WTF Weds: The Belfast Peace Walls

Posted on
Nov 14, 2012

The Peace walls of Belfast, viewed from a Catholic neighborhood.

Usually, my WTF Wednesdays are not serious. They have to do with the many odd things I’ve encountered while traveling: inscrutable showers, another passenger’s toes in my personal space, more inscrutable showers … you know, the usual things that make my forehead wrinkle in confusion, then laugh.

This was not the case with the Peace Wall in Belfast. I saw no humor in it. I just stood, slack-jawed, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

When I first heard the name, I figured it was the wall of some forgotten building in Belfast, usurped by idealistic do-gooders who were in possession of some paint, a few spare hours, and a modicum of artistic talent. Or perhaps some government-funded piece of public art that popped up after the Good Friday Agreement; something that would help usher in an era of understanding and respect between Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland.

I was a little off.

Okay, fine, I was way off.

The Peace Wall – or should I say walls, since there are many of them? – has been in place since the late 1960s, when the Troubles first began. They were intended as temporary structures, but were later made permanent. They run all through Belfast, covering more than 13 miles of the city. The tallest stand more than 40 feet high, and many are lined with barbed wire at top; they looked like massive military barricades. Some have been decorated with murals, but many parts of the wall remain rather unsightly.

Portion of the Peace wall, featuring a memorial to some of those killed during the Troubles.

And here’s the clincher. Do you know why the Peace Walls exists?

Are you sitting down? If not, then sit down (trust me on this one; I was sitting when I first learned about them, in the back of a car, driving towards Belfast. I am thankful for that).

The Peace Walls separate the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of Belfast. In the event of a riot or a bombing, the few gates within the wall are designed to close, ostensibly to protect the people who live nearby.

Some of the gates in the wall. The lights at the top start flashing when they are about to close.

Or, as someone else put it, so that the two neighborhoods don’t tear each other apart.

The gates are shut nightly; several are closed throughout the weekends as well.

I have trouble keeping my cultural biases out of this one (hence this post being a WTF Wednesday). I don’t mean to be judgmental; it’s just that as an American of my generation, the whole thing is kind of hard to fathom. I grew up believing – thanks to Berlin and Bob Vila – that walls should be taken down. (Incidentally, I  am strongly opposed to the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. that continues to be discussed. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas actually won his election by advocating a bigger, longer wall than his opponent.)

I’m not the only American who’s stuck their nose in this issue; millions of dollars have been raised by the International Fund for Ireland (mostly by my fellow countrymen) to take down the walls. One Irish columnist wonders what planet we’re living on, that we think taking down the walls would be a good move. He notes that it’s a sad reality, but Belfast still needs the walls. And that we’re basically well-intentioned morons for thinking we know better. Which is kind of a fair assessment. (Hell, I might put “Well-intentioned moron” on my business cards, it’s such an apt phrase.)

After all, the Peace Walls were erected at the request of the people of Belfast. This was not something imposed upon them unfairly by the government; this was something that the community wanted. Those who live on the borders between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods note how much safer they feel with the barriers in place (70% of them want to the walls to remain up, though among the rest of Northern Ireland, the walls are much less popular).

Rand looks at a home along the Peace Wall. Notice that there is a cage around their back lawn. We were told this was to protect them from thrown bottles.

Incidentally, we found similar opinions among people we talked to. Some said that as awful as they seem to be in concept, the walls work. Others argued that the walls make it easy to dehumanize those on the other sides of them.

Indeed, it does keep the peace, in some sense, but it also keeps the neighborhoods segregated. Two-thirds of 18 to 25-year-olds in Belfast claim they’ve never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the other community.

I think it’s probably hard to move beyond the issues if you can’t even talk to the other side. But it’s easy for me to be critical of the walls; I’ve never lived in a city shaken by bombs and attacks. My hometown isn’t even divided by politics, really. Seattle is populated by a bunch of left-leaning liberals.

This blurry photo was taken as we drove through the gates.

There is one rather famous part of the wall, dividing the Protestant Shankhill Road and the Catholic Falls Road. It is covered with graffitti and messages of hope. We had to pass through a gate to reach it, moving from the Catholic part of town into the Protestant.

Once there, our guide (we took a Black Cab tour – I will tell you all about it soon) took out markers and invited us to write something.

At first, I couldn’t think of anything, so I just drew a silly little peace sign.


And then, as I read quotes from Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, and message after message of hope, some words came to mind. Short, pithy, and as American as the movie whence they came.

“Be excellent to each other,” I wrote.

And then I stepped out of the falling rain and into our cab, to head back to the other side of the wall.


Leave a Comment

  • Manuela

    I can’t wait for you to come to South Africa. There’s sooo much WTF history still going on today here! Will be so interesting to hear your take on that! And also next time you’re in Germany you have to visit Berlin. Such a history heavy, wonderful city, capital of my home country 🙂

  • A ha!

    I’ve told many people about these walls in Belfast and how they still close them at night. SOOOO many people didn’t believe me that I began to doubt the words I thought I’d heard from our Black Cab driver.

    Thanks for confirming that I haven’t made this up to make the story sound worse than it really is!!

    Of course, I could have just googled this info and revelled in my correctness, but that sounds much too hard 🙂

  • Lou Close

    Geraldine amazing stuff! You have really captured a VERY difficult topic so well! Another quick fact I may not have told you about the peace wall is that it is actually longer than the Berlin Wall was. Crazy but true. Btw in bed eating those amazing chocs you sent us! Thanks again … Yum yum!

    • Everywhereist

      Thank you so much, Louise! We had an absolutely incredible time in Northern Ireland (and in the Republic!) and our trip was made so much better by your hospitality and insight. Can’t wait until you come visit us here in our neck of the woods. 🙂

  • Wow, that IS interesting. I didn’t know about this — it does seem very strange.

  • I am SO glad you decided to talk about this today! After reading your posts on Ireland I spent hours (yes, hours) of my evening researching these “peace walls” and looking at the maps of Belfast and pictures of them.

    As a middle school teacher I shared this with my students and they thought I was making it up (our school is VERY diverse)! One of the PBS videos I watched last night made me especially sad for the communities of Belfast as some of the teenagers interviewed seemed to have genuine intrigue about those on the other side.

    I have greatly enjoyed your posts about Ireland and still hope to travel there soon.

  • I try to stay informed, but I also did not know about the Peace Wall. It actually seems a popular concept. I know they have them (or the local equivalent) in other places: Israel, Iraq and Cyprus are the ones that come to mind. As you point out, while they protect the community from Molotov cocktails, they also “protect” the children from going to school together. It’s harder to hate on the guy you play football (soccer) with for the same school team.

  • Kristina Cline

    So its like a “keep the peace” wall not “love and peace.” Huh, that does make me scratch my head. Maybe they should have made it out of thick glass so you could at least see the people on the other side? If you throw a bottle at me, do I not bleed?

  • I think it’s hard for us to look past our biases as Americans, but I think you handled it well by acknowledging that we have biases! I never knew about the wall there or the remaining conflicts. This was super interesting! Thanks for doing all that research!!

  • I definitely never heard of that. Thanks for enlightening some of us.

  • James

    Really enjoying these posts about Belfast (I am from there). As far as I am aware, there are more peace walls now than there were at the time of the mid 90s ceasefires. It’s also worth noting the relatively recent opening of the gate in the peace wall in Alexandra Park (quite close to where I went to school). It is almost impossible to state just how significant the opening of this gate was.

    While it was there ‘for protection’ it also in some ways made people a prisoner within their own community and it is hard to talk to your Catholic or Protestant neighbour if there is a huge concrete wall and/or gate in the way. These walls maintain a status quo and I don’t feel that they promote real ‘peace’ at all, only an absence of violence.

    • James

      There is an article about the gate. At the time of its opening I was living in the Netherlands and it was very surreal for me because almost everyone that I talked to was amazed and shocked by things that were just part of our everyday lives in Belfast and beyond

    • James

      Without giving too much about myself away (I hope) The child on the right in that photograph is at the Primary School I went to

  • Hi Geraldine,

    Just wanted to remark on a fantastic post, i stumbled upon your blog some time ago and as we seem to share a similar sense of humor I have been stopping by regularly. I enjoyed your series of “Ireland” posts and i learned a lot from them, which is difficult to admit being born and raised in Dublin, Ireland.
    Regarding the peace walls and the history of Ireland north and south, my own grandfather was born in 1916 and grew up without a birth cert (as did many children born in 1916) because back then you had to go into Dublin City Centre to register the birth of a child and parents were too afraid to venture in for fear of bomb attacks. My own mother hid under her bed in the Rotunda Maternity hospital in 1974 whilst giving birth to me because of another bombing campaign. For a small Island it certainly has a turbulent past but it is a beautiful country and 90% of the people want to move past the dark days of the troubles. Today Belfast is a beautiful city and its people very welcoming.

    One last thing, we have similar segregation in sport having a national soccer team called the Republic of Ireland and another national team called Northern Ireland. I follow Rugby which is one of the few sports that enjoy a united Ireland team, we even sing two national anthems before a Rugby match, the republics “Amhrán na bhFiann” (the soldiers song) and then “Irelands Call” which represents the 32 counties. The latter has now been adopted by the Irish Cricket team and Hockey team.

    Anyway, enjoying the posts, thanks.

  • This moved me. Perhaps because I was at the foot of the Berlin Wall as it came down. I still have the chunk of graffiti coloured concrete I took off myself. Not sure what to do with it – and yet – can’t part with it either. Terrible dilemma for a minimalist. In any case … it is difficult. I agree that the walls keep people safe – but they also keep the problem alive. But I have no good solution. It needs to happen like it did in Berlin. With the citizens climbing them, and taking hammers to them. When the people have had enough they will come down. It would be nice if it was in our lifetime. Sadly – I don’t think it will.

  • Katie

    Well captured! I took the same tour last June and reading your post made me feel like I was right back in that cab. Sadly, I could not think of anything good to write on the wall, so I just signed my name and the year.

  • Shal

    Wow. Like many others have said, these last few posts have taught me A LOT. However, they don’t feel that ‘foreign’ to me. While a very different situation, a lot of the happenings you described remind me of of various events in America’s past involving race relations. I live in Detroit, a city torn apart by its own riots from rising tensions not very long ago. While we may not have walls with gates, we have a lot of subtle ways we keep different people apart in this area (and in many areas across our country). I like to believe it’s getting better, but we also have a long way to go!

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