A recurring theme on our trip has been the genuine enthusiasm of nearly everyone we’ve met to share their countries with us. We carry around a notebook, and at some point during most of our conversations with the people we’ve met, we end up passing it to them so they can write down a hike we should do, a restaurant we should eat at, a town we should spend a few days in. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that they’re fond of their homes or that they know the best of what they have to offer. It’s because of people sharing their favorite parts of their countries that we climbed Croagh Patrick and drove through Connemara National Park. And thanks to another encounter with a woman from Agadir, we hope to check out a few choice spots in Morocco soon.
What has struck me has been the honesty of those we’ve met in talking about the darker side of their countries, and this was never more apparent than in Ireland. They’ve just recently shed the yoke of 40-some-odd years of what they dryly refer to as ‘The Troubles,’ which cost more than 3,000 lives. I have neither the nuanced understanding of the conflict’s complexity nor the space here to give this subject the explanation it deserves. In short, the Troubles were the period of violence as the Catholic minority in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland (and remained part of the United Kingdom when the Republic of Ireland gained its independence) fought to overcome what they saw as oppression at the hands of the Protestant minority in the North. Catholics are usually associated with the movement to unify all of Ireland (sometimes called ‘Republicans’), and Protestants are typically associated with the idea of remaining part of the United Kingdom (sometimes referred to as ‘Unionists’). This is a gross oversimplification, so feel free to discuss this with me and other readers in the comments. If need be, I’ll post additional information or make corrections.
But I’m coming to realize that just blaming the Troubles on events of the past 40 years, or the past century for that matter, is oversimplifying the conflict. As I already mentioned, thanks to our hosts in Derry, we had a terrific personal tour of the Tower Museum, which sits just inside the walled city. Our guide, Gerry, took us through the lead up to the Troubles, beginning with what’s known about the time before recorded history in Ireland, through the constantly shifting balance of power between the Catholics and the Protestants, back and forth through the centuries.
Things came to a head after Ireland gained its full independence from Britain following World War II, just as a wave of civil rights struggles led by Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King as sweeping the world. From one point of view, that’s how the troubles began, as the Catholics rose up to fight what the perceived oppression by the Protestants and the British. After ‘Bloody Sunday’ in the early 1970s (when armed troops had fired on unarmed demonstrators and for which the British government just recently admitted responsibility), the struggle deteriorated into violence. At the forefront was the Irish Republican Army, called terrorists by some and freedom fighters by others.
Our hosts talked about growing up with the constant threat of bombings and the weird sort of normalcy that set in, as that was all they knew. When things would get bad, they said, they’d be pulled out of school to go to safer places in the North or in the Republic of Ireland until things quieted down. Talking to Irish living in the south, we learned just how focused the violence was and how detached the rest of the island felt. Our stellar guide at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were housed and executed, leading ultimately to a national uprising, said that living outside the North, he might have been in Canada or the United States for how far away the Troubles felt.
Stranger still was how our hosts in Derry seemed almost unsettled with the tentative peace that’s recently settled in. Though bombings still occur, the violence is much less than it once was. I’m not too familiar with the political deal that’s been struck, but they said that while stone-faced politicians publicly trumpet the resolution, feelings on both sides haven’t changed much. The IRA has given up its weapons, but holdouts are still out there. It sounds like the split in the North is about 55% in favor of remaining with the UK and 45% in favor of becoming part of Ireland, with the trend favoring the latter.
In spite of the deep-running divisions, it’s hard to deny that people here have a certain pride (though perhaps tentative as well) in seeing their city and once-broken country begin to heal itself and move forward. A particularly telling photograph shows one of the gates to the walled city during the Troubles – barbed wire and armed guards seem to stifle any happiness in the scene. Next to it, a recent photograph shows the gate, unimpeded by the ancient struggle, opening up into a beautiful and historic city.
‘Cautiously optimistic’ is a term you hear a lot. I think it’s more a people so used to violence and loss and divisiveness that they proceed warily down a path that seems too easy, safe and unimpeded to be real. There is hope, but for those who have known only violence, hope can so easily be jaded. Here’s hoping the cautious optimism these changes have spurred continues.