Friday, May 14, 2010

Belfast: A Mash-Up of Irish and UK Culture - Day Six in Ireland

Take one part United Kingdom and one part Ireland - mix them together for a couple hundred years and sprinkle in some poverty, political tension and religious differences: That's Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast was surreal - it's the only way I can describe it. We took a high-speed train to Belfast, which, like Ireland's broadband service, was rather slow. They may need to take a few lessons from the Japanese of how to rocket crowded cars of people through space and time at frighteningly dangerous speeds.

We hoped on a tour bus at the train station. The guide was a local named Michael who was unfathomably knowledgeable about the city and a peculiar obsession with using the colloquial word "OK" at least twice in every sentence. We were able to see the Titanic shipyard, Belfast Castle and St. Patrick's Church (not to be mistaken with Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral).

These sites were swell, however, the real mind-blowing attractions were off the beaten path. Michael took us into lower-class Catholic and Protestant neighbors that had militant murals covering the walls. These paintings stem from the Troubles - a period in Northern Irish history when many nationalists (pro-Ireland) went to blows with the unionists (pro-UK).

The two most well-known groups (and well-feared) were the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteers Force - also affiliated with the Ulster Freedom Fighters). UVF murals with masked men brandishing machine guns were everywhere.

One particular mural that we saw was later brought up in conversation with Gerry Patterson, the Director of Digital Publishing, at the Belfast Telegraph (Northern Ireland’s biggest newspaper). He recalled a painting that said "Ready for peace/Prepared for War" in giant bold letters. He said we were not the only ones to feel an eerie chill - it happens to him each time he drives by it.

Patterson explained his country has come a long way from the violence in the 1970s through the 1990s. A country that had 80 percent unemployment rates in some Catholic neighborhoods in the 1980s now has 100 percent broadband coverage for the entire country (Ireland is not to that level) - talk about a change.

His paper has taken this rise in technology and mounted an effort to build a stronger Web presence even though the physical papers are still selling.

Patterson said that the costs and revenue of the Web site break even - which is enough to appease the editors in power. He also explained that the Telegraph is still keenly focused on print.

"Protecting the print pounds [sterling] from becoming online pennies," said Patterson, in reference the view of the old guard.

Patterson encouraged the group to embrace technology and reminded us that journalism in any form is a labor of love.

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