I could get away with saying that I am a well-traveled person. Through the long-lasting generosity of my aunt, I have been able to travel through much of Europe, as well as visiting Australia, Mexico, and many destinations in the United States.
This past weekend changed all that. I spent two days in the Northern Ireland city of Belfast with a delegation of about a hundred students studying various places in Ireland. Now I feel as if I haven’t experienced anything except this place.
The first night we arrived in Belfast, the only organized activity consisted of a dinner at the hostel. Needless to say, everyone had pretty much the same goal after the bland meal: find pub, buy pint.
A large group of us went to the first place we saw; a bar across the street from the Belfast International Hostel, called the Royal. As we walked in, we noticed a confederate flag flying alongside other flags, some of which we recognized and others we didn’t. We decided that they probably didn’t know what it meant, or put it up for less nasty reasons than we would generally assume. The American students had soon overrun the bar, but the publican seemed to be enjoying the influx of tourists on a slow night.
Events of the night included:
-Backstreet Boys being played back-to-back for about half an hour. This was accompanied by the typical girl-bopping, and predictable old-man-ogling.
-A very drunken fellow around the age of forty-five, repeated two things to me about fifteen times; that he was from Northern Ireland, and that his son was fighting in Afghanistan for the British. And then he kissed my nose.
-The Publican of the bar allowed not one, but four American boys to go behind the bar and pull their own pints of Guinness.
-One very enthusiastic man showed us how he could put his leg behind his head and then stand up. We clapped.
When we pulled back into the Hostel after a day of hiking the Giant’s Causeway, our guides advised us to patron the pubs that would have people our own age, The Bot and The Eg adjacent to Queen’s University Belfast. We were told to stay clear of the Royal, as it was a bit of a dodgy establishment. At first I thought our guides were just being too protective of a group of young people for which they were responsible, but then the stories began to pile in.
That night, a smaller group of Americans went back to the Royal while the rest of us decided to check out the student bars. A couple of pints in, one of the boys asked the Barman why they flew the confederate flag outside their bar, to which he made it clear, using racist, but yet matter-of-fact language, that this was a bar that favored white supremacy. The kid looked confused, so the man elaborated, “Do you see any of them here?”
It wasn’t until the next day when I was being told this story, that I looked out the window of the bus as we passed the Royal and noticed the body of a doll hanging from the lamp post outside the front door, an obvious lynching reference.
Now, all this was disturbing enough. I felt ignorant and dirty thinking that I had given money to the establishment and not even noticed what was obviously going on around me. But what made our experience in Belfast that weekend so disturbing wasn’t the fact that we mistakenly patroned the wrong bar, but my peers responses to the experience the morning after.
This was the majority of the reponses:
And the kickers: “But they were soooo nice to us!” or “Oh my god, it was so fun though.”
To which I responded, quite loudly: “Yeah, because you are white, dumbasses!”
Talk about a situation that reveals character and morals. I had one guy say to me that he was glad that he went because the bartender was really nice to him, they had a great conversation, and that “they” are people too.
Seriously?! This is the reaction we are having to have mistakenly walked into a white-supremicist bar, that also happened to hold the meetings of the Ulster Defence League in its uptairs room?
Yes, most of us have never encountered such blatant racism in our lives, but a scary amount of my peers were talking about the situation as if it was funny, or something they had seen in an exhibit at the Natural History Museum, not a real life experience that should be quite spiritually disturbing.
Perhaps it sank in a bit more as the day went on, during which we toured the Falls and Shankill areas of Belfast, the Catholic and Protestant communities respectively, which are seperated by a concrete and steel-enforced wall. Our tour guide described the wall as similar to the Berlin Wall, except for that fact that it isn’t coming down any time soon.
We toured the area of Shankill to take a look at the hundreds of murals painted by the Loyalists. Their history and significance is too intricate to get into at the moment, but let it be said that one mural we saw commemorated the life of a young Loyalist Militia Commander who had been murdered in 2000. This is just barely history. It isn’t the noted and archived history which we learn about in school, but rather something still breathing in the daily life of the residents.
This mural is about a block and half away from our hostel.
On that same block a little girl came running out of her house, giving us the finger as her parents smiled and laughed.
I would like to say however, that this hasn’t been my experience in Dublin whatsoever, nor have any other students I’ve talked to reported such blatant, or even subtler racism in the counties they are studying in throughout the Republic. However, this could be due to the fact that there just isn’t a lot of diversity to begin with, so it might just not be as obvious. Or we could just not notice, given our horrible blindness we displayed over the weekend.
These events won’t be leaving my mind any time soon, and for that I am grateful because they deserve a great deal of thought from all of us.