The day started so well

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The tricolor flies at City Hall.

 

So St. Patrick’s Day was intended to be a day when I was going to focus on the “diversions” part of blog’s title. And it certainly started out that way. Sarah and I got up (not all that early given our late night before) and headed down to Belfast City Hall for the parade. Big crowds, lots of families with young children hoisted on shoulders so they could see, and a general atmosphere of merriment.

The parade passed by rather quickly (it seemed much smaller than similar parades in the States) and then we walked off to get some “refreshment” before meeting up with friends. As we sat outside a cafe with drinks in hand, we noticed crowds of young teens, many of them draped with the Irish tricolor, all headed back toward City Hall.

We finished our drinks and followed, and as we got closer, we could see, above the gathering crowds, the waving Union and Ulster flags of the day’s small group of flag protesters, who were staging a 24-hour vigil in front of the City Hall to protest the decision made in December 2012 to stop flying the Union flag from the building on a daily basis (it is flown on designated days only).

And that’s when the inevitable occurred. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:

Northern Ireland’s entrenched factional tensions erupted when their arrival prompted a sectarian slanging match between unionists and nationalists draped in tricolours.

What unfolded was a display of pure tribalism. There was no “politics” on view in the standoff, just hurled abuse, taunts, chants, hot tempers, and police in riot gear holding the line that separated one group from the other. It all culminated with a Union flag burned by a crowd of jeering teenagers, encouraged by several older men who moved along the edges of the group whipping up their enthusiasm and directing their bile.

Yesterday’s display was a small taste of what is often called “recreational rioting” over here. When calmer heads express concern for the future, it is often about this generation. These kids are too young to know how bad things can get when they go bad. And while yesterday’s incident was mild compared to what happens here on an all too regular basis, you can see just how volatile the atmosphere remains. It would have taken very little for things to have gotten a lot worse. And that’s what scares people.

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So much for the sanctity of flags.

 

Mind the gap (in your research)

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Walking around Bogside this morning, Sarah and I spotted the above mural in the neighborhood up the street from the more celebrated murals of Derry’s People’s Gallery. Up we went to take a look and take a few pictures.

As you can see, the mural celebrates and honors the contribution made by women to the Republican struggle, whether under arms, in the prisons, or in the community. It occurred to me in thinking about it that this represents another gap in my research, and thus in my understanding, of what has gone on here in the past and what the future might hold.  For all the trips I’ve made here over the years, I have interviewed precious few women.

This is not all that different from the other gaps I have mentioned before on the blog. Before this trip I had spent very little time outside of Belfast. That has now changed, and will change further next week when I get out of town again for another round of interviews. Before this trip I had very little contact with working class Loyalists and former Loyalist paramilitaries. That too has changed.

This newly recognized gap in my work is, at least to my mind, understandable though obviously not desirable.  My field research unfolds through contacts and intermediaries. I meet someone, or interview someone, and then I ask them to give me the names of other people they think it might be good for me to talk to or to make an introduction on my behalf.  Without exception, all of the contacts that I have made this way have been with men.

I’m not quite sure how to change the dynamic. For this trip it is probably too late. Clearly I am going to have to be more proactive in seeking out women’s voices the next time I am here doing field work. Maybe I’ll get lucky in the last week of the trip, but barring that, I’ve got some work to do for next time.

Have fun storming the castle

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Standing where kings have trod since 1690, with the castle across the harbor.

 

With my daughter Sarah here for a few days, I’m taking a bit of a break from research responsibilities to play a little tourist and amateur tour guide. So while I still have phone calls to make and interviews to line up for the end of this week and in to next, we are going to get out of town and see a bit of the country.

Yesterday we took the train north to Carrickfergus, toured the castle, then stood on the spot where King Billy himself landed in 1690 on his way to everlasting glory and Protestant dominion over these lands at the Battle of the Boyne.* The castle itself is the best preserved Anglo-Norman castle still standing in the North, and the town itself, while more than a little down on its heels, is still pleasant to walk around. Or it would be when it’s not freezing cold, damp, and windy.

If you find yourself here, check out the free museum maintained by the Borough Council. It’s worth stopping in. Then walk around the churchyard at St. Nicholas Parish. And the pints at the Great Northern are much cheaper than in Belfast, so take advantage of that too.

Tomorrow we are up early to catch the train to Derry, to walk the walls, see the Bogside murals, stand at Free Derry Corner, and perhaps tour the Bloody Sunday museum. Going to mix business with pleasure.

*Remember what I said about these links. Do as I say, not as I do …

Too much practice

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The Queen enters St. Paul’s.

 

I’m watching the BBC’s live broadcast of the national service of commemoration at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, honoring those who fought and those who died in Britain’s most recent military campaign in Afghanistan. Everything about the service conveys the appropriate tone of solemnity, honor, and respect, from the choices of music, to the scripture readings, to the prayers. It is a stunning spectacle of vestments, dress uniforms, and royalty.

The Brits do these things so much better than we do in the States. It’s a pity they’ve had so much practice.