Belfast, Northern Ireland: Politics and Art

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Belfast, Northern Ireland: Politics and Art

One year ago, I packed up my life in Chiang Mai, Thailand, distributed everything between two suitcases, and boarded a plane to Belfast, Northern Ireland. I’ll be honest: I was not happy. Belfast, my boyfriend’s hometown, sounded cold, wet and – hearing of the ‘Troubles’ – potentially dangerous.

On first approach, this is exactly what I found: we disembarked the aircraft to find a pale grey drizzle in 9-degree centigrade. I set my jaw into a grimace, thinking of the sunny 32-degree weather I had abandoned. When I boarded the bus to Belfast City Centre, I pulled a crumpled list from my pocket. In an effort to coax me here, my boyfriend had listed all the art galleries, academic departments and visual artists in Belfast that might interest me. I studied it to steady the wavering confidence in my decision.

No number of lists could have prepared me for what I found in Belfast: a unique community with an unbeatable openness that allowed me to become an integral part in a matter of months.

But of course Belfast isn’t all politics and art. There are so many more reasons to love Belfast, from the proximity of the sea and the Mourne Mountains, to the hipster barbers and coffee shop culture. Brave the 60% probability of precipitation and give Belfast a try.


Belfast’s historical conflict, termed the ‘Troubles,’ had a perhaps unexpected impact on the post-conflict society. Thousands of pounds of European Union money funneled in to contribute to conflict transformation projects. Many of these projects were creative in nature. As a result, the arts scene in Belfast is not only huge, but also approachable.

As a photographer, I have made inroads into the arts worlds of other cities, but I have never found any artistic community to be as inclusive as the one in Belfast. Sure, there is the unavoidable splintering and division around internal politics. But as a new artist to the scene, I found that people were supporting me, rather than feeling threatened and steering me away.

And there are plenty of opportunities to put yourself out there as an amateur in different mediums. There are open mic nights for music, poetry and stand up comedy. There are affordable community arts classes offering lessons in writing, theatre, dance, visual arts and music available at different centers around the city. Without being overly trite, there really is something for everyone.

A booming creative community aside, I was concerned about the politics when I moved here. I really did not understand the Troubles. That’s not to say that I understand the Troubles now, but I think I have a basic grasp on it. Here is a brief history lesson:

For hundreds of years, and from the time when Ireland was first colonized by what is now the United Kingdom in the 1100s, there have been conflicts between Protestants and Catholics (actually, not just the UK and Ireland, look at Europe’s Thirty Years War). Like many ‘religious’ wars, these wars had more to do with group identity in relation to territorial claims than it had to do with doctrine.


Belfast Mural

Jump forward to 1922 when Ireland gains independence. The Republic of Ireland was forced to sacrifice the northernmost six counties to the United Kingdom in exchange for their independence from the British. Thus the creation of a separate country, Northern Ireland, which is today part of the United Kingdom.

The Troubles kicked off in 1968 under the influence of the civil rights movement in the United States because of unequal opportunities for Catholic residents. This escalated into a civil war that lasted until 1998. Today, Northern Ireland is at peace, but there are continuing identity divisions between Protestant/British and Catholic/Irish that manifest in the political system and in local geographies.

Not only did I not understand the Troubles on arrival, but I was also put off by the fact that Northern Ireland is the only country in the United Kingdom that bans same sex marriage and has a near-total ban on abortion, even in the case of rape, incest and stillbirth.

While much of Northern Ireland’s politics are religiously driven and, in some cases, socially archaic, there is a very active and passionate Left at work. About six months after moving to Belfast, and after the election of Trump in America, I decided to become more politically involved. I joined the Green Party, and had the pleasure of helping our local Green representative get reelected by canvasing door to door in our neighborhood.

The opportunities in Belfast to become involved in the local community and to engage in hobbies with like-minded people are unparalleled by any other city I have lived in.

But of course Belfast isn’t all politics and art. There are so many more reasons to love Belfast, from the proximity of the sea and the Mourne Mountains, to the hipster barbers and coffee shop culture. Brave the 60% probability of precipitation and give Belfast a try.

Also check out Yangon, Myanmar.

Savannah Dodd

Savannah Dodd

Savannah Dodd is an anthropologist and photographer. Originally from St. Louis, USA, she has made several transcontinental moves, but currently calls Belfast home. You can see her photography at