Over the last few months, I felt I had come to understand Northern Ireland after having read a few books about the Troubles and often spoken to Irish friends about the conflict. Yet nothing could have prepared me for my first experience in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in February, over the course of a retreat with fellow Mitchell scholars. While it is immensely difficult to do justice to the complexities in the North of Ireland in a short post, I will do my best to share some of my own rudimentary impressions of the current situation.
Belfast definitely still feels like the industrial city that it grew into in the 19th century. The mostly gray and drab architecture that plagues this almost Dickensian town springs to life thanks to the colorful, diverse, and often controversial murals that have popped up on the walls of shops and homes across the city. Even though the conflict ended thanks to the peace process of the late 1990’s and the peace-building efforts of local communities, the tensions and divisions that tore this community apart remain palpable: many storefronts displayed their allegiances, either putting up a “God Save the Queen” banner, or flying a Republic of Ireland flag and conspicuously placing Irish phrases across windows. One of the most interesting people we met with actually happened to be our bus driver, an interesting man who to my astonishment shared with us that he was a “dissident” and thus opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Instinctively, I wanted to dismiss the views of a man opposed to the current peace – but I could not help but feel that it is hard to blame this man for not wanting to forgive, given that he has probably witnessed and experienced injustices I couldn’t even fathom.
Derry/Londonderry presented a different facet of Northern Ireland. The historic city walls that continue to surround the town center give it a medieval vibe that Belfast lacks, but here too the communities of Protestants and Catholics remain almost more divided than in Belfast. Nevertheless, at the Derry Playhouse we had the fortune of meeting with women who were affected by the Troubles, and have dedicated themselves to encouraging peace and forgiveness through the arts. One woman shared the story of how her husband was brutally murdered by the IRA, while another spoke of her own challenging experience as a bombmaker in the IRA. I cannot imagine the strength of character and spirit that it must have taken for these women to first sit next to one another, let alone work together. Hearing these stories gave us a window into the excruciating pain that so many must have suffered during the Troubles, and one cannot come out of such an experience without optimism and hope that forgiveness will vanquish any residual animosity.
I still have a tremendous amount to learn about this fascinating part of the island, and could not be more excited to return in May to conduct thesis research and gain a deeper sense of what it takes to hold a post-conflict society together.