Ireland: From Tragedy to Tourism

In an area of Belfast known as the Cathedral Quarter (you should check out my coverage of its Arts Festival here), there’s a little monthly newsletter called Quarter Beat. Leafing through some copies of the free publication I’d had slotted in my magazine rack, I came across October 2013’s print when Quarter Beat was at the ripe young age of Issue 9. The main article was written by a Cathie McKimm, entitled ‘A Tour Guide’s Perspective’ and detailing her many anecdotes about taking tourists around ‘The Big Smoke’, colloquially referring to everything as ‘wee’ (no matter what size it is) and how the Assembly Rooms, one of the oldest buildings in the city, is slowly being reclaimed by weeds. However, what had stuck in my mind from reading the piece a few years ago was McKimm’s tale about an Texan visitor commenting that ‘The Troubles’ is a “strange name for a war… it’s almost a familial term — like something you want to keep in the family”.

It really got me thinking. A bitter civil conflict spanning forty years, fuelled by political violence which tore Ireland apart is, in an almost tragically comic way, brushed off with the euphemism of ‘The Troubles’. What anywhere else would be classed as a civil war is considered ‘just a bit of trouble’, no need to dwell on it, the name suggests. Ironically, this is far from the reality. In fact, we Irish on both sides of the border appear to have developed a knack for creating a tourist industry out of tragedy. It seems that we take some strange kind of pride from our bloody past and are insistent on making a living out of it — from the Famine and Bloody Sunday to Titanic, down to our rather oxymoronic peace walls, murals and the court’s bombproof walls. Tourists can run their fingertips over the bullet marks in the pillars of the Post Office building on O’Connell Street in Dublin; even Belfast’s equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa — the Albert Clock — is slanted and St. Anne’s Cathedral is allegedly sinking on its foundations. Despite the popularity of the likes of the Giant’s Causeway, the Guinness Storehouse, castles, Game of Thrones filming locations, historic Celtic sites, Galway Bay and all of the lush green scenery we’re famous for, it’s Ireland’s more gruesome history which tourists — and hence the tourist boards — cash in on.
The tragic story of the RMS Titanic’s sinking in April 1912 is known pretty much globally, now immortalised in James Cameron’s star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose since 1997.

Discover NI has made Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction a hub of tourist activity — in fact, there’s even a whole part of the city near the docklands named after it. Not long after hitting the iceberg that fateful night, 1,517 people lost their lives in the most notorious maritime disaster in history. On the flipside of the bustling gift shops selling their knock-off Titanic memorabilia and Hearts of the Ocean, this type of tourism of course preserves the story of the Titanic and Belfast’s shipyards in not at all a bad way — simply in a touristic way that is uniquely Irish (nevertheless, I will always stand by the fact that Titanic was fine when it left). Similarly in the Republic, the potato blight which caused Great Famine of 1845–1852 has spawned museums, sculptured memorials, interactive exhibitions and even attractions like the Famine Village in Co. Donegal. It fascinates me how something catastrophic enough to cause the population of the country to fall by up to 25% through starvation, disease and immigration has been turned around into something touristically positive.

Out of a deeply troubled history which Ireland often struggles to put behind her, she has birthed a kind of touristic magnetism for the rest of the world that her internal strife so long prevented her from having. Ireland’s aptitude for turning her violent past into something positive for the future is, albeit unorthodox, surely encouraging.

The Huffington Post did a really interesting feature on ‘conflict tourism’, specifically in Northern Ireland, which is worth checking out here.

Originally published at http://kristensinclair.blogspot.com on October 9, 2015.

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Kristen Sinclair

Freelance writer with bylines in The Guardian, The Verge, The Indiependent, The Thin Air, Hot Press + more. Full portfolio at kristensinclair.blogspot.com