“The great Gaels of Ireland are then men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” -Old Irish proverb
“It’s the same old thing since 1916 / in your head, in your head they’re still fighting." – "Zombie", the Cranberries
The first time I set foot in Northern Ireland, in 1999, I believed I was prepared for whatever would be thrown my way. I had spent some time studying the country’s history (I mean seriously, how many other Americans even knew that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and not Ireland). Protestant/Catholic feuding? No problem: My mom’s family is Roman Catholic and my dad’s lineage is Methodist. I was on the down-low with all parties involved.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that I half expected a parade announcing my triumphant entry. Prepare ye the way! But my heart was broken by the fifth day of my journey as my arrogance was replaced with terrible grief. Each successive trip over the next 5 years would continue to undo everything that I thought I believed about God and humanity and pain and joy. Northern Ireland must be lived and breathed, for no amount of theory does it justice.
There is a thought in Ireland that nothing is ever new or final; history repeats itself and evolves in cycles that refuse to accept linear motion. Century-old transgressions rear their head at the most inopportune moments. The real attraction to this divided land is the physical, tangible prospect of peace in a culture that has known division and segregation since the tenth century. It is a story of hope that hovers right around the periphery. It is a tale of reconciliation in a world of epic madness.
The divide within Northern Ireland transcends politics and religion and DNA and whose football club a person supports. There is a sadness that blankets souls and suffocates the joy that screams to be heard. There are enough ghosts haunting the memories of this beautiful country to fill a thousand cemeteries. Ireland is called the Terrible Beauty not by accident; everything about her embraces you and shoves you away all at once. She asks you to be both amazed and understanding.
If Ireland is considered the terrible beauty, then Northern Ireland could be thought of as the Intentional Beauty. A nation of symbols and anthems, subtlety has long been swapped for audacity. Streets and neighborhoods declare allegiance to the past as they unfurl in Union Jacks and Irish Tricolors. Some murals croon the most tragic and beautiful verses ever penned while others unabashedly spew venom and intolerance.
Here’s the skinny on Northern Ireland in a huge and generalized Cliff Notes sort of way:
Protestants and Catholics have been living together since the early 1000’s. Each have some pretty valid claims to support their belief.
Catholic argument: The six counties that compose Northern Ireland should be enveloped back into the whole of the Republic of Ireland.
Protestant argument: Northern Ireland must remain a member of the United Kingdom.
This is a broad stroke, and it is painted with the extreme positions in mind. Throw in some more confusing terms like: Unionist, Republican, Nationalist, IRA, UVF—the list of stereotypes and acronyms are endless. And certainly, there are some moderate positions. Not all Catholics want the same thing, just as there are variations within the Protestant system. I have friends on both sides of the fence—literally. There is a massive, barbed-wire wall that segregates Catholic and Protestant parts of Belfast, and they all just want the same thing: Peace and a self-governing system that represents them fairly.
This terrible, intentional beauty came alive to me in 2002. All the ideas that can never be trapped in text accosted me. Any preconceived notion that plagued my mind was challenged as the group I was with spent a few weeks in a little town called Larne, just a few bus stops past Belfast. Once I was there, I understood how little I knew because Northern Ireland is not a place that an outsider ever really gets to know. She reveals parts of herself at her own convenience and leisure. I attempted to forget and displace any agenda that I might have. I wanted the country to speak for itself.
Boyne Square and Seacourt were two notorious housing estates in Larne. Each with its own paramilitary presence, they held an intimidating reputation outside their respective boundaries. While they were only separated by a mile or so, they might as well have been eons and continents apart, because Catholics never went to Boyne Square and Protestants would never set foot in Seacourt. To do so meant probable and immanent danger. Perhaps even death.
My group adopted a time-honored tradition that dated back to Christ … we helped the little children. We rented a giant inflatable bouncy castle and divided our days between the two housing estates: Seacourt in the morning and Boyne Square in the afternoons. We learned more from these kids than we could have ever thought. They had grown up with definite and deliberate views. They were products of hundreds of years of segregation, feuding, bombings and terrorist activities. But they were more than statistics to us. They brought home the troubles of Northern Ireland in a personal way. They all have dreams and want to do things like other kids all over the world.
They just want to be kids.
Editorial note: Author Curt Lamm just returned from another trip to N. Ireland. Expect more reads in the coming weeks.