The curse of long memories

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Looking out over the fields of County Tyrone from atop the Hill of the O’Neill, an ancient seat of military and political power, Dungannon.

 

As we drove through the County Tyrone countryside this morning, my contact kept pointing out spots in the landscape where nearly 400 years ago early chapters in this region’s long story of violent conflict unfolded.  Like South Armagh, the peacefulness of the surroundings belies the brutal reality of what happened here during the most recent 30 years or so of war.

This was one of the most active areas of violence, behind only Belfast and South Armagh in terms of the numbers of casualties. Given the much smaller population compared to Belfast, in per capita terms the impact was just as traumatic. My contact described the brutality of the attacks against civilian targets as approaching the genocidal.

Today the area is calm, with much less of the raw hostility that bubbles so close to the surface in the close confines of Belfast. Out in the countryside, as my contact put it, people have room to keep out of each other’s way if they so choose.  But for all the space, these are still small communities. People will recognize old enemies when they pass, and nod in acknowledgment. But the pain of the past is not forgotten, time has not erased the memories of family members killed or wounded, families torn apart, or livelihoods lost.

They let things lie, my contact said, because for now it is all over. But make no mistake. If things start up again, he said, “scores will be settled.” No one here is clamoring for that, but in a place where long memory can conjure up recollections of 400-year-old injuries, the wounds of the recent past may as well have happened yesterday.

 

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.

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.

And yet there’s hope

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Welcome to Loyalist East Belfast, where paramilitary murals still proudly adorn the walls.

I walked away from my conversations yesterday with a sense of pessimism about the future of Northern Ireland. The people I met had experienced so much pain, and expected so much more yet to come, that I could not help but be touched by their perspective. They firmly believed that the war had only paused. That they had been prevented from winning by politicians unwilling to approve the necessary measures that would make shoot-to-kill an across-the-board reality. And that as a consequence, the resumption of the war was inevitable. More blood would be shed, and more people would die.

And that worried me. Because in every trip I’ve made here beginning in 2008, the feeling of fragility, of the bandage covering deep unhealed wounds unraveling at the edges, has only intensified.

I spent my afternoon today interviewing a former member of the Red Hand Commando*, one of the most effective, or notorious, depending on your perspective Loyalist paramilitary organizations. I walked away from that interview with a sense of hope, not dread, for the future.

Yesterday was about fear and an expectation of the worst. Fear that the IRA had not gone away, that the relative calm was only a facade, that the turmoil along the border would explode. Expectation that things would “kick off” again, and when they did it would be a brutal, bloody mess.

Today was different. My contact was unapologetic about his past, but recognized the awfulness of what it meant to go to war and to be at war in a place where people know each other, recognize each other, live next to each other, and were killing each other. And he was determined that the current generation, and future generations, should not have to go through that hell again.

He did not apologize for his politics. And he recognized the reality of poverty, of joblessness, of educational failure, of non-existent opportunities, of feelings of being abandoned by a Unionist political elite that only seems to acknowledge and turn to his community when it needs someone to do the dirty work. And yet the last thing he said to me, when I asked him what he saw for the future, was this:

This is no longer about us. For future generations, we can’t be selfish. The world will be a better place. We can only focus on our wee bit first. Hope, hope, hope. Give hope, and keep hope.

And so I hope for the future of this place, for the people I have come to know and respect and have real affection for across the numerous sectarian, political, and class divides, and for those that I haven’t yet met. Hope.

*I hate myself for continuing to link to Wikipedia, but hey, this is a different kind of media. Students, do not let yourselves think that this is a substitute for actual, scholarly, research.