I am now in Northern Ireland, which is separate from the Republic of Ireland and part of the United Kingdom.
Thanks to my professors, I FINALLY understand the difference between England, Britain and the UK. Ready for a quick lesson? England is a country. England with Scotland and Wales is Great Britain. Great Britain with Northern Ireland is the United Kingdom. And the British Isles is the geographic area that encompasses England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The UK is the main law making body, and the UK gives power to the countries, even though Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have no constitutional power. It’s so different from American politics, but very interesting. Scotland is voting on becoming independent from Great Britain next year, and many think Northern Ireland might follow suit in hopes of joining the Republic of Ireland. History is in the making!
I’ve noticed some huge differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic with just two days of being in Belfast. Back in the Republic, people all over made comments about their wish for a united Ireland, and their hatred of the British. But here, part of the population is overly loyal to the Crown, and the other part hates the British, much like their friends in the Republic. This is because of centuries of history and cultural and religious differences between Catholics and Protestants, English and Irish, and Unionists and Nationalists. A big event in Belfast is the Orangemen March, held on July 12. It’s a big parade held on by a secret society called the Orangemen, who celebrate William of Orange’s defeat over James in 1688 at the Battle of the Boyne. It always turns into violence and riots, as Catholic Nationalists protest, and Protestant Unionists counter-protest. Our professors made sure when they planned the trip we would be out of the north by that date. However, there are all these smaller parades being held right now, leading up to July 12. It’s kind of like Mardi Gras, where many parades are held weeks before Fat Tuesday, but the biggest is on the actual holiday. I’ve already heard three parades, and I had to stop on a sidewalk and watch one pass by yesterday. There are many krewes (I don’t know the proper term, only Mardi Gras terms!) of bands and marchers. Each marching band has all kinds of drums and dozens of fife players. They beat their drums as loudly as possible, and the bands can be heard all over the city. The Orangemen themselves dress in 1910s garb, with old-style suits and bowler hats, complete with an orange sash, representing their loyalty to William of Orange, and the United Kingdom. The supporters are very loud and obnoxious – they drape Union Jacks on every street corner, paint the sidewalks red, white and blue, wear the flags as clothes, and shout and chant British songs. It’s almost as if they are asking for a fight from the Nationalists. Our professors warned us before we even stepped of the bus of forbidden things to say. “Don’t ask about Northern Irish independence. Don’t ask about Scottish independence. Don’t talk about the Troubles. Don’t talk about the IRA. Don’t ask about a united Ireland. Don’t talk about Kate Middleton’s baby. And whatever you do, do not say anything about these divisive subjects in a pub, especially The Royal Pub. Better yet, don’t even enter The Royal Pub,” they pointed to a tiny building with dozens of Union Jacks flying across from our hostel.
It’s pretty intense here. Police dressed like Iron Man guard the parades, in hopes of putting out any thoughts of riots. I know I’m safe, but I’ve never been to a place where the entire population was divided so violently for decades, even centuries at a time. Northern Ireland has progressed greatly, and it’s so interesting to witness these events and this culture I’ve been learning about in class. But, I am very thankful I won’t be in Belfast on July 12.