I started off the trip in Belfast, because that was where the conference was. I arrived in Belfast around 10 in the morning, having landed in Dublin at 5:15 and taken a train. I had some Pony Family Business to take care of right when I got to Belfast, but I arrived down in the University Quarter at 1:00, ready for the conference festivities to begin. The first thing they did was organize a walking tour of the city. It turned out to be a pretty political tour, although I suppose that was inevitable, given that the Titanic Quarter wasn't really within convenient walking distance of the conference.
This is the first thing we saw. Our guide told us that it was the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, except for the shopping mall on the ground floor. There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
It turns out that the best way to keep Protestants and Catholics from killing each other in Ireland is to do with them what you'd do with small children whapping each other -- send them to different parts of the house. To that end, Belfast has expressways designed to cut through the city, separating Protestant areas from Catholic areas, and it also has large walls to keep people apart.
There are gates in these walls that get shut at night.
Belfast is also a city full of murals. Our guide told us that you can tell a Protestant mural from a Catholic mural by the imagery and iconography that they use. A lot of the murals also speak to deeply entrenched political problems elsewhere in the world. I was fascinated to see that both Protestant and Catholic mural artists appear to care very deeply about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I did ask the guide where the Jews of Belfast fit into the grand picture, and he said that the Jewish population of Northern Ireland is so small as to be nearly nonexistent, to the point that the Belfaster rabbi apparently celebrated when he heard that the university had acquired an American student on a one-year study-abroad trip who happened to be Jewish. I guess that answers that question. Also, he said that, for no reason that anyone really knew, those few Northern Irish Jews tended to be Unionist. I guess you gotta pick a side.
You also see a lot of flags flying in Belfast. Official word from the guide: Don't Even Ask.
The peace is kept by cops, who I am told are the only cops in the UK who carry sidearms. This is the main police station, and the guy in front is our guide (he has some position on one of the university cultural councils, but I was so jet-lagged at that point that I've completely forgotten what exactly he did other than to answer questions from curious ethnomusicologists, walk very fast, and talk very quietly).
He also told us that Northern Ireland has to keep Official Numbers of Protestant Things and Catholic Things even. For every Protestant cop, they hire a Catholic cop. I asked how people could tell, because the implications of religious identification markers disturb me, as you might guess. He said it's a small place, so everyone just knows. He also said that the Official Numbers extend even to things like community gyms. If the Protestants get one, the Catholics have to get one that's just as nice. Northern Ireland must absolutely hemorrhage money, but it sure beats hemorrhaging blood. There are definitely worse ways to deal with situations like that.