All Along the Peace Walls – Revisiting 1960s and 1970s Belfast

I had the absolute pleasure of spending a day exploring Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast with Kevin McGlinchey in June 2022.1 Kevin replied to my letter to the editor of the Irish Independent seeking people to share their experiences of growing up on the island of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s for my Ph.D. project. He instantly agreed to take me on a trip down memory lane, as he ‘valued the opportunity to bring to life an historical, personal, local and community experience of this particular area of Belfast and Belfast as a whole during both good and bad times.’2 Kevin was born in 1950 and grew up in Belfast, where he witnessed the beginning of the Troubles as a teenager.3

This research is part of my Ph.D. project with the working title ‘Not our Place?’, which focuses on the leisure behaviour of youth on the island of Ireland between 1958 and 1983. Because I am investigating not only how young people negotiated relationships between genders and generations, but also the social spaces in which those relationships operated, what we planned for the day was not a regular interview but a walking one.4 I did not prepare a set route; it was up to Kevin where we would go. He appreciated this approach as it gave him the opportunity to physically show me places: ‘what the eyes see, it gives the heart a greater understanding.’5 However, the Belfast of his youth was not the same as the Belfast we encountered that day. The peculiarity of meeting in the present to talk about the past was demonstrated at our very first stop, when we visited Kevin’s childhood home in the Clonard area: ‘My house was here, which was number twenty—that’s number eight now here because everything has been modernised.’ There was a nostalgic note to his voice as he introduced me to his neighbourhood; I could tell that he had many good memories of this area and the community living here: ‘everybody knew everybody, where everybody lived, they knew the family, who was what, who was where, etc.’

Memorial plaques in the Clonard area and the peace wall. Photograph copyright of Annika Stendebach.

Just a few steps from Kevin’s childhood home is Bombay Street, which became known as the site of one of the riots that would later be seen as the start of the Troubles in August 1969. Kevin recalled the evening and the impact it had on the local community—his community:

The whole street was burnt, and people had to leave, that’s when the Troubles started. What had happened was a crowd came up from around the Shankill area and put petrol bombs through the windows. There’s photographs of the army in the street, just watching it happen.

Kevin still recalls the shock of watching the news that night: ‘When I saw the street, I said “That’s Bombay Street on the television!” and I remember we came down afterwards and it was just a shell.’

Just a few metres down the road we stopped at the Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, where long lists are displayed of the names of civilians, or those with a Republican background from this primarily nationalist6 area, who lost their lives during the Troubles at the hands of either the British forces or loyalists.7 When Kevin pointed out the individual names of victims that he knew and told me their life stories, it really did give me a greater understanding of the pain this conflict inflicted on so many people and the generations to follow. One of those names especially sent a shiver down my spine due to the emotion in Kevin’s voice:

Gerald McAuley was at school with me. He was a big, lanky, easy-going lad. He was at the top of Kashmir Road over here, he was running across the road and was shot dead. Geraldo, they called him, Geraldo McAuley. He was just 15 years old.

Gerald McAuley was a member of Na Fianna Éireann, the youth wing of the (pre-split, anti-Treaty)8 Irish Republican Army (IRA), and as such the first militant nationalist to be killed in the conflict in the North of Ireland. Gerald was shot on 15 August 1969 while helping neighbours move out after their homes had been burned in the Loyalist invasion of Bombay Street.9 Kevin proceeded to describe how Geraldo’s murder affected him and his friends: ‘I remember a lot of us talked about it, a phone call “Did you hear about Geraldo?” – “Yes, those bastards killed him!”’ In Kevin’s view, the incident caused ‘an awful lot of anti-British feeling’ and the more civilians were added to the list of casualties, ‘all it did was enhance a nationalist feeling against the security forces.’ In a letter to a relative living abroad, the teenage Kevin expressed that ‘having been part of the situation, and seeing what was happening, I felt violence was necessary.’ Looking back, Kevin said that while he would not necessarily agree with his teenage self, he sometimes wondered whether he could have joined the IRA at that age and had come to the conclusion that ‘yes, I could have, because I felt there was an awful social injustice going on in my country that I wanted to try and do something about.’

An inscription on a nearby memorial plaque reads: ‘From the burning ashes of a Clonard Street […] to the sharpened steel and concrete wall that separate our minds’ – as just behind the now rebuilt dwellings of Bombay Street towers a section of the ‘peace walls’ separating the Catholic enclaves in Belfast from the Protestant neighbourhoods. Both Kevin and one of my other interviewees from Belfast, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, agree that this is a ‘dreadful term’ due to the discrepancy of the word ‘peace’ appearing in the name of something designed to keep people apart.10 These specific walls were erected in 1969 and were originally destined to only be only a ‘very temporary affair.’ Sir Ian Freeland, who was appointed Director of Operations in security matters in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the August 1969 rioting, assured the public that in contrast to the then divided Germany, ‘We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city.’11 History has proven him wrong, as the Berlin Wall famously fell in 1989, while the Belfast peace walls are still in place. According to the city of Belfast’s ten-year plan from 2013, the peace walls were supposed to have been completely demolished by 2023,12 but after my recent visit to the city, I personally find it hard to imagine that they will be taken down in the near future.

Drive-by photo of one of the many houses decorated with Union flags in the Shankill area. Photograph copyright of Annika Stendebach.

Just around the corner from the memorial, a gate in the peace wall on Lanark Way links the predominantly nationalist Springfield Road and the loyalist area around the Shankill Road. On crossing into Shankill, we were met by a plethora of Union flags. Although there was the odd Irish tricolour on show around Bombay Street too, as a German citizen, such a public display of national pride was quite new to me and made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Admittedly, my visit to Belfast coincided with a very special time in Northern Irish history, only a few days after the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee at the start of June and just a couple of weeks before ‘the Twelfth’ of July. The latter commemorates the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, securing a Protestant line of succession to the British Crown. ‘The Twelfth’ is still celebrated by some loyalists as a symbolic triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism; the festivities include marches and the ceremonial burning of the Irish tricolour on bonfires, and are regularly accompanied by rioting.

Despite being aware of this potential for friction, I was still flabbergasted to hear that even today—almost a quarter of a century after the Good Friday agreement officially ended the conflict—the Lanark Way gates are still closed every evening upon nightfall. Kevin explained that, after all, the walls were there to protect people: ‘During the day people can walk through and back and forth, but in the night-time, I think people have this fear of someone’s going to come into our community and cause problems—so we’ll close it down, we block ourselves off.’

However, my initial surprise diminished upon learning that as recently as 2021, this very gateway was the scene of a riot after the proposal for a tax border in the Irish sea led to a loyalist protest.13 The 2016 Brexit referendum—in which Northern Ireland largely voted remain—has left the country in a volatile political conundrum. While a central pillar of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was that there must never be a border on the island of Ireland, Britain leaving the European Union while the Republic remains a member will inevitably result in a customs boundary either between Northern Ireland and the Republic or between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.

Drive-by photo of the Lanark Way gates, including part of the graffitied quotation ‘There was never a good war or a bad peace.’ Photograph copyright of Annika Stendebach.

Towards the end of our tour, we once again passed the Lanark Way gateway and I noticed something written across the barrier between Springfield with Shankill Road. When the gate closes at night and its two halves become one, the divided message is also reunited and can be identified as a Benjamin Franklin quotation: ‘There was never a good war or a bad peace.’ So, let’s hope for a good—and lasting—peace on the island of Ireland!

The featured image shows a map of the route taken during my walking interview with Kevin McGlinchey, including several photos of places we visited. Photos and collage copyright of Annika Stendebach. Map copyright of Google.

Cite this blog post
Annika Stendebach (2023, August 3). All Along the Peace Walls – Revisiting 1960s and 1970s Belfast. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

  1. I sincerely thank Kevin and his sister Deirdre McGlinchey for their time and willingness to share their youth experiences with me, without which my research would not be possible. I am also grateful to Dr Séan Ó Duibhir for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article. []
  2. Kevin McGlinchey, email to the author, 3 Nov. 2022. []
  3. ‘The Troubles’ is a euphemism for the Northern Ireland conflict, which lasted from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The Troubles are often considered to be a religious conflict between the Catholic and Protestant populations of Northern Ireland, but were in fact caused by Ireland’s colonial past, which was marked by political and confessional frictions. ‘[T]he Northern Irish conflict is not a religious conflict . . . Although religion has a place—and indeed an important one—in the repertoire of conflict in Northern Ireland, the majority of participants see the situation as primarily concerned with matters of politics and nationalism, not religion.’ Richard Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations (London, 1997), 120. A summary of this view can be found in Claire Mitchell, Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging and Belief (Aldershot, 2006), 5: ‘The central argument is that religion is an ethnic marker, but that it is not generally politically relevant in and of itself. Instead, ethnonationalism lies at the root of the conflict.’ For more background to the conflict, see CAIN Archive: Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland, accessed 20 Feb. 2023. []
  4. As Because we covered a considerable distance, we spent quite some time driving through Belfast rather than walking, but we got out of the car to explore specific areas on foot which Kevin deemed relevant to his personal life story. []
  5. Kevin McGlinchey, personal interview, 8 June 2022. Unless otherwise specified, all other quotations are from this interview. []
  6. The term ‘nationalist’ is used within a Northern Irish context to ‘describe those who hold a long-term wish for the reunification of Ireland. The majority of those people who are from the Catholic community are Nationalist. It should be noted that not all Nationalists support Republican groups.’ ‘A Glossary of Terms related to the Conflict’, CAIN Archive, accessed 20 Feb. 2023. []
  7. Loyalism is a variant of Ulster unionism associated with Northern Irish Protestants from a working-class background. Like other unionists, loyalists support the continued existence of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and thus oppose a united Ireland. Within a Northern Ireland context, the term ‘loyalist’ is often used to imply that ‘the person gives tacit or actual support [to] the use of force by paramilitary groups to ‘defend the union’ with Britain.’ ‘A Glossary of Terms related to the Conflict’, CAIN Archive, accessed 20 Feb. 2023. []
  8. This refers to a subgroup of the original IRA (1919–22) that fought against the Irish state and its successors from the Irish Civil War until 1969, when the IRA divided into Provisional and Official branches. The term ‘anti-Treaty’ refers to the fact that the original IRA split based on its members attitudes on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. The treaty was highly controversial as it granted what would eventually become the Republic of Ireland independence from Great Britain, but meant that the six counties which today constitute Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK. []
  9. David McKittrick et al., Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles, 4th ed (Edinburgh, 2007), 38. []
  10. Mary McAleese, personal interview, 7 Mar. 2022; Kevin McGlinchey, personal interview, 8 June 2022. McAleese referred to P. J. O’Rourke, who coined the phrase ‘sociological toddler gates’ for these installations built to keep the communities apart. []
  11. Statement by Sir Ian Freeland, 10 Sept. 1969, cited in Emily Ravenscroft, ‘The Meaning of the Peacelines of Belfast’, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 21/2 (2009), 213–21, at 213. []
  12. Gerry Moriarty, ‘Robinson and McGuinness want ‘Peace Walls’ Down within 10 Years’, Irish Times, 10 May 2013. []
  13. Northern Ireland Riots: Violent Clashes at Belfast Shankill, Springfield Road Interface’, Belfast Telegraph, 8 Apr. 2021. []

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Annika Stendebach

She is a doctoral student in history at the Justus-Liebig-University of Gießen and a member and research assistant at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC). She previously was a research assisstant at the Teaching Centre of GCSC and planned and coordinated the Predoctoral Programme for the Study of Culture, which is aimed at students interested in doctoral studies.

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