The Irish Story

Jul 27, 2009

Full of grief I had come to close the circle of our marriage that had begun in Strabane, Northern Ireland, in 1963 and ended with Hank’s death in February of 2001. My parents had departed for Ireland just after I entered my freshman year in college and lived there for five years. I spent the holidays and summer vacations with them, loving the Irish people and their island home.

Rampant prosperity and mad cow disease preparations greeted me in Northern Ireland when I landed in Belfast in April 2001. At first I didn’t know which was more shocking: the precautions taken to stem the spread of mad-cow — from soapy trays to clean the bottoms of our feet,  sudsing down the tires of my rental car as I crossed the border to the Republic of Ireland,  the closure of all the ancient cairns and other monuments, including the Glenveagh National Park in Donegal, because one had to cross fields to get to them or the plainly evident prosperity.

The prosperity that I saw was even more startling because of my previous visits to the Emerald Isle were during times of high unemployment in the early 1960’s. Only during the holidaysn then did I meet any young people there; they had to go to London or the United States to find work. A neighbor once took my mother to collect funds for the British Red Cross to the pubs at 10 am because “that’s where the men are.” The country was divided upon religious lines: the Protestants only shopped in Protestant-owned stores, the Catholics in Catholic-owned ones. My parents met only one Catholic couple in the five years they lived there.

The divisions were more economic than religious, however, the Protestants were likely to be business or factory owners, the Catholics the workers. The population split in the early 1960’s was about 40% Catholic, 60% Protestant. Politically, the Protestants, Orangemen, identified with the English who ruled Northern Ireland, the Catholics with the green of the Republic of Ireland.

In the early 1960’s there were few signs of the “troubles” which broke out in 1968-69. There were a few border incidents, but little more. Strabane was on the Foyle River, the western border  with the Republic of Ireland, about fourteen miles south of Londonderry. It was a country town of 7,000 where the herds of cattle or sheep might be herded through the center of town when moving from one pasture to another.

My husband and I just happened to catch two “Sixty Minutes” shows about Strabane, one in the 1970’s and one in the 1990’s. By the late 1970’s Strabane had had 300 bombings. British soldiers lined the streets. The people only went out to shop on Fridays. By the 1990’s program the soldiers were gone, the two sides had put down their arms and at least some of the Protestants and Catholics were working together.

As I traveled throughout Northern Ireland and down the West Coast of the Republic of Ireland in 2001, I saw signs of prosperity and peace everywhere. Strabane had tripled in size to over 21,000 people: I could not find our house on Curly Hill or recognize any landmarks except for the church where we were married. I contacted a former neighbor who was able to direct me to our house. People were on their cell phones or blackberries everywhere. There were lots of Mercedes Benzes and BMW’s. On the Donegal coast, one of the poorest parts of the Republic of Ireland, there were scores of second homes being built and bought. Ireland was then known as the “Celtic Tiger,” the leading economy in Europe.

On that trip I learned a lot about the Irish’s hatred for the English by listening to talk radio as I drove south from Donegal towards Killarney. I got very tired of hearing the callers’ constant theme of “The Brits did us in!” I certainly agreed that the British had treated the Irish terribly, throwing people off the land during the potato famine while the English landowners were still doing fine, or sending them directly to workhouses where they entered into servitude for very low wages, just two examples from hundreds of years of history.

I began to think about why the American Blacks are unable to let go of the slavery story, or why it’s been so hard to let go of my own story[which starts something like this: “it[whatever is currently happening] is not going to work out for me.”] As long as we tell our stories over and over again, we are unable to move beyond them. In 2001 the Irish were doing fine, their economy was leading all of Europe, but they were full of complaints about their history with the English. I don’t in any way want to belittle the horror of either the Irish or the American Black’s experience or any individual’s life experience, but how we handle what happens to us[and our ancestors] has consequences for ourselves and our progeny. It is an unusual person who can leave a story behind—leave behind how her community feels about their shared past, their enemies, their prospects—and enter into the present with no wounds or with the suffering still there but not determinative of attitudes about life and their own prospects.

To leave behind the story—cultural and familial—which is deeply engrained in us is to claim peace in our lives. Whether we are Irish or English, Serbian or Albanian, Lebanese Christian or Muslim, Israeli or Arab, Hatfield or McCoy, the more we hold on to the story of how we were done in, the less pleasure we can take in our lives, the more we feel limited by that past, the more likely we are to pass the story unblemished down to our children and their children until the story completely defines who we are.

We must hold our stories lightly, acknowledging the past, but unplugging from the emotional hold it has on us. Until we are able to do that, the story will rule our lives, limit our prospects, call the shots within us. We can ask God for a new story, one that is built on our talents, experiences, even our weaknesses, the totality of who we are. Pray for a story that is expansive, not repressive. Gradually we find that the old story diminishes in power as the new story takes hold in us and begins to blossom.

The people of Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics alike, are living out a new story. Some, I am sure, would like to return to the fight, but their fellow Irishmen no longer support the cycle of violence/revenge/violence that has destroyed so many lives. The majority began to believe that another story was possible, one in which they all could thrive and get along. The ones who dreamed this new story made it happen.

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