A border, seen or unseen

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PVCP_near_NewryThe first time I crossed the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic it was the summer of 1992, and it looked exactly like these pictures, taken at roughly the same time and in the same place, along the M1 motorway that connects Belfast and Dublin.

My wife and I were there on holiday, and we had decided to take a swing through the border counties of Northern Ireland en route from Connemara and the Aran Islands to Dublin.

Crossing into the north in our little rented Nissan Micra was a simple proposition. The border station near Belcoo, between Sligo and Enniskillen, was deserted. The booths were empty, the gates raised. Not a soldier nor customs agent was in sight.

Given that earlier experience, the British Army checkpoint on the M1 came as a shock of sandbags, soldiers, and machine guns.

The last time I crossed that border, this time by bus, was a year ago and the only indication that I had passed out of one country and into another was the change in carrier on my cellphone.

I will be back there again at the end of this week, this time traveling with my son, who will turn 18 on the overnight flight across the Atlantic. He’ll be the same age as many of those British soldiers who trained their guns on us as we crossed the border back in 1992, and likely the same age as some of the IRA volunteers who blew that checkpoint up with a 2,200 lb. bomb in May of the same year.

When we cross the border on our way to Belfast, it could very well be one of the last times that the border will still exist in essentially name only. With Britain voting to leave the European Union, of which the Republic of Ireland will remain a member, the reimposing of a hardened border may well be one of the most visible signs of the new Brexit reality.

If the United Kingdom really wants to reestablish strict border control, which was the emotional heart of the case for pulling out of the EU, then the UK will have no other choice than to restrict the Northern Irish border lest the unrestricted migration within the EU spill into the UK through this obvious back door.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has declined to back a special arrangement suggested by the Irish government that would allow the soft border with Northern Ireland to stay as is should Britain follow through with Brexit.

It won’t happen over night, but assuming Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU treaty and begins the formal process of withdrawal, the border as it stands today will be fundamentally changed, and gone with it will be many of the other unseen structures and dynamics that have contributed to the almost 20 years of peace bought by the Good Friday Agreement.

Should this happen the unseen border will once again be seen, with all that connotes. Perhaps it won’t feature as many soldiers, sandbags, or machine guns, but it certainly won’t be the invisible reality of today, marked only by a notification on your cellphone.

Faulkner, O’Connor, and ‘The Wrong-Eyed Jesus’

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A scene from the film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about the South, where I grew up, and which I fled as soon as I could go north for college. But between trips down to retrieve my daughter from her small university atop a mountain in rural Tennessee, to Alabama to sing, visiting family in Virginia, and the seemingly endless months of drama and controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, it’s been on my mind.

With all that hovering in the background, one of my Irish friends, an artist, sent me a link to the 2003 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which he had recently watched on the BBC. He described it as, “a wide-eyed bejaysus, a cracking film.” So I had no choice but to track it down and watch it for myself.

What I experienced was a mesmerizing road trip of a film, an occasionally hallucinogenic ramble along backroads, through swamps and bayous, to truck stops and diners, jails, honky-tonks, biker bars, coal mines, Pentecostal holiness churches, and riverside baptisms, with stunning cinematography and haunting, haunted music.

My daughter watched it with me, and where she saw the filmmakers cruely exploiting the crushing poverty, eccentricities, and to our more enlightened eyes exotic fundamentalist faith of rural people, I saw a brilliant example of the literary genre known as Southern Gothic, the province of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Tennessee Williams.

The style features deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters, hints of connection to the supernatural, decayed or derelict settings, and grotesque situations or events stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, and violence.* These elements are all tools for exploring the social values and cultural characteristics of the American South.

Up until now the most recent and most compelling example of this I’ve seen on screen was the first season of HBO’s True Detective, a true classic of the genre. So too is journalist Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain, about the culture of holiness snake handling in southern Appalachia, which I’ve been reading at the recommendation of one of my Alabama friends.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus struck a nerve with me that I can’t quite explain. The people, places, and settings were at once familiar and unfamiliar. Mostly it reminded me of just how timeless and a place apart the American South really is once you leave behind the modern sprawl of Atlanta, or Nashville, or Richmond and drive out beyond the interstates, where the hills and trees close in and the roads turn to mud or dust in due season.

You can watch the trailer below, and then follow this link over to Vimeo for the full film. Friends in the UK and Ireland can find it on the BBC iPlayer (sorry, no link since it’s not available here in the states).

*Yes, I am once again relying on the lazy shorthand of Wikipedia for background because I didn’t want to dig out my old undergrad literature texts to craft a one-sentence description. So sue me.

It’s complicated

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The “Dual Destiny” monument outside the Winston County Courthouse

I spent the last four days at a camp in rural northern Alabama learning some of the finer points of singing and leading songs in the Sacred Harp tradition. Part of camp included a field trip to the Winston County Courthouse in Double Springs where the above monument stands.

I was thinking about this today in the wake of the horrible incident of white supremacist terrorism that occurred in Charleston, SC, on Wednesday night and after reading my friend Steve Saideman’s blog post in which he argued that the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, typically but inaccurately called the Confederate Flag, is a simple hate symbol.

I’m not going to argue that Steve is wrong here, only that his characterization is incomplete, an over-simplification of a complex reality in which history, identity, memory, and commemoration are deeply intertwined. Steve is right when he contends that the flag has been embraced by unreconstructed racists and white supremacists, and is seen by the African-American community as a symbol of that racist bigotry. For Steve that settles it: When both the racists and their targets agree on the meaning of a symbol that meaning is set. Often this is where the debate over this particular symbol ends. I’d like to continue it for a moment.

Now to be fully transparent, I grew up in a small town in rural central Florida, a place where local lore had it that the Ku Klux Klan provided the color guard for the annual Labor Day Parade up until the 1970s (while I never saw it, I believe the tale).  As the child of Yankee parents, I have long thought of myself as “from the South” though not necessarily “of the South,” if that makes any sense.  I have no innate love for the Stars and Bars. And while I have never had the desire to fly one myself, I have never made the mistake of assuming that every display of that flag is intended as a statement of unashamed racial hatred or longing for a time in which “those people” knew their place.

Let me return then to the monument depicted at the top of the page and what it represents. Winston County* was, in 1860, home to fewer than 3,500 people, mostly poor white farmers. Of that total 122 were slaves.  It was also a place where opposition to secession ran strong, where the Confederacy was viewed by many of the residents as intended to cement the political dominance of the state’s wealthy planter class over everyone else.  When the Alabama Secession Convention in January 1861 voted by a two-to-one margin to secede from the Union, the county’s representative to the Alabama Secession Convention refused to sign. A vocal pro-Union supporter, he was arrested and spent most of the war in prison. At a meeting held back in Winston County, a resolution was passed declaring that if Alabama could secede from the Union, the county could secede from the state of Alabama.

Many of the county’s residents refused induction into the Confederate Army, and when the Union Army invaded northern Alabama in the spring of 1862, many who had refused to fight for the Confederacy enlisted in the Union Army’s 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment, earning honors at the battles of Monroe’s Crossroads and Bentonville in Mississippi.  The regiment lost 482 enlisted men and five officers killed in action before it was mustered out of service in 1865.

The monument, known as “Dual Destiny,” commemorates this history. Both Union and Confederate flags fly, and the soldier depicted, when you look closely, is seen to be wearing half a uniform from each army.  The monument is about politics, that is true. But it is also about sacrifice, for causes both noble and ignoble.  And here is where I think we need to think more broadly about the meaning of the Confederate Flag.

In my experience, that flag is flown across the South (and I will reserve my comments to that context rather than try to make sense of its use by, for example, Kid Rock and his legions of cutoffs-and-tank top sporting fans) for racist reasons, yes.  But it is also often flown at cemeteries and battlefields and historic sites to honor men who are thought to have fought bravely and honorably even if the cause for which they fought and died was profoundly unjust.  It is a recognition that good people may go to war for the worst of reasons and to fight to advance immoral policies made by men typically far removed from the realities of the battlefield. We should remind ourselves that such cases are not only found in the distant past.

In short this is more than just nostalgia.  It should not be reimagined by the rest of us as no more than willful disregard for or ignorance of the complex reality that what the Confederacy was fighting to support was the enslavement of one group of humans by another.

The American South, like Northern Ireland, is a place where long memories lie buried too close to the surface. Symbols of heritage, identity, and sacrifice for one community are seen as symbols of oppression, hatred, and violence for another.  What’s missing from both places, it seems to me, is the ability of each community to understand and acknowledge the perspective of the other.  And until that happens these symbols, whether Confederate Flag, or Union Jack, or Irish Tricolor, will continue to inflame, incite, and divide.

*This history of the “Republic of Winston” is taken from the Wikipedia entry of the same name, as is the history of the 1st Alabama Cavalry. I’m not proud of taking this shortcut, but it’s nearly summer and the weather outside is lovely.

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 …