Friday, November 6, 2009

Northern Ireland from an American’s Point of View

I’ve been thinking about this post since I first began this blog, which was right after my sister and I returned from Northern Ireland. Rita, my sister, had been hoping to get a job there. We knew about the Troubles there (although we didn’t know that’s what the situation was actually called) and about the IRA, and I was at first none too keen on going. But Northern Ireland has been at peace for almost four years now, and although I consider that too little time to actually be able to declare a permanent peace, I let her talk me into it.

Let me give a tiny bit of background in case you’re reading because you know me and not because you are digging for info on Northern Ireland, because if you’re doing that, you already know the following: Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland, and Wales. When you hear plain old “Ireland,” you’re hearing about the southern and far western parts of the island (5/6ths of the island), which form the Republic of Ireland, which it is called to distinguish it from Northern Ireland. The history of partition, as the separation of the two parts of the island is called, is extensive, but it took place in 1921 and has been a source of conflict ever since, but never more than between the years of 1963 and 1998 (that year is debatable; I’d say 2005), the years referred to as “the Troubles,” when what we heard about most on this side of the Atlantic was the IRA bombings.

Go here for a brief but more complete than this explanation of the Troubles.

I went to Northern Ireland with a few misconceptions. I thought that the Troubles were all about Ireland (the Republic of Ireland) bombing Northern Ireland to try to get it back. That’s really not the case at all. It’s more like a civil war. The majority of the people of Northern Ireland are in favor of remaining part of the UK, but those who favor union with the Republic of Ireland are a large minority. I thought the conflict was essentially that—those who thought, for political/cultural/economic reasons, Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK vs. those who thought, for political/cultural/economic reasons, Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland. I knew that Northern Ireland was primarily Protestant and the Republic of Ireland primarily Catholic, but even as someone who would, by the grace of God, die for her Christian beliefs, I never would have imagined that religion could play a major role in the politics of a country. I was stunned to learn how wrong I was.

Religion is more intertwined with politics and culture than any American could ever imagine. In spite of the fact that there are (according to rumor) a few Catholics who want to remain part of the UK and (also according to rumor) a few Protestants who want to be part of the Republic of Ireland, whenever you hear “Protestant,” you’d might as well be hearing “loyalist” (to the Crown of England) or “unionist,” and whenever you hear “Catholic,” it’s the same as hearing “Republican” or “nationalist.” The Northern Irish Protestant/Catholic conflict makes our black/white conflict look like five year olds fighting on the playground.

In Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland and a city of about 270,000 people, some areas are Catholic, and some are Protestant. The occupants pretty well know which is which, and they’ve made it easy for visitors (I’m being facetious—that wasn’t their goal) on two parallel roads: Falls (Catholic) and Shankill (Protestant). There are Irish flags all over Falls and British flags all over Shankill. Both have murals on a number of buildings. The Shankill murals include pledges of loyalty to Great Britain; the ones on Falls include martyrs of their nationalist movement, among others.

I have to admit that, as someone who attends a Baptist church and who has heard on many occasions the preaching of Ian Paisley, former (Protestant) First Minister of Northern Ireland, I went with a prejudice in favor of the Protestants. Falls Road did nothing to change my mind. Besides the murals to martyrs, there is a mural venerating ETA (the northern Spanish terrorist group), Hamas, and Che Guevarra. I actually felt nervous walking down Falls Road because of the homage to terrorist groups. In spite of the fact that there have been atrocities on both sides, there’s nothing on Shankill paying tribute to such groups.
Even when there are no flags or murals to give them away, people know which areas are Catholic and which are Protestant. On Shankill there is a newly opened center called the Centre for Northern Culture, and the owners were more than willing to talk to us about Northern Ireland’s recent history. We talked to a 24 year old girl (Sam) and her mom, who witnessed a bombing in the 60s. Sam told us that, after years outside of Northern Ireland, she’d felt safe there during the year she’d been back. They told us about families who were divided by the Protestant/Catholic conflict—true modern-day Romeo and Juliet stories. We asked them a question about the Asda (Wal-Mart) we planned to go to, and they knew nothing about that particular Asda (apparently there are others in Belfast). When we told them where it was, they said they’d never been there because it was in the Catholic part of town. It wasn’t a matter of shunning Catholics; the culture has developed so that Protestants normally go to restaurants, shops, etc., in the Protestant areas and Catholics in the Catholic areas.

When we finished shopping at Asda later, we decided to take a taxi back to our B&B. While we were chatting with the driver, he asked us about our travels there. We told him that, after Belfast, we were going to go to Londonderry. He looked at me in the mirror and said, “Derry.” He was correcting me. Protestants call the city “Londonderry,” and Catholics call it “Derry.” The Asda, as we’d been told, was in a Catholic part of town, so the drivers waiting outside the store were Catholic.

People would occasionally tell us, as they were answering our questions about the Troubles, that the media frequently blew the situation out of proportion. But I suspect that a true story our guide in Derry/Londonderry (that’s one of the politically correct ways of writing the city’s name) told us goes a long way toward explaining how anyone who gives you firsthand accounts of bombings can think the media blows them out of proportion. First of all, you have to know that Derry/Londonderry was founded on a hill. The walls around the city still survive. That’s where you find all the government buildings. Below the city is an area called the Bogside, which is almost exclusively Catholic.

According to our guide, one day a woman in the Bogside ran out of her house when she heard an explosion. “Jimmy, what was that?” she called out to a passerby. “Oh, Maggie, that was just another bomb going off up in the city” was the response. “Thank goodness,” Maggie said. “I thought it was thunder.” He told us this story to show us how much a part of life bombings had become, and I think that people who believe stories about the atrocities in Northern Ireland were blown out of proportion have just grown accustomed to them.

The Northern Irish don’t forget anything. I’d wager there are proportionately more of them who can tell you the year of partition than there are Americans who can tell you the year of American independence. They still talk about plantation as the real beginning of Northern Irish troubles. That happened in 1621, when the British, in order to maintain control of Ireland, planted English and Scottish settlers in Northern Ireland. The loyalists are descended from those people. One young lady told us that she was British, not Irish. That surprised me, because I would have thought that anyone who resides on the island would call himself Irish. Most of the “British” in Northern Ireland haven’t had ancestors from Great Britain in centuries, although, until partition in 1921, all of Ireland belonged to Great Britain, and perhaps that fact, along with their political/cultural/religious identification with Great Britain, accounts for that sentiment.

As I mentioned earlier, I went to Northern Ireland with a prejudice, but it was hard to maintain that prejudice when I was in Derry/Londonderry. I learned a lot from our guide and also from a museum called the Free Derry Museum. Yes, there was an entrance fee. Free Derry, composed of the Bogside and another Catholic neighborhood, was a self-declared autonomous nationalist area in 1969-1972. The museum contains news clippings, pictures, and recordings from that era. It actually starts around the time of plantation (when the new settlers renamed the town, previously called Derry, Londonderry). Ever since that time, Protestants have pretty well tried to keep Catholics under their thumb. Even the most ardent Protestant can’t deny the unfairness, particularly in Derry/Londonderry. District borders were deliberately drawn to be sure that the majority of government representatives were Protestants so that, until lines were redrawn in 1973, the majority of government officials were Protestant in spite of the fact that the majority of Derry/Londonderry citizens were Catholic. In that city, particularly, the conflict wasn’t as much about loyalty to Great Britain vs. nationalism as it was about fair treatment in the government and in regards to housing, jobs, etc. I constantly worked on keeping a distance, an objective eye, because none of the Northern Irish are objective, to say the least. But I found myself sympathizing more with the historically oppressed Catholics and realizing that Dr. Paisley, whom I admire as a man of God, should have endeavored to keep his politics separate from his religion. If it were a question, as it is here, of abortion or not, homosexuality or not, a free ride if you’re lazy or not, etc., I could understand, because the Bible defines my beliefs. But those aren’t the issues at all, since Protestants and Catholics as a whole share the same view of most of those so-called social issues. From my point of view, there is no philosophical or religious reason to fear having Catholics in power. I’ve never lived in Northern Ireland, and there are aspects of life there that you can only understand if you’ve spent your life there, but I’d like to sit down with someone like Dr. Paisley and have him explain to me why having a Catholic First Minister would be such a bad thing.

In fact, Northern Ireland now has a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, one of whom is Protestant and the other Catholic, who share power equally. I really don’t get how two men can share control of a government equally, but from what I was told, it’s working. Even during the year Dr. Paisley was First Minister, he apparently got along with the Catholic deputy First Minister. I wonder if he ever regrets any of his previous actions that served to continue Catholic oppression.

Rita and I are going back this summer and are going to rent a car and spend 2 ½ weeks in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The only place I’ve been in the latter was Dublin, and I didn’t particularly like it, but I decided that since I liked Northern Ireland so much, I need to give the Republic of Ireland another chance. I just hope that I find people in the towns of the Republic of Ireland as friendly and willing to talk as I did those of the cities and towns of Northern Ireland.


  1. I love history! Even with a bachelors in History, I've never learned much about Ireland- thanks for sharing. It makes me want to learn more. I wish I could fly over for a weekend when yall go next year.

  2. You'd love it. The people are terrific, and it's rare to really feel like you're in the middle of history, in a way, rather than just looking back at it.