The Harp, a lively bar nestled in one of many Belfast cobblestone alleyways, was busy on a quiet Wednesday evening in April. A cover band, performing hits like The Eagles’ Hotel California, played well into the night as bargoers abandoned their seats and jumped to their feet to dance.
If it was your first time in the city, as it was for me, you’d think the city was alive and kicking every night, contrary to the visitor that had told me earlier in the day that the city was a “ghost town after 6 PM.” But a few decades before I danced the night away with bankers, shop owners, and business travelers at The Harp, Belfast was short of a battle ground.
The start of the decades-long sectarian conflict remains slightly disputed, since the beginning of the fighting between Northern Irish Protestants, also known as Loyalists or Unionists, and Catholics, known as Republicans or Nationalists, coincided with the Civil Rights’ movement against the discrimination of Catholics in the 1960s. The conflict, which has come to be known as The Troubles, dragged on for 30 gruesome years as paramilitary groups took up arms, wreaking havoc on Belfast and the nearby City of Derry, and spilling over into the Republic of Ireland and even England.
The days when residents of Belfast were terrorized by warfare during the Troubles have thankfully come to a close with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but ripples of tension can still be felt today throughout the city. 20 years after the end of the conflict and as efforts beyond policy-makers to reconcile have faltered, the arts have become a means for residents of Belfast to ration with the impact of the Troubles on their lives.
Invisible Divisions in Belfast
A stone’s throw away from The Harp is the Dark Horse, which is another classic Belfastian bar, famous for a mural spanning across three walls in a courtyard in the back. The bar is also the starting point of Quartered: A Love Story, an audio-assisted walking tour of the queer quarter of the city.
Our tour guide, Chris, an actor with the theater company RePlay, insisted that we all start our audio tracks at the same time. We began by marveling at the detailed mural behind the Dark Horse before we walked down yet another cobblestone alley on Hill Street. Roughly ten minutes into the hour-long audio track, the tour took us to parts of the city center that spoke to the distraught narrator. As we traversed the area, the narrator asked, “Who decides what shape our lives take? How far do we travel from ourselves? [And] does leaving [Belfast] change that?”
The narrator’s monologue is part of a project written by Dominic Montague and directed by Paula McFetridge that follows a queer man reflecting on leaving his partner. He thinks back on their relationship by reflecting on his own relationship with the city, taking participants on a winding tour of Belfast’s unofficial queer quarter.
Although Montague’s story is largely fictitious, it is a genuine reflection of the realities of queer individuals living in a post-Troubles Belfast. The neighborhood he takes us through is sparsely rooked with bars, clubs, and cafes that cater to Belfast’s thriving queer population, which Montague suggests was very different during the Troubles.
Patrons at local bar The Maverick, who have been a part of Belfast’s queer community for years, tell us later that night that people were dancing inside when mortar and gunshots were ricocheting on the streets outside. “Come in Comrade!” one bar door reads. With a city that is heavily invested in heteronormative perceptions about masculinity, being a queer male-presenting individual is weighed down with political meaning.
As we traverse the few streets that constitute the queer quarter – somewhere in between the Dark Horse and the Sunflower Public House – we begin to see the invisible yet very permeating layers of the sectarian divisions that continue to divide Belfast today.
Living in a city that survived a conflict that was largely built on religious differences gestures to the kind of realities that queer individuals experience in Belfast. Montague’s project converses with the city’s borders – both physical and psychological – and how they have impacted the lives of its queer residents. And while these divisions do not seem to be so rigid in wealthier areas of the city like around Queen’s University and the Ulster Museum, they still play an active part in how residents of Belfast conduct their lives elsewhere in the city.
At Queens University’s Film Theatre in Ulster, Cian Smyth, chair of the annual Outburst queer arts festival, tells us about his experiences with queer art in Belfast. Started in 2007, Outburst has grown into a showcase of local and international arts from around the world that speak to the queer experience. For Smyth, the festival is about “creating social space where people [can] learn and create a sense of community and understanding.” And in spite of the numerous challenges posed to queer art by the heavy Christian presence in the city, that hasn’t deterred Smyth or others from speaking up. “Our struggle doesn’t end here,” he tells us.
The rhetorical questions Montague’s character pose to us just 10 minutes into the tour suggest that Belfast’s urban-resident relationship, especially in light of the Troubles, is complex, and questions the kind of agency that residents have in defining that relationship. Although the arts have a tendency to be patronized by the wider community, art initiatives have become a popular platform for engaging with how the conflict continues to impact residents of Belfast.
Site-Specific Reconciliation: The Discomforts of Peace-Making
Paula McFetridge, who directed Quartered: A Love Story, is the artistic director of Kabosh, an art collective based in Belfast. Since 1994 and prior to the end of the Troubles, Kabosh has worked to engage the larger community in difficult conversations. A large portion of the work that McFetridge has been doing since joining Kabosh in 2006 has to do with site-specific artistic performances that engage with sensitive topics – in specific The Troubles – initiating conversations with those that have or haven’t lived through the conflict.
“How you archive [an] individual [story] by putting it in a site-specific location changes it,” she tells us. In 2012, McFetridge helped put on a performance called Titans in the city’s historic Titanic shipyard, which she says still carries a heavy, age-old discomfort for the people of Belfast. The performance was staged at The Titanic Hotel while the paintwork was still being done; today, the Titanic Hotel is considered one of the top 10 tourism attractions in Northern Ireland. Through the performance, McFetridge hoped to “somehow [put] to rest the historical and political connections of ship-building and allowing the narrative to do that so people could imagine a new possibility for The Titanic.”
The history of the shipyard, however, has eerie parallels with the history of Belfast itself. Long before The Troubles, the city’s sectarian divisions began boiling. With a number of altercations prior to the 1960s dating as early as the 1640s, notably the partition of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the Troubles became a kind of breaking point for these social cleavages.
For many of McFetridge’s works, the space in which the performances are staged directly feeds into the content of the performance itself. Reflecting on the impact The Troubles have had on Belfast, McFetridge thinks people associate spaces in the city with assumptions about individuals. And so she sees Kabosh’s performances as an attempt to challenge and converse with these understandings about space and the conflict. “How do you help people imagine new possibilities for a space?” she asks.
When in 2007 Kabosh was looking to perform at the Crumlin Road Courthouse, the collective had to make difficult decisions about what the courthouse meant to them. “[What] we realized as a group of individuals [was] not one of us could agree what the courthouse did. Some of us believed it was oppression, it was justice, it was an eyesore, it was representation of the crime,” she says. “We needed to allow the space to exist with whatever the hell connotations came to it. The pieces we put into it were about a potential future.”
McFetridge also talks about the difficulties of staging performances in a society that has somewhat consciously distanced itself from the conflict because of how discomforting it can be for many. And so for McFetridge and Kabosh, the purpose of the work they do is not simply to force people to revisit painful memories of the past, but, rather, encourage them to engage with these memories and to ask themselves how they can reconcile their past with their present.
“This place is 25 years away from conflict, but we have conflicts of bubbles beneath the surface.”
If you walk west of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and into the city’s more residential neighborhoods, you will come across a number of fortified walls known as “peace walls” or “peace lines.” These borders, a mix of fences and concrete walls, were initially installed to keep people from both communities separate – to maintain ‘peace’ between them. But decades after the end of the conflict, they can still be found around the city.
Throughout the 19th Century, Northern Ireland’s economy was more ‘heavy industry,’ with a particular focus on shipbuilding and the textile industry. And while that has changed today, Northern Ireland continues to be very proud of its historical linen industry. With the end of the Troubles, Belfast’s economy became more service-centric, which continues to rise annually. The creative industries have also become a lucrative front for the city.
The Arts Council of Northern Ireland has not shied away from backing art that engages with the conflict. In fact, 68 percent of the work the Arts Council supports engages people from both Protestant and Catholic communities. In 2012, the Arts Council said that around 40,000 people were employed in the creative industries, making up five percent of Northern Ireland’s total employment.
Not all that glitters is gold, however. As supported as the arts may be by the NI Arts Council, when it comes to using the arts as a means for reconciliation, things get a bit more complex.
Conor Shields, the Chief Executive of the CAP Art Center in Belfast gives us insight into how the arts fits into the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. Not ironically, we meet Shields at his office in Cathedral Quarter – Belfast’s city center, which has been undergoing rapid changes since The Troubles and that organizations like SaveCQ are working to preserve.
“Institutionally and structurally, the arts are kept at a certain place,” Conor says to us. The work that the CAP Art Center does revolves primarily around using a wide array of art forms to bring about effective positive change. But Shields thinks that the wider community – in particular policy-makers and politicians – do not give the arts the space to be part of the conversation about reconciliation.
“Community-based programs’ very concerns are about creating, maintaining, identifying access in its fullest and deepest possible way, rather than pre-forming, pre-judging, and pre-designing the locus for any engagement,” he says. Shields believes that the arts have a more immersed approach to reconciliation.
Policymakers and institutions involved in reconciliation do play an active role in bridging both communities in Belfast closer together. However, these stakeholders do not necessarily permeate society deep enough on a human level. “[Straight policy platforms] never search for the human thread,” Shields says. “They are not about exploring the emotion or contingent realities behind these things as well. It’s disappointing.”
This separation between straight policy reform, as Shields puts it, and arts-based approaches to reconciliation is also an issue relevant to ethnic minorities that live in Northern Ireland. About 1.6 percent of Northern Irish people aren’t white, making their position in a post-Troubles world difficult to navigate.
Some residents of color like Nisha Tandon, Executive Director of ArtsEkta, lived through the Troubles, which she says strongly informs her life as a resident of Belfast today. Through ArtsEkta, Tandon works closely with other ethnic minorities and the wider white population using art as a means to reconcile their differences.
Shields fears for how the political climate in Northern Ireland will only strengthen the disconnect between policymakers and institutions and the arts. With conversations around Northern Ireland vis-a-vis Brexit, challenges with race and ethnicity, as well as its relationship with Great Britain, the need for an alternative platform such as art is important to consider. “Northern Ireland can never afford political messes,” says Shields.