Life in Belfast, part 1
I thought I would do a few posts on living in Belfast, for those who are interested in my day to day existence.
Life here is lovely to be sure, though certainly it has its low points. My parents flew home two weeks ago after a wonderful ten day visit that included two weekend trips for the three of us north along the coast and in the Republic of Ireland around Dublin. That designation may be confusing for some who are unaware of the politics or history here (as I was when I first arrived), so I’ll offer a simplistic and quick explanation.
Depending on whom you ask, the conflict here has been going on for either 30 years, 100 years, 400 years, or 800 years. Around 800 years ago, Britain took control of the island of Ireland and maintained full control until late 1921, when the bulk of the island won its independence. However, the treaty with Britain did not include the north part of the island (with a significant Protestant majority loyal to the crown) in what was now known as the Irish Free State. Thus, immediately after the war with Britain, a civil war began in Ireland between those who supported the treaty (and thus, what they viewed as a temporary albeit necessary partition of Northern Ireland) and those who advocated for a fully united island of Ireland. The Protestant majority population of the North, which historically had been sent over to colonize the north in the late 1600s for the English crown to solidify control, saw themselves as primarily British and thus loyal to the monarchy, while the Catholic minority population of the North believed in unification with the rest of the island. Though the roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland are contested, the settler/native aspect tends to be fairly commonplace in conflict analysis. The Protestants/Unionists/Loyalists (essentially synonymous terms) want Northern Ireland to stay within the United Kingdom, while the Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans want the six counties of Northern Ireland (or what they call ‘the North of Ireland’) to be officially united with the other 26 counties of Ireland. This year marks the centennial anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, a declaration by half a million Protestants on the island that Ulster (or Northern Ireland) would never accept ‘home rule.’ Fearing discrimination in a predominantly Catholic society, they declared that ‘home rule will Rome rule’ and promised to use all means found necessary to resist the ‘current conspiracy’ to break away from British sovereignty.
What I have written here, may very well be the most simplified, reductionist version of the origins of the conflict ever transcribed.
To get back to my earlier strand, the time with my parents was quite lovely, but reality must now continue. I try to stay busy, which really is not terribly difficult when one is doing a master’s degree in one year! My classmates are lovely people, bringing a wide range of experiences to the table. I have been making connections elsewhere in the city, though, and setting up opportunities to speak on Palestine and share stories. Lots of possibilities are brewing, two of which have been scheduled (you can find those here).
I met recently with the educational director of the Palestine Education Initiative and he is going to be lining up several speaking engagements for me. Folks pay attention to Palestine here. For a number of reasons – one of which would be historical narratives – many Catholics identify with the Palestinians and many Protestants with the Israelis. Not long ago, along the Falls Road (an essentially exclusively Catholic road that runs parallel to the exclusively Protestant Shankill Road), Palestinian flags flew from Catholic homes, while Israeli flags flew from Protestant homes along the Shankill. The guy I met with, Richard Irvine, is a self-identified Agnostic and says that so many people here address the conflict from a theological perspective but he, and many others with whom he works, don’t speak the language necessary to address this. This is where he hopes I will fit in. He wants me to speak in churches and classrooms about a Christian response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am excited to see what will come of this.
This semester is a heavy one as far as class load. I am taking six courses this semester – Research Skills, Conflict Analysis and Models of Intervention, Dynamics of Reconciliation, Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Community Learning and Reflective Practice, and Conflict Transformation. The Community Learning class entails a placement with a local organization for six months, as well as a silent retreat in late November to the Benedictine monastery at Rostrevor. I am working primarily with the Catholic Unity Pilgrims of the Clonard Monastery parish.
This Monastery – a wee bit different from the beloved Abbey of Gethsemani that I have frequented in that there is no longer a monastic population at Clonard – sits adjacent to the ‘Peace Wall’ separating the Falls and Shankill Roads, one of the hottest interfaces in the violent clashes of the 30-year Troubles. They have talked about my time with them as a ‘ministry of presence.’ I will be joining the Pilgrims as they attend Protestant services on the Shankill Road and other places throughout Belfast; participating in events such as Together in Silent Adoration or the Shared Eucharist, when Catholic and Protestant congregations come together once a month to observe and celebrate each other’s Eucharistic traditions; speaking to youth and congregations on Palestine and peacemaking (again, lots of folks are interested in this!); and conversing with families living along the ‘Peace Wall.’ Some of these houses next to the wall have cages surrounding their front porches to protect them from volleys from the other side. Looks terribly similar to sights in Palestine. I hope to speak with these families about how living in a cage in the shadow of a wall informs their sense of identity and the identity they construct about their ‘other’ over the barrier. Fascinating discussions ahead to be sure.
That’s enough for now. More to come.