March 2005 Reflection

My darkest demon has been exorcised: I can ride a bike. Just when I thought the Mitchell program couldn’t do anything more profound to impact my life, it outdid itself. On a beautiful February day on Inishmore, the largest of the rugged wild Aran Islands, I officially joined the ranks of all those six year olds who take off their training wheels and ride into their first taste of freedom. Under the watchful and patient tutelage of Misters Hanley, Gale, and Mulcare, I stumbled, wobbled, and finally peddled (sort of) across the breathtaking terrain. That virgin voyage ended prematurely in a mildly traumatic encounter with a stone wall, but nonetheless provides another unforgettable chapter to my Ireland experience.

It’s been interesting to watch in the past weeks as the local politics of Belfast again find their way into the mainstream American press. The brave McCartney sisters find themselves the toast of Washington on St. Patrick’s Day because of their calls for justice for their murdered brother, and the IRA is facing unprecedented criticism from within the republican community. Living here for a time has taught me that predicting Northern politics is a near impossibility, but one certainly hopes that the leaders who had the skill and courage to craft the Good Friday Agreement will now recognise that violence needs to be removed forever from the politics of this land. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than what many of their leaders have offered them.

My day-to-day work in Belfast has gravitated to two poles: my dissertation and my work with ECONI. In a major piece of progress, I have a dissertation topic, and have even managed to cobble together a bibliography and what seems to be a coherent outline. I’m examining how political elites maintain their legitimacy in stateless peoples, with particular concentration on Yasser Arafat and the Dalai Lama. They seem a most unnatural pair, but a good many of their leadership strategies have common ground, and their differences tell even more about the multifaceted and contested nature of political legitimacy in conflicted societies.

Work with ECONI continues to be the highpoint of my time in Belfast. The past month has been spent in preparation for a major change, as ECONI becomes the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland. The change reflects the changes of Northern Ireland since Good Friday. Churches and politicians need to talk to each other about more than peacemaking. They need to discuss racism, water charges, schooling and all the other mercifully normal issues that should dominate local democratic politics.

As always, my road has gone beyond Belfast on a number of occasions over the past couple of months. I made my first foray to Wales to visit a good friend teaching there, and in the process discovered an accent that even beats Ulster for, shall we say, uniqueness. A long weekend in Rome started with inauspicious snow, but wound up including churches, ruins, and gelato, that trinity of la dolce vita. This past weekend was Limerick with the Mitchell crew and Dell, bonding over the lavish breakfasts of the Castletroy Park Hotel. My personal highlight was revisiting Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine community that I called home for a brief time two summers ago, and that still felt familiar in spite of the time that has passed. If there’s a more peaceful smell than incense at a Vespers service, I haven’t found it.

The final bit of travelling that I need to mention wasn’t to some grand European destination. My grandmother died this past month, and I suddenly found myself on a plane to St. Louis for the funeral. It was a bit of an exhausting trip, but one I wouldn’t have missed for the world. It’s humbling to rediscover that amid strolls through the Villa Borghese, fly fishing in the Shannon, and studying dynamic global conflicts, what moves one most profoundly is simple memories of departed loved ones and getting to spend time with those who understand why those people were so special.

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