Healing in Northern Ireland

McAneny 1I arrived in Belfast a few minutes before midnight, with nothing but a 75-liter pack on my back and a desire for a decent night’s sleep – a desire I hadn’t shaken since my restless red-eye flight from Boston to Dublin 48 hours before. I had spent my previous two days on a whirlwind tour of the Republic of Ireland – after landing in Dublin at 5:30 AM only to discover that I couldn’t check into my hostel until 2:00 PM, I decided to take advantage of the last-gasp kick of caffeine I got at the hostel’s café and tour the city rather than wallowing in my exhaustion. I enjoyed the brief time I spent in the city, but the soporific effect of a 9:30 AM pint at the Guinness factory (I was their first customer of the day, a dubious honor indeed!) soon took its toll, and by ten o’clock that night I regretfully traded in the magical experience of a traditional music session for the comforts of my hostel bed.

At Northeastern, I have been lucky enough to surround myself with people very similar to the person I want to become: adventurous, creative, and with an inspirational love for travel. However, in doing so I became close friends with a wonderful young woman who ended up traveling as much as I do – at exactly the opposite times. Both planning on doing multiple international co-ops, we found ourselves intending to be on opposite sides of the world for two and a half years straight. However, when she accepted a co-op in Belfast at the Northern Ireland Center for Ethnic Minorities while I was back in classes in Boston, I saw not a disappointment, but an opportunity – I could combine a visit with one of my closest friends with a chance to gain an insider’s perspective on one of the most fascinating regions in the world.

My interest in the region ran deeper than the mere fact that my friend happened to be there. My first semester at Northeastern, I was fortunate enough to take Writer in Residence Michael Patrick MacDonald’s honors seminar course on the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland, an ethno-religious conflict 800 years in the making. Initially encouraged to take the course by both my own interest in Ireland and the suggestions of my honors advisers, I found myself further and further intrigued by this conflict, fascinated by how one of the world’s most powerful societies could foment a conflict of such division and violence within its very borders. Therefore, when an opportunity presented itself to visit a place I had studied in such detail, I leapt at it. I saved up my babysitting money for several weeks, bought a round-trip ticket to Dublin, and soon found myself traipsing across all four counties of Ireland over the course of the most interesting Thanksgiving break of my life.

Three particular memories to me define what I took away from this incredible trip. The first two came while I accompanied my friend on a Black Taxi Tour – a tour led by a Belfast native who had lived through the worst of the Troubles and (theoretically) gave an objective tour of the various murals scattered across the city. After seeing the murals on the Catholic side of the city, we took a side trip to the Peace Wall – a moniker about as appropriate as that of the Ministry of Love in George Orwell’s 1984.  Erected between two militantly religious neighborhoods in West Belfast, this 30-foot wall of rusty steel and barbed wire was recently extended upwards so that unruly neighbors wouldn’t throw rocks at each other over the wall. Oddly, standing under this monstrous symbol of sectarianism made me think back to my time in Cape Town, where no matter where I stood I could turn my head and see Table Mountain watching over me. However, whereas in Cape Town I felt protected by the mightiness and grace of a natural wonder, I felt in the presence of the Peace Wall a constant reminder of the oppression, division, and violence that the region had endured. If I was able to sense this from only a few minutes of standing in the wall’s shadow, I can only imagine the mindset that living one’s whole life in that atmosphere might create.

A second vivid memory came only a few minutes later, after I stepped down from the bench I had been standing on to get a better view of the Peace Wall. I snapped a few pictures of the nearby church, and then noticed a plaque on one of its walls. This plaque listed each of the sons and daughters of the church who had perished in the conflict, fighting for a united Ireland. However, what to me stood out most was a single name: my own. I saw that, about twenty years previously, a man with my own family name had been killed in the conflict. Somewhere down the line, one of my relatives had been born here, lived here, and died within a few hundred meters of the ground I stood on.

However, my most poignant memory of my experience in Northern Ireland came from a simple conversation I had at a pub with a young man I met my first night in Belfast. He was Catholic, as were all of the friends he came with. My friend and I had sat down with them to share a pint, and while I really wanted to know what the Troubles meant to the average person our age living in Belfast, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to bring up in casual conversation. However, I eventually just went for it, and found that it wasn’t an inappropriate question at all – indeed, when I asked him how often discussions of the conflict came up in everyday conversation, he shocked me by telling me that they occurred “every day.” Only by talking to Stephen could I begin to comprehend the emotional gravity of the facts I had merely learned in a history class. Northern Ireland is home to two distinct groups of people, whose lives in many lives revolve around two completely irreconcilable goals. One group wants Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and one wants it to be part of the United Kingdom. It can’t be both – the situation that exists today, which is tenuous but ultimately peaceful, is the best possible compromise. Indeed, it makes nobody happy.

The vast majority of the people who call Belfast home have been touched to some degree by violence, tragedy, and loss. Many discuss these events daily. However, each day, the residents of Belfast work, shop, eat, drink, laugh, sing, and dance – often far more than we do. Weighed down by its history it may be, but Belfast is not a depressing city by any means. Rather, I found inspiration in its ability to keep one eye looking backwards, one looking forwards, and both feet rooted firmly in the vibrant positivity of the present.

William McAneny, International Affairs