Thursday, May 14, 2015

"High walls make good neighbors"

"Belfast is finished," wrote Northern Irish poet Leontia Flynn, "and Belfast is under construction." Seeing the word construction, I can't help but think of the city's penchant for erecting "peace lines"—those brick and steel walls that separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Of the close to 100 in Belfast, an estimated one-third has gone up since the 1994 ceasefire.

"That is one of the ways we've managed those differences, by building high walls," Dominic Bryan, who directs the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast, told NPR. "You know, high walls make good neighbors." Bryan is being facetious, of course; he knows the walls are a monument to Northern Ireland's failure. In an essay titled "Impact of the Conflict on Public Space and Architecture," Belfast-born architect Ciaran Mackel is similarly critical of the peace lines, though not in the same cheeky manner: "They create unbearable enclosure ratios and a dismal urban experience. They are the crudest urban signatures, and the identity they portray engenders alienation and reinforces division."

I have seen the peace lines up close, softly touched their surfaces, walked in their shadows, driven slowly through their gates (the ones that are closed up at night). They are unsightly and pervasive and menacing. Even though efforts are being made to decorate the walls with non-political images, at no point while studying them do you forget their purpose: keeping one group of people out and another group of people in.

There's determination in Van Morrison's voice when he sings "Nobody can stop me from loving you, baby." But I also catch a tinge of shame—and so I consider those ugly peace lines and the centuries of sectarian bloodshed and the countless innocent lives lost and it comes to me that maybe, just possibly, he is not singing about a woman, but the place of his birth.

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