30 July 2008


History classes in a German highschool in the Black Forest somewhere around 1984 teach you a lot of (repetitive) stuff about WWII and the 1789 French Revolution. But I can't recall that during the whole lot of 9 years any teacher even remotely spoke about what was happening in Northern Ireland. From the news I knew that there was a war going on, that explosives were going off in shops and aboard busses and that it had something to do with religion.

Now, roughly 20 years later, I arrive in Belfast. The city gives me a sort of mystical feeling, just like Hong Kong did when I first arrived there and maybe Cape Town or Mexico City will do. What is left after the war? Has it really ended? How do people feel about it nowadays?

Funny enough, we all know something about Belfast but we don't know it is about Belfast. For centuries, Belfast was home to some of the best engineering in the world. The shipyard of Harland & Wolff (on one of the pictures you can see a massive yellow crane with H&W on it) produced some of the best ships worldwide. Ten thousands of dock workers were employed here. In the very beginning of the 20th century H&W pioneered in the construction of a totally new class of passenger ships. They would be bigger and more glamorous than everything that existed before. The harbour of Belfast had some of the world's largest dry docks. But the construction of this new class of ships (almost 300m long and 30m wide!) demanded even larger docks. They had to be twice as long as the biggest existing dock!
Three enormous vessels were build in Belfast during the period between 1908 and 1914. The most famous of the three "sisters" left the dock on May 31, 1911 and started its maiden voyage roughly a year after. Belfast is her birthplace but the world (including Belfast) forgot about this due to more dramatic aquatic events.

When I stroll through the city, it has a feel of change to it, just like Berlin after the wall fell. There are numerous construction sites and cranes are sticking out of the skyline all over the horizon. To me, Belfast isn't a beautiful city (just like Berlin) but it has a feeling of being on the move, transforming from one thing into another, waking up from a long winter's sleep. In some places, old houses stick out betwen the newer functional buildings. They give a hint of how the city must have looked like a hundred years ago when the alleyways were full of noise from street vendors and horse drawn carriages and people wore hats and long fluffy skirts.

I spend a couple of days visiting Pam, a friend of my colleague Emma from Medecins Sans Frontieres. We explore the north coast of Northern Ireland and visit the Giants Causeway, a basalt rock formation that is dated back to volcanic eruptions about 60 million years ago. The remarkable thing about the basalt stones is their almost perfect hexagonal shape (resulting from the lava cracking during its cooling process). The basalt sticks out of the ground as if some giant kids played LEGOs and forgot them when their mom called them in for dinner (T-Rex-Bone steaks?).

We also hike to some nice stretches of beach where we discover the secret for the good taste of Irish butter: the cows up here are having a real good time... when they don't spend their days in a jacusy in the SPA, they just hang out on the sunny beach.

One thing that strikes me on my way through Northern Ireland is the presence of flags and banners. When I talk with some Irish in a Pub about the "past troubles", nobody would say out loud words like "Protestants" or "Catholics". The whole issue is a hot topic and nobody wants to take sides or be associated with one or the other.
So what was all this Union-Jack fuss about? Do you see the Queen and Prince X on banners all over London?
I visit a spot where the old "Peaceline" had been - a tall wall with a high fence (see picture) seperated one half of the city from the other half. This looks just like the Berlin Wall or the bloody thing they built in Israel! On some building I find massive slogans for the "Ulster defence force". For a people that apparently tries to get by on peaceful terms I find this slightly disturbing... I don't want to come across as a pessimist, but in times of a shaky peace, plastering half the place with flags of one party and painting the other half with slogans for the other doesn't really seem all to smart to me.

I am leaving Belfast after a couple of relaxing days at Pam's and head down the east coast towards Dublin.

Oh, yeah, the ship... well, when she left Belfast she was in perfect condition. She sailed the flag of the White Star Line and she was unsinkable. She sank on April 15, 1912 and was not found until 1985. This is one of the last pictures taken when she left the docks of Belfast. It's the Titanic.

1 comment:

  1. Festgezurrt an meinen Schreibtisch schwelge ich angesichts deiner Berichte in herrlichen Träumen über das echte Leben. Da draussen. Wo so viele von uns eigentlich hingehören. Eigentlich. Ein hässliches Eigentlich, das momentan noch die Füsse fesselt. Hoffentlich nicht mehr sehr lange. Die Sehnsucht nach da draussen ist groß.
    Genieße und bleib weiter so ein heiterer Wandersmann!
    Ein (vorerst) Daheimgebliebener