18 December 2008 Edition
Coiste Political Tours: Reclaiming our history
BY PEADAR WHELAN
THE Falls Road in Belfast is a completely changed place from when I first travelled it.
My first experience of ‘The Road’, which became a symbol of resistance and held in awe throughout the world, was back in 1973 when I was taken along it by a friend who was bringing me on a visit to her son who was on remand in Crumlin Road Prison.
We had first driven to Long Kesh, where her eldest son was interned, then made our way into Belfast, travelling through the west of the City from Kennedy Way to Northumberland Street before cutting across the Shankill Road and onto ‘The Crum’.
Belfast was a war zone then. British soldiers crouched in doorways, hiding from the IRA. Buildings were ringed with bollards, makeshift barriers which (hopefully) would prevent loyalist bombers getting too close to their targets and reduce casualties.
The gaping holes where shops or houses once stood were evidence of the destruction of conflict but, nonetheless the inhabitants of ‘The Road’ seemed determined to carry on with life with determination and resilience.
It was with these memories swirling around in my head that I anticipated my tour of the Falls Road with Seamy Kelly of Coiste na nIar-Chimí.
Seamy is the project manager for Coiste’s ‘Political Tours’. A republican former prisoner, he spent time in the Cages where he was regarded as a political prisoner and then in the H-Blocks where he served his time on the Blanket.
The British Government branded imprisoned republican POWs as criminals in its attempt to portray the struggle in Ireland as a criminal and terrorist conspiracy devoid of political motivation.
IN THE SHADOW OF DIVIS
As we stood in the shadow of the landmark Divis Tower and Seamy introduced himself and described the work of Coiste, it was clear that the Political Tours project is another aspect of the work republicans need to carry out to draw back the curtain of censorship and misrepresentation that was and still is part of the British state’s agenda.
On the wall of the tower is a plaque commemorating the lives of two people cut down by RUC machine-gunners in August 1969. One was 9-year-old Patrick Rooney; the other was Trooper Hugh McCabe, a member of the British Army who was home on leave.
Ironically, then, the first British soldier killed in the conflict was shot dead by the RUC.
As the tour moves along the Falls, the next landmark is St Comgall’s School, famous because a dormant IRA re-emerged to engage hordes of rampaging loyalists and RUC men who were torching Catholic houses along Percy Street and Dover Street.
Beyond the ‘Peace Wall’ that has divided the Falls and Shankill Roads stands Cave Hill where, in 1795, the Society of the United Irishmen was founded by Wolfe Tone. It reminds us that republicanism reaches back through centuries for its legitimacy.
At the ‘International Wall’ the variety of murals painted there expresses the international solidarity and affection that Irish republicans feel towards people throughout the world who are involved in struggle.
One mural marks the 60th anniversary of al Nakbah, when upwards of 600,000 Palestinians were driven off their land by Zionists. The message calls for their return.
A remarkable reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica also adorns the ‘International Wall’ while the work of Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and went on to devote his life to ending slavery is also celebrated.
Many republican activists lost their lives in the course of the struggle and their sacrifice and commitment is documented in the murals, plaques and memorial gardens erected along the tour route.
The spectacular Garden of Remembrance on the lower Falls Road, with its inspirational black marble memorial wall, is a site that serves two purposes.
Opened in 2000, the garden is a fitting tribute to the bravery of the men and women from the area who fought against British rule in Ireland. It also demonstrates that those who are honoured in the garden are respected by their community because they were from the community and at one with its people.
These men and women were not criminals or gangsters.
The Falls Road also has a rich industrial past.
Many mills dotted the road although most, if not all, are now closed.
The tour recognises the cost of working in the mills to the (mostly) women who worked there. Conditions in the mills were dreadful and the living conditions weren’t much better.
It was into this situation that James Connolly the great union organiser and leader of the 1916 Rising came in the early years of the last century.
Connolly’s legacy as a republican socialist and revolutionary is an important part of the tour as it points up the radical core of republicanism as a progressive ideology.
The Falls Road boasts two enormous cemeteries.
The City Cemetery at the junction of the Falls and Whiterock Roads holds the graves of many of the unionist aristocracy that once held unfettered sway throughout the North.
It is Catholics who mostly use the cemetery these days. An interesting feature of the cemetery is its underground wall.
Said to be nine-feet deep and 100 yards in length, Bishop Dorrian had the wall built when Catholics were first buried in the city to ensure that Catholics and Protestants were kept apart.
The Falls Road’s other great cemetery is Milltown Cemetery. Milltown also has within its boundaries many historical graves.
However, the Republican Plot in the cemetery, where the political tour finishes, is a hallowed place for republicans.
Holding as it does the bodies of Hunger Strikers Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty, the ‘Plot’, as it is affectionately known, is a monument to the tenacity of a people who fought because they had no choice and stood firm against an enemy who knew no bounds in the art of cruelty.
As nationalists and republicans, coming from a Catholic social background where we faced sectarian discrimination and the military weight of the British state, we learned that unless we fought we would never have justice.
The Coiste political tours make no apology for explaining the political and social history of Belfast from a republican perspective. Throughout the years of war the British state and its propagandists tried to silence republicans and deny them their history Coiste Tours is reclaiming that history – and long may it continue.
Seamy at the International Wall
A Journey Through the Struggle
Coiste’s DVD, A Journey Through the Struggle, is valuable asset and complements the tour brilliantly. The DVD sets the struggle of the past four decades in its historical context as it examines the history of Ireland from the Rising in 1916 and the partition of the country in 1922 when the unionist state was established.
A series of postcards which accompanies the DVD depicts some of the most significant historical events of the last 90 years.
The DVD package is available through Coiste and the Art Shop on the Falls Road, price £10.99.
For further information on Coiste’s Irish Political Tours, contact Seamus Kelly at 028 90200770 or 07967653120 or go to www.coiste.ie