Belfast: IRA, Catholics, Protestant and Bonfires.

The brick wall was at least 45-feet tall, with chicken wire mounted on the top. The houses adjacent to the wall had wire cages installed to protect children from rocks that were still thrown over the fences. This was the separation of the Irish Catholic and the British Irish living quarters.

It was election day and politicians who were once IRA or Unionist were up for city council to represent the Northern Irish government in London.  Once killers, now politicians.  In front to the polling station were party representatives handing out materials to persuade the voters. Loud speakers were playing recorded speeches.

In the more Protestant neighborhoods, teenagers were collecting wood and burnable materials for the July 12 Orange Parade (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelfth), which would be held in desolated construction zones and parks. The bonfires would be 10- to 15-feet tall and would burn for one week. It’s a celebration of the victory of the William of Orange over the Catholic king of James.

Even if there are no secret handshakes and codes to distinguish the Protestants from the Catholics, I could not escape the feeling that the tension is still there.  It has been politically sanitized, with workplace application processes that have forced a more balanced Catholic and Protestant ratio.

Eight out of the 10 gates of the 45-foot walls are locked each night and secured with monitors.  A police car passed me and it looked like a miniature tank.  My cab driver told me that even those were not safe enough.

The Last Supper

I was staying for three nights at a small and private English language program.  The owners Sonia and Gavin provide a live-in language English immersion program.  At the moment there were three students present: Richie and Natty, a couple from Spain, and Nacho, who was entering university in the fall.

They had classes in the morning, while I was exploring Belfast and the Giant Causeway.  And if time permitted, I joined them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Over the meals we bonded and talked about many topics, including advertising, Northern Irish politics, running, cycling and how the British and Irish differ.  The slowly building familiarity between us was comforting after two weeks of daily changing faces, conversations and impressions.

I was becoming aware that my journey was approaching its end. I would soon be leaving all my new friends and experiences behind. I had just two more days of cycling before I would head back to Shannon, pack up Jamie and start my journey back to New York.

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