Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reverend Paul Twomey met us outside the Farset Hostel early Friday evening with a borrowed church mini-bus. I knew we were in for a lot when I heard his responses to questions ricochet of the questioner and flood us with a blur of history and acronyms for paramilitary and sectarian groups.

He took us to the Shankill Road (derived from the Irish: Seanchill meaning "old church") area which is strongly protestant and home to the loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). This area was built up in the mid-19th centruy when Belfast had many jobs making linen. When linen manufacture declined in the mid-twentieth century, high unemployment and the Troubles followed.

We saw a fair number of murals and he explained the murals were a healthy outlet at the time they came to be, relative to the violence which they superseded. The murals by the sectarian or paramilitary groups laud and commemorate the fallen in the past struggles. They show hooded and masked gunmen with automatic weapons pointed at the observer. They also lash out at the opposition labeled as murderers. The murals make it impossible to forget the past, and would make it uncomfortable for someone who is Catholic to come into the vicinity of murals from the group of which he or she does not belong.

Reverend Twomey showed us some mainly Catholic areas as well but because of his own faith he had the most contact with protestants.

We saw schools built with one side of the school yard being the wall of separation. Nothing like concrete walls topped by metal bars or barb wire on one side of your school wall, eh?

Reverend Twomey is in favor of peace and reconciliation.

He told us how extreme the violence got during the Troubles. Not only were bombings done, gun battles erupted, or assassinations carried out, but groups would grab or kidnap someone from the other group and torture them horribly before killing them.

The violence became consuming to some. One group thought they had captured someone from the opposition, so they tortured him. Word got back to them that the person was a “civilian” from their own side, but they still killed him.

The violence got so bad, sometimes one protestant group would turn on another. People would have to move. Lines demarcating the subgroups were adopted.

Still, he asked us many hard questions he had faced or watched people face. These questions included:

How would you feel if you had not taken sides, but one side hassled you in the street, left crank calls, threatened your family, demanded you move?
How would you feel if your teenage child was taken from the street and tortured by your sectarian opposite. Would you support your own paramilitary group taking revenge.
How would you feel if you fell in love and married someone from the opposite religion? Would you take being spat upon in the street? A brick through your window? Beatings? Death threats?
How would you feel if a sectarian group made your neighborhood function with protection against crime and with provision of services, even if they did smash a few knee caps?
How would you feel if the sectarian groups enforced a strict no drug policy on your neighborhood when the local police had been unable to stop drugs?
How would you feel if a sectarian group got you a job after months or years of unemployment?

In the midst of the trip about, we saw up close one of the highest walls of separation (they are often referred to as Peace Walls because it was thought they would bring peace, but they didn't, so I try not to refer to them that way). We signed our names to the wall of separation as witnesses we were there, and left messages to the leaders and people of Belfast.

After this heavy duty excursion, Paul was able to relax a little and bring us to Bishops for fish and chips. Some of the trimmings were freshly cut deep fried chips, choice of peas, mushy peas, beans & pan, plain or brown bread, tea, coffee or soft drink. We hadn't had much time to absorb the emotional questions Reverend Twomey posed, but seeing and thinking about so much in a brief period of time had drained us of energy, so the food and drinks were brilliant.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Meeting and Sharing with the Planning Group

Continuing our journey in Northern Ireland: After a night at the Farset Hostel, we walked down as a group to the Forthspring Community Center which resides in the Springfield Road Methodist Church. This church is obviously Protestant and its was intentionally placed/kept standing on the Catholic side of the line of separation as a symbol the religious segregation can be broken.

We met in the minor room where Maura Moore and Johnston Price greeted us. They explained the people from Belfast in the room are a group of community members from both sides of the wall which meet to discuss the future of sectarian separation and how the community center can overcome the separation of sectarian groups. See that word “sectarian” meaning “of, relating to, or characteristic of a sect or sectarian”. This labels Roman Catholic and Protestant cultures as sects, not to be negative about their beliefs, but to convey the conflict in Northern Ireland hasn't really been about religious beliefs.

Johnston then sent us in groups back to the garden to discuss whether we would, or would not want to move to the opposite country from the one we live in. We structured the discussion around ten factors.

My group had three Americans or Yanks, including myself, and two women from Northern Ireland. I'll use initials, E and J to refer to the women from Northern Ireland, but rest assured, we got to know them over our stay.

The Americans had been in country only a few hours, but all three said they could see themselves living in Northern Ireland. One said he could live anywhere in the world and I said I would as long as I had the funds to visit back home.

From our Northern Ireland friends: E said she wouldn't want to live in the US and J said she'd like to take a long holiday there, but that's it.

With regards to poverty, both groups said their own country had a range of income or wealth and these depended on the area.

Both countries seem to have higher unemployment due to the recession, but E and J thought the unemployment in Northern Ireland (NI) is less than in the Republic of Ireland to the south. (I looked up later that the NI rate of unemployment between December and February of 2010 was 6.4%, down 0.5% from the previous quarter, but up from 5.9% for the previous year. It suggests that NI is below the rate in the UK, 8%, the Irish Republic, 13.8%, and the wider European Union, 9.5% (BBC News, 21 April 2010).)

Both E and J thought education was better in Northern Ireland. Student loans were smart although J said she started left school at 16 to make money. Students in Ireland don't have to repay their loans until they get a job that pays enough so they can afford to pay. There is even a child care benefit of 43 pounds per week per child so parents don't have to send their young children to substandard care.

Both countries appear to have social security income for senior citizens.

N. Ireland has free health care for all. The US does not have free universal health care, although we just went through a national debate about it and some features of it have passed and appear to be on the way.

With regards to crime, drug use is worsening in NI and gangs are starting to develoop. As “the troubles” have become less violent, regular crime has risen. One bad thing in Ireland is juveniles go to prison for minor crimes. There is no probation or flexibility. Also, even if you commit only a small crime as a juvenile your record follows you the rest or your life. You are excluded from many jobs, such as driving a taxi. The US has a terrible mix of drugs and guns in cities and drugs have spread to suburban and rural areas.

E and J said anti-social behavior among youth is spiking in NI. Teenagers text one another to agree to meet at a location to throw insults, stones, and bricks at the other respective side in a phenomenon called recreational rioting. We Americans said we've heard of this in America, but haven't heard of being confirmed in the Capital District or Glens Falls.

E and J told us they don't usually see much snow. The entire country was in the grip of ice for over a week this past winter and it was very unusual. We Americans agreed we have too much snow when it comes to moving it.

E and J said recreation is expensive in NI and there isn't much to do. We Americans agreed we have a lot of sports, sports facilities, and winter sports such as skiing.

For me the biggest surprise was E and J didn't want to leave Norther Ireland as it has seen so much strife and loss for more than forty years. But to the good, it shows people feel connected in NI and want it to improve.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Belfast At Last

A lot has happened in the past few days.

Originally, I thought I would give you my impressions sequentially, but I am not sure such a recitation would be helpful.

I am going through culture shock on a daily basis. Starting with Americans and Irish are separated by a common language. Our accents are very, very different. I had experience with some accents in the Republic of Ireland, but the Belfast accent is harder for me to understand. Belfast residents speak fast to each other, the vowels are swallowed differently, and the word structures are different than the ones we use in the States. Some use "All right" as a hello. Something done right of your own initiative gets the reaction/lable, "fair play". The trunk of a car is the "boot". Lumber comes in "four by two" or "six by two" dimensions. And a ton of other small things are said differently.

The people are courteous and friendly and love a good laugh. Drivers will blink their headlights to let someone coming toward them turn across their path. Yah, they actually slow down or even stop to let the other person turn. Everyone wants to know how we are "getting on here" and what we think.

Some of the people are peace makers. Some in little ways, and some in large ways.

To understand what has gone on here let me divide the recent history in three parts. Pre Good Friday Accords, Post Good Friday Accords, and Recent Years, like the last three years, maybe.

The Pre Good Friday Accords generally have been called "The Troubles". This was a time of assassinations, attacks using automatic weapons and mortars, kidnappings and tortures. All sides were victimized and all sides committed violence. This is the part the American media covered fairly heavily. How did it start up? Some say the Catholics saw the peaceful protests in the American civil rights struggle, they tried to copy those protests, and for a variety of reasons, probably including the length and depth of the prior conflict, the violence escalated rather than resolved.

Various politicians take credit for the Good Friday Accords, but the regular people tell me the regular people became tired of civil war and didn't want another generation of children to be raised in such horrendous conditions. Also, the clergy transmitted this grass roots ground swell from the people to the politicians. The clergy and other peacemakers took real risks to press for non-violence.

After the Good Friday Accords were signed the level of violence decreased bit by bit. But certain features have stubbornly remained. The people live in different areas with people of their own economic means and religion. We think of the conflict as religious but there is a whole social class component.

Then comes the most recent period, which again is filled with contrasts. There are huge walls that chop up and separate these neighborhoods. People cross through gates, but the gates often close at night. Some people choose to live in intentionally mixed religion areas, but this has just created another group that is shunned by the polar opposite groups.

In the last 2 or 3 years, people are walking on the street. Kids can walk home from school without being picked up by their parents. Kids can play outside and do not spend all of their time indoors. There are young people who didn't directly experience "The Troubles" during the period of their lives which they can remember.

On the other hand, people stay or in their own areas and if they go to a neutral or mixed area, they walk on the side of the street which is "correct" for Protestants or Catholics, depending on which they are. Teenagers text one another to get together at preplanned locations for "recreational rioting" which involve taunting, serious stone throwing, and more.

I guess one of the strangest things is what the government calls "The Peace Wall". Our little group saw it in multiple locations. It is high and impenetrable. Last night my Volunteer In Mission group signed the wall with magic markers and left our messages of peace. I can't believe our media in America ignores this wall and doesn't have the time to help ensure hatred on both sides decreases to the point such a wall isn't needed.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Newgrange: A 5,200 Year Old Passage Mound

We made it to Dublin airport, by the grace of God, as the airport was closed by the volcanic ash before and after our landing.

We went north by bus and stopped at the Bru na Boinne passage mounds in County Meath.

I was thrilled to be in that space again...among the massive stones lifted and placed for some mysterious purpose...

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let me take you along on this visit:

Our guide explained that the grass covered mounds were built five thousand years ago, before the pyramids in Egypt actually.

That's certainly old enough, but I wondered how could a pile of dirt compete with the great geometric monuments of Giza?

I studied the rounded hill beyond our guide with stones inset in the base. The mound covered about an acre. Each oblong stone was about two yards or meters across with a flattish side facing out. She explained the stones had been etched, painstakingly pinged actually, in patterns.

We walked toward the passage entrance in the wet grass and stared at the stones.

The relief was low but I could make out these odd patterns of crescents, diamonds, zig-zags, arcs, circles, and spirals. Our guide said these stones were hidden by soil until dug up in recent times to reveal their faces. She added no one knows for sure the meaning of the megalithic art on the stones, or indeed if there is a meaning.

She pointed out the mounds were built by people who were farming because the hunter gatherer lifestyle would not support 100 people taking 50 years to move all these massive stones, approximately a quarter million tons in all.

Our guide said. “As you heard in the short fill-em inside the visitor center, (I love how the Irish make a two syllable word out of that single syllable word – film - as it becames "fill-em" when they say it and I hear it) Newgrange has a passage lined up with the rising sun on the winter solstice. We ask that you each take turns in each of the features at the end of the passage and then let the next person get a chance.”
Outside the entrance, when we saw a special kerbstone covered with interlocking etched spirals, our little group quieted.

Mechanical and digital clicks sounded as the assembled group took their last shots before entering where all photos were prohibited.

Passing one at a time within the opening, we had to duck carefully beneath the stone that framed the bottom of the opening over the entrance. This opening was designed to let in the sunrise light to the passage. As we made our way up the artificially lit narrow stone hall, some 19 yards, our guide explained that we were literally walking slightly up hill.

When we got to the wide area at the end, she told us the horizontal rays from the rising solstice sun would fall onto the base of the wall at our feet even though the orange shafts entered that opening above the outside doorway. She pointed out the three alcove areas or chambers at the end of the passage form a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. As small as they were, the alcoves completely relieved the claustrophobic impression left by moving up the narrow passage.

Our guide turned out the general illumination and everyone shifted around nervously in the total blackness. She explained that this was the darkness that the old ones found when they entered before the rising sun. Then she turned on a floodlight to imitate the sun at winter solstice. Part of me laughed at the inadequacy of a spotlight to imitate the powerful rays of the sun, but I had to admit it did convey the wonder at the specialness of the alignment the ancient architects created so that once a year the light penetrated the chamber and struck the far end for about seventeen minutes.

She turned on the general illumination and asked us to look up. The roof had not leaked in 5,000 years, though made simply of arranged stones.

Out of nowhere, my brain delivered a math fact: since I am 50 something years old, I had only lived one percent of the age of this 5,200 year old structure.

When my turn came to examine one of the chambers, a sense of spiritual reverence settled within me as I examined the smooth edged stone basin. This basin was the proverbial elephant in a room, though its exact use and implications were not precisely obvious. Then I looked up and saw the ceiling was a galore of etchings on old stones, stones that had hung there for five millenia.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I felt all these facts, that would make great conversation some day, suddenly fall away, and I was just... there...
where the sun can reach only once a year...

on a lucky cloudless year...on winter solstice.

There in that spot, built so long ago,

my mind assembled a thought:

I could feel the old ones there.