Author: Richie DeMaria and Kainoa King
The story of the Troubles – the ethnic, religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland is too long, complicated and bloody of a story to recount here. Nor is it a clear story, for not everyone can agree on the ending – the details change with the narrator. However the story goes, it left in its wake two countries of storytellers, who discuss the history of the Troubles in order to make sense of the present political climate.
From Jan. 5 to 15, eight Oxy students and two Office for Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL) staff members listened to these Irish storytellers on a winter trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Rachel Liesching, Sky Mangin, Natalie Monterrosa, and Renato Rocha (juniors), Ben Gilmore, Sarah Mofford (sophomores), and Becca Cooper (first-year), Director of the ORSL Reverend Susan Young and Program Coordinator Reverend Heather Blackstone traveled to the island to learn about the Troubles conflict, as well as the spiritual history of Ireland.
While there, the group braved the worst Irish winter in decades to visit community-based organizations, faith centers, institutions of higher learning, government agencies and non-governmental organizations for the purpose of better understanding the steps Irish citizens are taking to reconcile their differences.
The organizations visited included the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE), the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, the Corrymeela Community, Healing Through Remembrance, the East Belfast Mission, Healing Through Remembering and WAVE Trauma Center.
Through visits to these organizations, the group witnessed the effects of a conflict that has lead directly to at least 3,600 deaths and more than 30,000 major injuries in Northern Ireland since the 1960s.
The trip offered both spiritual and political lessons: As a country recovering from a conflict highly charged with diverging religious sentiments, it is a case study in the role of the church in peace and war. As a nation that wrestled for decades over its identity, it demonstrates first-hand the means and methods of conflict resolution. Given their agenda, the trip was not exactly a conventional one.
“Our entire time was spent looking at the struggles this country had faced, the violence and the tension – so obviously that gave the trip a very different vibe than if we had gone just to have fun,” Blackstone said. “Personally, I had a great time, but [I] also felt constantly aware of the tension, which made it hard to relax [in] the way I have heard from other people who have traveled to Ireland.”
Tense though it was, the trip demonstrated the importance of storytelling to the peace process.
“A lot of people felt incredibly disempowered through the peacemaking process, now that their enemies are their political leaders,” Gilmore said.
“Storytelling is a way to regain their voice, or gain it if they never had it, a place to be heard and to hear others as well. They are trying to come up with a shared history.”
In traveling to various organizations and cities, the group heard many unforgettable tales. There was the story of the Reverend Harold Good, member of cross-community project Healing Through Remembering, who, along with a Catholic priest, oversaw decommission of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) weapons.
There was the story of Alan McBride, the director of WAVE Trauma Center, who lost his wife and father-in-law to a 1993 IRA bombing. Angered and dismayed, McBride spent the next two years protesting Jerry Adams, the head of IRA political branch Sinn Fein, until, after attending university for community organizing, he had a change of heart. Eventually, he began working at WAVE to promote reconciliation across the two communities.
“To hear someone lose someone so close to him and talk to people in the same organization who killed his wife was really cool,” Cooper said.
Each side proved sympathetic.
“Both sides had such history and passion that, in the moment, you got caught up in their side,” Mofford said. “But then when you remembered the last story about someone’s mother or father, the emotions got really confusing.”
At present, the peace process is in a somewhat confused state. Talks on policing and power-sharing have stalled after Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson admitted publicly of his wife’s extra-marital affair and suicide attempt, prompting Robinson to take a six-to-eight-week leave of absence and endure a slew of criticisms.
“It shows how tentative the peace process is,” Young said. “Everyone was talking about how this might impact the ongoing peace process. Robinson is one of the few who can get the loyalist at the table to talk.”
The church, which often played a crucial role in the conflict, has performed, in some ways, a comparatively tentative role in the rehabilitation process.
“There are a lot of questions as to why the institutional church is not doing more now, given the role it played in perpetuating the conflict, but there are people of faith involved, and that’s where we can get signs of hope,” Young said. “It’s happening on the individual storytelling basis – it has to happen on an individual, local level.”
The church’s seeming inaction, Blackstone said, is not due to a lack of desire for change, but rather to the difficulty of making immediate changes within a community.
“There are many ways in which you could say the church has remained silent about the Troubles in that there have been no statements made by denominations as a whole. However, there is work being done,” Blackstone said. “The process of getting a congregation to change long-standing opinions is very, very slow work. I think there are a lot of clergy who would love to make sweeping changes but can’t [do this] in a way that won’t lose their audience.”
So deeply rooted are the feelings behind the conflict, and so fresh are the wounds, that it may be a long time until the country is without division. Residents in Belfast, for example, continue to build so-called “peace walls” between loyalist and republican neighborhoods – brick walls designed to block neighbors from hurtling bottles into their yards. The walls continue to grow in height.
Oxy’s group witnessed evidence of these divisions on a tour of Belfast’s murals. The tour was conducted by two political prisoners – one a loyalist, one a republican – both alike in age and situation but aligned with different parties. One guide’s memorial was another’s pain, and vice versa. The two would not ride on the bus together.For this reason, the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation – one of the few organizations to grant ex-paramilitary members a space to talk – seemed to offer the best, most inclusive model for conflict resolution.
“Glencree was a place that facilitated conversations without discrimination,” Gilmore said. “It was somewhere where someone could come in and just talk and humanize the enemy.”
Of course, the trip was not entirely a sobering experience. While not hearing of the Troubles, the group acquainted themselves with Ireland’s snowy countryside, reveled in the famous Temple Bar section of Dublin and spoke with some colorful locals.
“It is such a beautiful country in terms of landscape, and the personality just makes you feel good about yourself,” Cooper said.The Irish, the students found, love their land like few others.
“I have never been to a country where their citizens know their history so well. Ordinary people can give a detailed narrative of the last 500 years in Ireland from memory,” Rocha said.
The group returned home with new insights on conflict resolution and plenty of stories of their own. Several of the participants reported coming back with a different understanding of their own community.
“I think one of the things that we all felt was important to understand is that we don’t need to fly half-way around the world to find a con
flict,” Gilmore said. “That would be pretty damn ethnocentric and ignorant, to view us as the emblem, exporting ourselves to some other people’s problems.”
The issues there reminded Blackstone of the domestic results of endemic poverty and strife, and the need for understanding.
“What I gained is similar to how I felt after leaving New Orleans on a trip we did there last spring. The issues are so entrenched and the hurts are so deep that any steps towards reconciliation need to be done with great compassion,” she said. “I have also been reminded about the importance of listening, allowing people to be heard to the point where they can listen to others – even those from the opposite side.”
As Blackstone and the students listened to the people of Ireland, so will the country’s residents need to continually listen to one another. No one can say at this point how or when the story will end.
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