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David, Belfast

By: Dana Richie

Peace Wall- Belfast

David, our tour guide, stood under the coverage of the umbrella, his yellow rain jacket glowing in the grayness. He had warm eyes and a faint white goatee. His round face was worn down by the years, and his shoulders rolled forward like he was wilting. Motioning behind him to the graffiti-ridden peace walls that cut through the city, he explained the fear that consumed civilians on both sides during the decades-long Troubles.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Belfast was embroiled in nationalist conflict. The Green side of the city, the Irish Nationalists who were primarily Irish Catholic, wanted the island to be restored to one nation and the Orange side, the Protestants, remained in favor of membership in the United Kingdom. Violence erupted. Neighbors turned against neighbors, and everyone lost someone in the conflict, David explained.

By virtue of living in a warzone, there were countless tragic accidents in Belfast. David told us that combatants on both sides were accustomed to stashing weapons in order to evade suspicion. One afternoon, he said, young boys were playing in their backyard when they stumbled upon a few guns. Thinking they were toys, they played with their found treasure. It is impossible to imagine the horror and pain that the parents must have experienced upon discovering their children, lifeless in the garden.

Born and raised in Belfast, David is a survivor. He spent his formative years wondering if he would be the next victim of an attack, the next photo on the front page of a newspaper.

One time, while running errands, an officer stopped him from returning to his car. They said that the red car parked next to his car had a bomb beneath it that was due to explode in 30 minutes. David seriously contemplated moving his car before it was set to explode. After all, he did not have enough money to buy a new one, and he considered it to be one of his most prized possessions. Less than 30 seconds later, the bomb exploded, and his first car was vaporized. All that remained were a few scraps.

Violence was pervasive, and yet somehow, in the midst of the crossfire, life had to go on.

David recalled ducking behind cars on his way to school as combatants engaged in gunfire, the stench and smoke of gunpowder lingering in the air minutes after the fighters fled the scene. He said that his teachers never spoke about the violence that many students encountered in their daily lives. “They simply asked where my homework was,” he said with a terse chuckle.

It was taboo to discuss the fear and trauma that abound. A lot of people from David’s generation either “turned to the church or to the drink” to escape the madness. His face grew ashen as he alluded to the friends he lost to the latter. In Northern Ireland, he explained, there is a mental health crisis generations in the making. When your city is a warzone and anyone is a target, he explained, things take a toll. He pulled out a newspaper clipping from the Belfast Telegraph from 2018 which reported that 44% of young people in Northern Ireland said they had experienced a mental health problem. He said that folks from Belfast are experts at “saying nothing.” Many of David’s friends “fell” at different times. It all piled up and became unbearable.

That moment struck David in the mid-1990s. He physically did not have the energy or will to stand. After undergoing many tests, his doctor informed him that it was triggered by the trauma from the Troubles.

The doctor prescribed what David described as “green therapy.” He spent more time in the hills and the mountains, organizing a walking group. His stress levels decreased with the exercise and the fresh air. He also started his own garden, using his hands to create. He set a target: he wanted to grow all of the flowers for his daughter’s wedding. This was incredibly ambitious given the characteristically chilly and damp Irish weather. To prepare, he planted over 500 flowers including many variations. At the end of our tour, he proudly passed around photos of the flower arrangements that were full of reds and blues and yellows. That, to me, was beautiful.

He turned a land that bore witness to so much violence into something fertile.

Despite all of the trauma he experienced in Belfast, David stayed. It was, is, and will be his home. Not only that, but he has dedicated his life to sharing the city’s complicated history to those who visit. A history that inextricably includes the story of his own life. He candidly spoke about his own mental health struggles, and he encouraged visitors to ask him anything. Education, he said, is how we prevent something like this from happening again.

David believes that there is a future of healing in Northern Ireland, and it is beginning with the current generation. Throughout our tour, he pointed out evidence of a sense of collective hope: community gardens and schools, some of which he was personally involved in. At the end of our tour, he stepped off of our bus, returning to the mist of Belfast.


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