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My Journey Towards a Walking Ethnography of Hostile Spaces

By Amanda Lubit, MS, MPH, PhD Candidate - Queen’s University Belfast

For the past year, I have lived in the town of Carrickfergus while pursuing my PhD in the nearby city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Although idyllic in appearance, the town is representative of the struggles Northern Ireland continues to contend with today. Situated along Belfast Lough (a waterway linking Belfast to the Irish Sea) with scenic views and a medieval castle (pictured below), Carrickfergus should be flourishing but instead faces the oppressive grip of sectarian paramilitaries.

Despite the political peace established in 1998 by the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland continues to grapple with its recent past and with the uncertainty Brexit has introduced. Sectarianism persists and structures daily lives through segregation and hostility ongoing between the two communities - Protestants / Loyalists who support a union with the United Kingdom, and Catholics / Nationalists who support a union with the Republic of Ireland.

Unlike other areas of Northern Ireland, Carrickfergus’ conflict does not stem from a conflict between the two communities, but instead from an internal 3-way contest of loyalist paramilitaries. Months before I knew about this power struggle, I experienced the feeling of living in and moving through this hostile environment.

Without a car, I frequently walk throughout the town. Walking has allowed me to encounter sites and symbols of sectarian aggression that permeate this and similar working-class loyalist areas. Through my own experiences of engaging with spaces around me, I discovered the usefulness of walking as a methodology for understanding the spatial complexities of this place. Such an approach is particularly relevant in Northern Ireland where peace walls continue to mark the landscape and separate communities, and where highly visible, symbolic displays of sectarianism mark the territory using murals, graffiti, flags, and bonfires.

Within days of moving here, I saw the mural (pictured above) of a masked gunman with a loyalist paramilitary group (the UVF). Although I encountered no other significant indicators of paramilitary control for months, I came to understand this as a hostile landscape.

Through daily walks of my neighborhood, I became attuned to how different spaces affect the speed with which I walk, the paths I choose, the ways I interact with people, and the feelings I experience. I regularly came upon buildings topped with barbed wire, spiked fences, and fenced-off spaces overgrown with weeds and marked by signs stating “Do Not Dump” (pictured below). Broken glass, discarded food wrappers, and dog feces litter sidewalks. This area of town feels thoroughly uncared for, possibly dangerous and definitely unwelcoming to an outsider like me.

As summer approached, the town prepared for July 12th, a celebration of Protestant identity. As part of these celebrations, communities throughout Northern Ireland declare their identity and mark territory using parades, flags, and bonfires. In communities like Carrickfergus, these identities also connect with local paramilitaries.

From May to July, my neighborhood transformed into a visible stronghold of sectarian paramilitaries. A variety of flags appeared on homes and public poles (pictured above and below), graffiti and paint marked the area as “Loyalist,” bands paraded through the town on regular basis, and bonfires were built on vacant sites.

I witnessed the evolution of a bonfire near my home as I passed it daily on my way to the train or grocery store. A previously empty site, this space transformed when truckloads of tires and wooden pallets were delivered then lifted into place with heavy machinery. Day after day, the bonfire grew higher and more organized, eventually towering over houses, visible from all areas of the development. Topped with and surrounded by flags, this tower of rubber and wood (pictured below), became a constant reminder of who controls this landscape.

Throughout my year here, walking has been not only a mode of transportation but also a method of interacting with and discovering this place. I have read about hostile spaces, paramilitaries, and bonfires but I did not fully grasp what it means to live with these things on a daily basis until I walked through this town day after day. Walking ethnography allows for a deep sensory experience of a place, something that cannot easily be collected through more stationary methodologies like interviewing.

I further applied this methodology when participating in Lyra’s Walk for Peace in May 2019. Starting in Belfast, over one-hundred walkers spent three days traveling 68 miles across the country to the city of Derry, where the journalist Lyra McKee was killed by paramilitaries the month before. This walk served as a form of protest against continued paramilitary violence, failures of government, residential segregation, and ongoing tensions. Walking ethnography allowed me to collect stories and impressions from other walkers while engaging with the changing landscape, the physicality of endurance walking, and the sensory experiences of walking with others. Stationary methodologies before or after the walk would not produce as nuanced an understanding of the event and its complexity.

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