I first visited Ireland with my family when I was ten years old. As a young boy who had never left his country, coming from a small isolated family of four, the experience changed my outlook. That visit, I learned I had more cousins than I could count, my eyes were opened to a world of different cultures and peoples, and it inculcated a love of travel and eagerness to explore what else was out there. Since then I have always dreamed of living abroad in Ireland. I thought of Ireland in its pristine beauty, its lush fields and misty overcast skies, imagining what this experience would be like.
Eighteen years later, my journey could not have been further from how I first thought of it. After nearly six years in the military and four more in college, this journey has been one as much of introspection as it is about outward exploration. I came to Ireland in search of answers, seeking to understand the logic of violence and conflict by studying the troubles and peace. I hope to find some realization about my own past as a combatant and balance it against what I learn.
The reality of Northern Ireland is far different from the childlike adventure I imagined. Living in the aftermath of a post ethnic-conflict, I’ve learned since arriving in Belfast that the underlying tensions of the conflict are far from resolved. There are places you shouldn’t go and conversations you shouldn’t have in public. As a child with the eyes of youthful innocence, I didn’t understand security checkpoints and bomb scares, I wasn’t aware of the palpable ethnic tensions and the fragile peace. Instead as an adult, I’m confronted with these realities witnessing a post-industrial society deal with globalization and the struggle of Brexit, all while balancing its divisive ethnic politics. The trials of a brokered peace and its aftermath are in some ways far more complex and difficult than the conflict itself. And yet, I’m optimistic about the sustained peace in Northern Ireland and its significant role as an example in our world.
There are important lessons to take away from a society that has learned how to sustain and manage its immense disagreements peacefully after a long troubled history of violence. These are things that we in the United States take for granted and given the tumultuous state of politics, would do well to remember. Ireland is more than just the picturesque romantic island full of legend, lore and mystique. It is at once both a reminder of where we come from and a cause to be optimistic about the future of the human condition.