Every evolving and becoming more inclusive, the once troubled Belfast city is "busy putting its past in the rear view mirror".

I’ve always loved Belfast - a city with some serious soul.

Then again, I had a novel introduction. My uncle took me there as a boy to meet the Rev. Ian Paisley. Recently home from missionary work on The Philippine Islands Fr. Jim Hughes was convinced that the Rev. Ian was “the reincarnation of St. Paul” and just needed a “little change in direction.” I kid you not!

A hair-raising rural encounter with the B Specials put a crimp in Fr. Jim’s style, but we did drive through East Belfast on a Sunday morning while our Protestant brethren raised their voices in praise of the Lord. This outpouring of devotion left an indelible impression on my papist soul.

Soon thereafter I became a fan of the Belfast beat group, Them. Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks sealed my musical deal with the city.

I also visited during the dark days of Bobby Sands hunger strike; even then I was struck by the sheer humanity of the people.

I return every couple of years now and am always amazed at Belfast’s continuing strides towards inclusiveness. Walk out any evening into the crowded downtown streets, enter The Crown, Kelly’s Cellars, or any of the great local pubs and restaurants and you’d be forgiven for wondering, “Was it all just a bad dream?”

For Belfast is a city busy putting its past in the rear view mirror.

I take a group of North Americans to Ireland every year, many of them listeners to Celtic Crush on SiriusXM. Like my three-hour radio show I focus on history, politics, music and how they ineffably intertwine.

Belfast is always a highlight for it epitomizes William Faulkner’s line, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Beautiful modern Belfast city.

Beautiful modern Belfast city.

Instead of shunning Belfast’s recent history Coiste deals with it in a way that could well pay dividends for other divided cities like Jerusalem or Beiruit. This enterprising organization puts together various political/historical excursions, but my favorite is the Joined Falls/Shankill Tour.

This is a unique opportunity to be taken through Republican and Loyalist areas by ex-combatants. This year our guides were Robert “Dinker” McClenaghan and Noel Large.

We began at The Spectrum, a vibrant community center in the Unionist Shankill Road area. It’s always important to remember that there is a wide variance of views in both Loyalist and Republican circles, likewise with our guides.

The Unionist ares of Shankill Road, in Belfast.

The Unionist ares of Shankill Road, in Belfast.

Noel Large is an intense and powerful presence, and a most interesting person in a city teeming with characters. He is proud of his native streets and heritage but, unlike the caricature of the dour Ulsterman, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and gave our busload of travelers a rare and passionate view into the Loyalist soul.

Dinker, as he is affectionately known, is no less an ardent spokesman for his Republican streets and point of view – remember that the Shankill and Falls are mere blocks from each other.

Republicans, however, have more experience in dealing with the outside world, and let’s face it: North Americans in general are more disposed towards their point of view. Which was why it was a riveting experience to share a bus ride with these two 60-year old ex-combatants who, to put it mildly, would not have been well disposed to each other not all that long ago.

Both had served long prison sentences for desperate deeds, and had given much thought to what they had done, and the reasons they had taken up arms in the first place.

The most touching aspect was the rough friendship they had carved out, for who could understand their shared experiences better than each other.

Towards the end Noel said something riveting, to the effect that “we should never have been fighting each other, but rather those who divided us.”

It was a moment of truth for two working class Belfast men looking back at a troubled past, both determined to make the present and future better for their people.

When you go to Belfast make sure you visit the Spectrum Centre on The Shankill as well as An Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on The Falls. There’s truth and revelation to be found on both sides of a once impregnable divide.

Read more: Meeting the ghost of Jimi Hendrix

* Larry Kirwan was the leader of Black 47 for 25 years. He is also a playwright, novelist, and a columnist for The Irish Echo www.irishecho.com.

He is the host of Celtic Crush on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and President of Irish American Writers & Artists. He can be reached at blk47@aol.com and www.black47.com.

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Larry Kirwan at the Belfast Peace Wall, in Belfast City. Brighid Donnelly