“Trick or Treat, Sir”. The students of an all-boys school in Belfast taunted their new substitute teacher on Monday, November 8th, 1993. His years in the North had diluted his Limerick twang into a mild, soft Irish accent but it had not gone unnoticed by his class. Noses like bloodhounds, they sniffed out the fly in the ointment of their Britishness that day. The reason they said these 4 words to my father as he tried to teach was that just over a week before, armed UDA gunmen walked into the Rising Sun bar in Derry, shouted “TRICK OR TREAT” and opened fire. They killed 8 people.
Nearly 27 years on, those days of shootings in bars or blowing up cars are gone. But the fog of The Troubles still hangs in the Belfast air for those that don’t frequent it. To me, Belfast is among the best cities in the world. A vibrant tapestry of people full of wit and generosity. But many of my friends in the South fail to see this. The same derogatory jokes are rolled out time and time again of the dirty bombs or hunger strikers, most often by those who haven’t ventured across the border. It seems that our history continues to plague perceptions. Born in ’98, I was never in any danger of being involved in the conflict, but I am still, in some perverse way, associated with it simply by being from here. Going to London with my girlfriend just last year we met a couple our age who upon learning we were from Belfast, proceeded to tell us of how “mental” we all are because we enjoy blowing one another up. When people say things like this to you, it hurts a great deal. I am very proud to be from Belfast. Not because we are all “mental”, but because of what came before us. People of such polar opposite convictions pulled together in order to pave a new way for the youth. We may never know what the previous generation gave up or lost for us. But it is thanks to them that we will never have to experience it.
One of the main attractions of the city are its murals. For those travelling for a holiday, they are a mere history lesson as they tour atop one of our sightseeing buses. For loyalists, seeing Jackie Coulter’s face at Hopewell Crescent may make them reminisce of how they fought for God and Ulster and champion the fact that the Union is still intact. For Republicans, the depiction of Bobby Sands on the Falls Road is an eternal source of pride, now excited with the possibility of seeing a United Ireland in their lifetime. But for the younger generation of today, these murals serve as a stark reminder of what came before us. The sacrifices made to obtain peace for our sakes. For those outside the NI bubble, the belief that Belfast is a violent place is still there, but the scars are fading. And years from now, who knows, maybe those who have long held that belief will be able to appreciate it for what it truly is. A wonderful, wonderful place steeped in tragic history.