The Troubles do not seem so foreign or far away

HM Prison Belfast, also known as Crumlin Road Gaol, where Irish Republican Army members were...
HM Prison Belfast, also known as Crumlin Road Gaol, where Irish Republican Army members were often incarcerated and in some cases executed during the Troubles, stands out as a prominent landmark in Belfast. It is now a visitor attraction and conference centre. Photo: Getty Images
It was pouring with rain, I was hungover and exhausted, and had time to kill before my Airbnb in North Belfast opened. I disembarked from the airport bus and ran through the first doorway I encountered, into a rather dark and dingy bar, where I was met by the slightly suspicious gaze of several locals.

It wasn’t until I had purchased my gin and was making my way to a table that I realised I had stumbled into a hardcore Loyalist enclave; an establishment adorned with innumerable Union Jacks, anti-republican slogans, Orange Order paraphernalia and flute band uniforms. I was the only woman in the pub, not to mention the only person under the age of 60.

I didn’t feel threatened or uncomfortable, but I did feel rather out of place, especially when the jukebox started bellowing out about killing "IRA scum".

I sat there, sipping my gin, and Googled the name of the bar. I learned that it was the site of a no-warning Provisional IRA bomb explosion on June 5, 1976.

The bomb had killed two men and injured 18 more. It had exploded where I was sitting.

I finished my drink and got out of there.

When I told my friends of my plan to visit Northern Ireland, I was met with a sort of pleasant blankness and mild confusion.

Why would I want to travel to Belfast, when Dublin was there for the taking? What was there even to see in Belfast, except for the Titanic Museum?

I tried to explain my interest in Irish history, my fascination with the Troubles, and found myself wondering how much people in Oxford actually knew about the conflict that had torn apart communities and decimated lives.

Northern Ireland has transformed significantly over the past 25 years. The Good Friday Agreement may have halted the fighting (for the most part), but deep fissures and unresolved legacies still remain, hindering progress for many of Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million residents.

The border might be invisible, the skies might be clear of British helicopters, the streets free of rubber bullets, but political tensions still remain, especially in the wake of Brexit.

I found Belfast to be a rather impoverished city, decorated with Union Jacks hanging limply from lamp posts, the odd Irish tricolour and myriad deeply symbolic political murals of varying age and artistic expertise.

Without fail, every Northern Irish person I encountered was friendly and accommodating, if somewhat bemused by my presence in certain non-touristic areas.

I wish I had more time to explore the city, to visit each mural and to talk to more locals about such an important period of history.

With the two days I had at my disposal, I embarked on a whistlestop tour of the Troubles.

I wandered around Crumlin Gaol and sat in a cramped, frozen cell while listening to video recordings of past prisoners. I drove through the rain in a black cab with a Catholic local on a tour of notable places and murals. I noted with sick fascination the first mural which showed Stephen "Top Gun" McKeag, a Northern Irish Loyalist paramilitary, had the same death date as my brother. My guide and I traced the quasi-tribal divisions represented by gaudy murals and faded flags, and I learned from him what it was like to grow up in the Clonard district in the 1980s and ’90s. I visited the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, where Eileen’s sister Susan showed me a minuscule camera smuggled into Armagh Women’s Prison and the cramped handwriting of equally minuscule love letters smuggled out of HM Prison Maze.

It was all very enlightening, but deeply saddening.

I think it’s important that I interrogate my own fascination with the Troubles. I am an agnostic from the other side of the planet. I was only 3 years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Yet why am I so intrigued by the decades of violence and unrest in a faraway land? Well, because in so many ways it does not seem so foreign or far away.

My interest in the Troubles goes beyond mere curiosity; it’s a complex tapestry of personal connections and historical ambiguities. My father is a fire and brimstone Presbyterian preacher from Glasgow; a supporter of Rangers and defender of the British Empire.

Dad acknowledges that while he likes to think he would abstain from sectarian violence and divisive rhetoric, had he found himself in Ian Paisley’s shoes, he can’t say for sure how he might have acted. Yet my family also has Irish Catholic heritage, with connections to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Had my ancestors made different decisions, had they remained in Scotland and Ireland instead of emigrating to the Antipodes, I might have had a very different life.

When I think of "war", I imagine violence and atrocities in alien lands, fought between people who do not look like me.

I know just how ignorant, privileged and Western-centric this thought process is. But after five years of living in the United Kingdom, I still can’t fathom war being a part of everyday life here — it boggles me to think of gardens needing steel cages as protection against petrol bombs; of civilians shot by British soldiers for merely running across the road for milk, of needing massive steel "peace walls" between different sections of a city.

Then there’s the fact that investigating the Troubles often resembles journalism more than traditional historical research.

Many individuals involved in this conflict are still alive, and are naturally reluctant to discuss their roles in past violence out of shame, stubbornness or fear of retribution. Many secrets and uncertainties still remain.

Unlike my studies at the University of Oxford, where I learn about distant historical events by poring over time-ravaged primary sources in climate-controlled libraries, the Troubles involve living witnesses with complex, personal narratives.

Take for instance the Boston College tapes, which were intended to be a confidential archive of oral histories from former paramilitary members and others involved in the Troubles. However, subsequent legal battles over their release highlight the ongoing sensitivity and potential repercussions of delving into this still-fresh wound of history.

I still don’t know what to make of my fascination with this relatively short but bloody period of history. I can’t quite articulate just why it grips me so, and I’m deeply aware of the voyeuristic nature of my interest. But what is history if not voyeurism?

History is messy and complicated, and as we are so often told, written by the victors.

The Troubles represent an opportunity to challenge this, but as tourists, journalists and historians, we must remember to be responsible, ethical and empathetic.

We should consider the unintended consequences of "dark tourism" and whether it’s really all that appropriate to sign the Peace Wall, as a tourist, with a trite message about how we should all just forget our differences and get along.

We should interrogate the aggressive patriotism exhibited in our own communities, our own uncritical mythologising of the dead and our own tendencies to romanticise the past.

Above all, we should realise that the Troubles weren’t mere "history" — the repercussions are still very much felt today.

We need to tread with care.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.