way. Some have gates that allow crossings at certain hours, though many are still cautious about going on foot. “Loyalists know me as a republican activist, so it probably wouldn’t be the safest for me to walk on Shankill Road. Nothing might happen, but I’m not going to take the chance,” Peadar says. // The peace lines make the divisions between the two communities seem stark, but for some, allegiances aren’t so clearly cut. I meet a young Catholic historian who identifies as unionist—“I’ve been rejected in my romantic pursuits, twice for being Catholic and once for being unionist,” he says, laughing. Paul describes himself and his son as Protestant, Northern Irish, British, and also Irish. And the ground is shifting with new uncertainties, with Brexit, a growing Catholic population, and a coalition government deadlocked for more than a year. // The peace lines began as self-imposed borders by the two communities, and they’ll only come down when both sides are ready. On Bombay street, Catholic homes press up against the Cupar Way peace wall, their backyards still covered by metal cages to ward off the occasional petrol bomb thrown by antisocial or “dissident” groups bucking the peace process. But there’s something else: the beginning of a road that defies logic, cut off by the peace wall. “When the Catholic community rebuilt these homes after the riots of August 1969,” Robert explains, “they built this road as a symbol of hope—that one day, the wall would come down, and the road would pave the way to the other side.”