The Trouble With Northern Ireland

After spending three weeks in the Republic of Ireland, Mac and I continued on to Northern Ireland. Because of its brutal recent past with the Troubles, a decades-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants, it’s a part of the world not many tourists have made it to. Indeed, the tourism industry in the country (Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, not the Republic of Ireland) is less than ten years old. Both of us grew up with the Troubles—and their many bombings—dominating the nightly news. Once the smoke had cleared, we were eager to see Northern Ireland and learn what all of the violence had been about.


Despite its sordid history, Mac and I assumed that Northern Ireland was almost going to be an extension of the Republic of Ireland—the same friendly faces, the same corner pubs. We noticed our mistake almost as soon as we got off the bus in Belfast. It wasn’t just the people (less overtly friendly) and the buildings (no pubs) that seemed different; the whole vibe was un-Irish. Belfast seemed, in a word, sanitized. Lacking its own character or charm, the city felt like a place that wasn’t Irish, wasn’t English, but also hadn’t quite made up its mind about what it was. Little did we know that gut feeling reflected a lot in the country, from its politics to its economy.

Before launching into the complexity of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, we took some time to appreciate the natural beauty of the area. A day tour of the Giant’s Causeway introduced us to the country’s #1 tourist attraction: huge geometric rock formations that seem to grow out of the ground. The excursion also gave us a great look at the northern coast of the island, which was unexpectedly our favorite part of the day.



With sightseeing crossed off our list, we started to delve more deeply into the history of the Troubles. We were planning on taking a black cab tour, a three-hour drive and political lecture by a local, but we wanted to have a good base of knowledge to make the most of the experience. So we turned to YouTube and a few documentaries that gave us a better idea of what, exactly, defined the Troubles.

Honestly, the whole thing initially confounded me. Here were two groups of people sharing the same island, both believing in the same Bible, God and Jesus—and yet they found enough religious differences between them to fight, often times to the death.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. And when it comes down to it, religion isn’t always about religion. It’s also about culture, values, political divisions and how you see and treat people who believe differently than you, all key things that can lead to religious conflict that’s doesn’t have much to do with God at all. Many shades of gray appeared once we dove into the documentaries.

If you want to learn more, here are some resources we found especially interesting. One is a compilation of recommended films about the Troubles and the other is on the Shankill Butchers, a rogue sect of Ulster loyalist serial killers. There’s also a song about the Shankill Butchers that you can listen to here. For a quick background read on the Troubles, check out this article. Another good summary can be found on Wikipedia.

Armed with a better understanding of the Troubles, we embarked on our black cab tour. Our driver, Pat, was a Catholic who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. In addition to driving us around and showing us pictures and newspaper articles from the time, he shared his own experiences from childhood.


Of course, his was one side of a very complicated story (which he absolutely admitted and was quite fair about) but it was also very compelling. At a certain point, people who have been denied basic rights—jobs, housing, the vote—in their own country because of their religion (in this case Catholics in Northern Ireland) will rise up. And that’s what happened with the Troubles.

Once we got Pat talking, he didn’t want to stop. We loved how passionate he was about his story. And we loved everything he took us to, especially a large collection of political murals (the Catholics and Protestants each have their own) that are still updated with relevant political messages every year. At some murals, family members were paying their respects to their dead loved ones.




One of the bizarre things we saw firsthand on the tour is that Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are still kept separate in Belfast. And not just in name or concept. There are actual walls and gates that descend at night and on weekends to physically separate them—some looked just like sections of the Berlin Wall.


The walls were littered with political graffiti and broken bottles that hadn’t quite made it over the massive dividers to the other side.


The Troubles officially ended in 1998, but all around us was evidence that they weren’t quite over, not all the way. Northern Ireland is still a country on the mend.

After seeing the bold murals, the grieving family members, the physical dividers between Catholics and Protestants, we had to wonder: When will this country and its people ever truly heal? Pat didn’t have an answer for us but he did share some hope for the future. The government is doing a better job these days of representing all of its citizens. Schools and camps are being integrated so that children get exposure to and build friendships with kids of other faiths. (In Pat’s day, schools were so segregated that he didn’t meet a Protestant until he was a working adult.) And the government hopes to take down the neighborhood dividers within the next seven years.

And us? We’re looking forward to returning someday, once Northern Ireland decides not just what it isn’t but what it is.


  1. Cassandra, this is fascinating – and tragic. Maybe Pope Francis can help smooth things out.
    Again, thank you for taking us on this educational journey!

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. We love being able to share some of what we’re learning :-)

  2. Really interesting observations , Cassandra. My son studied as a Mitchell Scholar in Northern Ireland. He received a Masters from the U of Ulster in Peace and Conflict Studies. When I visited him, I also took the black cab tour. I was also able to meet one of the men who worked on the Belfast Agreement and won the Nobel Peace Prize. We also had a tour of Derry with one of my son’s professors focusing on the history of the conflict. It’s all fascinating and your pictures and comments are great…..Pam

    • I knew your son was a Mitchell Scholar but I didn’t know he studied in Northern Ireland. Fascinating! I hope you and Mike are doing well. I saw on Facebook that you’re a grandma now. Congratulations! You must be over the moon!

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