Monday, June 8, 2015

Northern Ireland: Less Troubled Today

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Northern Ireland was a scary place. There’s no way I would have ever imagined visiting, let alone willingly lead a group of students on a study abroad trip. Today, 17 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I have visited both Belfast and Londonderry, two towns scarred deeply by the Troubles. The communities are quiet and economically vibrant. One can’t help, though, that it will still take another generation for the wounds of the past violence to really begin to heal.

The Europa Hotel, a block from our lodgings
A sign of the times: We are staying one block from the Europa Hotel, once the most bombed hotel in Europe. We move freely in and out of the city center here in Belfast regardless of the time of day. During the troubles, the City Centre was barricaded after 6 PM. The only way in or out was through a single turnstile. In Derry, a watch tower sat on the City Walls overlooking the Catholic Bogside, scenes of so many protests and violent police attacks. All signs of those towers are gone.

Pieces of the Troubles remain, of course. The apartment building that once housed IRA snipers—and later—a British military barracks. The “peace walls” that blocked off Protestant and Catholics from each other. The murals paying tribute to those who fought on both sides, and the murals painted today reflecting current political issues.

From Derry's city walls where a military tower overlooked the Catholic Bogside

And then there are the psychological scars. Our tour guide in Derry grew up in a prominent Republican family, and recounted for us the weekly raids at 3 am on his house—hiding in his bed while a British army officer stood, unmoving, staring at him with a barrel of a gun raised. 

The gentleman manning the Museum of Free Derry’s tour desk saw his brother shot and killed during the Bloody Sunday March in 1972. We saw the rag on display used to mop up his blood. We were also treated to a display of various rubber bullets and ammunition used by the military and police to maintain order. 

Weapons used by British Military and Police during the Troubles
We witnessed the abject hatred both sides felt for each other in the form of a letter sent to the families of one of the Bloody Sunday victims shortly after Bloody Sunday. I took an image, but the language is too profane to post here. I will share the conclusion of the letter:

“’The Wray family,’ get out of your home or be burned out. Ulster is British, God Save the Queen. No Surrender.”

A mural on the Peace Walls along Falls Road
Signed “your enemies.”

Some of my students commented on how amazing it is, given the intensity of the hatred, that the Peace has held up so well and such considerable strides have been made. Just as important to ponder, however, is how such deep-seeded hatred took root in the first place. I certainly hope that we can learn from the terrible experiences of the Irish so that we may never again witness such depravity, discrimination, and injustice.
Derry City Hall, site of the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday

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