Monday, December 30, 2013

Northern Ireland Reflections

This blog has been known to be home to unsolicited and uncalled-for political commentary, often aimed unfairly at the modern-day British for deeds committed by British rulers decades and centuries ago.  I had a chance to really think about what these ignorant proclamations really meant when we traveled to and through the country of Northern Ireland.

Antrim Coast rocks and sea
Average Antrim Coast Scene

Crossing the international border between the Republic of Ireland (just Ireland from now on) and Northern Ireland was painless and invisible...mostly.  Our coach didn't stop at a checkpoint with machine-gun-armed soldiers.  We didn't have to present our "papers" to a scowling border patrol agent sizing us up like criminals.  We didn't have to fill out customs cards swearing we weren't transporting illegal breeding pairs of live koalas to release into the wilds of the new country.  All of which, by the way, we would have to do coming into the USA- especially if we were coming from one of an ever-growing list of "bad" countries, where people have darker skin and speak other languages...

Nope, crossing the border between County Louth in Ireland and County Armagh in Northern Ireland just meant a change in the color of road signs as we zipped by.  "It's just like goin' into Wisconsin!" as they said in Stripes of cold-war era Czechoslovakia.  The telltale signs of being in a new country were much more subtle, but we took notice.

From the bus, we could see the Union Jack flag of the UK flying at nearly every intersection in every city.  I commented here when we visited Belfast about the sorry state of the physical flags themselves.  Many of them were torn, tattered, and faded- but it would cost a fortune to replace them all and keep them looking new!  These flags have a much different meaning to some of the people here than a US flag does in the States.  In America, to most Americans today, a flying flag is a symbol of unity, something we can all stand by and identify with.  A flag in a land of conflict can be seen as a sign of dominance and power over others, especially by the newly defeated.  If America was fresh off the American Civil War, the Stars and Stripes flying in former Confederate lands would be seen in a similar light (and is seen that way by small groups of separatists today...)  The message would be clear: We won.  You lost.  In your face!  Since the 1998 peace agreement, flying the UK flag here actually means, "We are part of the UK because the majority of the citizens here democratically voted for it and any time a majority of citizens here democratically votes to approve a referendum this land will join the Republic of Ireland forever but until then- We won.  You lost.  In your face!"  My money is on Northern Ireland sticking with the UK as long as the UK has a stronger economy, lower unemployment, and stronger currency (G.B. Pound) than the rest of the European Union.  For more ignorant complaints about Britain, the Monarchy, and all things English-y, see the Belfast post.

But peace has thankfully gained a foothold here.  I can't claim to understand what it means to live here, being an outsider.  I can't ever really understand the feelings of the people, especially during the worst days of The Troubles- which are in the disturbingly recent past.  As a young boy in America, I understood in a vague sense that Northern Ireland was a place with fighting.  Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Kuwait.  Places with fighting.  That was it.  Faraway places with no real connection or meaning to me.  I felt nothing of the pain, suffering, and fear that gripped this part of the world for so long.

Thankful we were for the peace here because the land is beautiful and the people welcoming and kind.  Belfast was a typical modern European city.  Traffic bustled through busy streets.  Art, culture, and historical points of interest were well-marketed.  Gone were the signs of conflict and we had a fun time pointing out the most British of things in Belfast like black taxis and red (not green) mailboxes on the corners.

Driving from Belfast along the coast was memorable and rewarding.  Road sign markings and posted speed limits were given in miles and miles per hour (UK style) while our car only used kilometers to measure speed and distance (Irish style), so we had to rely heavily on our GPS unit.  The coast was beautifully maintained, and all signs of Irish/English human difference melted away in the rocky beaches and craggy cliffs.  We forgot all about the conflict as we enjoyed the preserved natural and human-made spectacles of the Rope Bridge, Giant's Causeway, Bushmills Distillery, and Dunluce Castle.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Old Bushmills Distillery, Northern Ireland
Old Bushmills

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland
Giant's Causeway

Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland
Dunluce Castle

In our hostel in Portrush, we were lucky enough to have a conversation with a Northern Irish citizen about growing up in the time of The Troubles.  We are always hesitant to ask about this sensitive and personal issue, but our hostess offered her perspective and opinion about the political and religious divides in this beautiful part of the world.  She told us about being nervous to visit the conflict-heavy cities of Belfast and Derry in her youth, but she always felt safe in her relatively small town, where Irish Catholics and British Protestants lived together and fearfully watched the news of the fighting.  Today, she proudly told us that families are raised to respect and accept everyone, no matter their personal politics or religion.  Good thinking, as new generations are always the best hope for bright futures.

Was this trip rewarding?  It was that and more for me.  It was perspective-altering.  In one trip we were able to see the healing scars of human conflict and some of the most breathtaking natural beauty on Earth.  Travel is the best way to open the eyes and the mind.  After seeing this land and meeting the people there, I can no longer ignorantly slander and slam the British and the Monarchy. ...I can do so with full knowledge and confidence!  I will be thoughtful of the people involved and impacted by political decisions and political declarations.  I will try to stay away from wild generalizations and blanket slamming of entire countries and cultures.

If only more world leaders would get out and travel to places like this...

A rainbow in Antrim, Northern Ireland
Hope for a bright future


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. It means a lot to hear that from you.

  2. HI Cory,

    It's always interesting to hear the ways in which people's opinions about Northern Ireland change after a visit. I'm an American too and moved to Belfast in 2006 to work on the peace process. I have to say that over the 5 years I lived and worked there (in some of the most sectarian places you can imagine) my feelings about the Loyalist and Republican and Unionist and Nationalist movements were entirely different than what I thought they would be when I arrived.

    I think it's really important for Americans in particular to share their experience in NI because so much of what we were fed in the US was highly biased and simplified so much that it hardly reflected anyone's reality during the Troubles and beyond.

    Anyway, thanks for your post

    1. Thank you for replying. I really did learn a lot visiting NI, and was able to confidently tell my nervous American friends and family that NI today is nothing like the news images we saw in the 1980s. Sounds like you did some great and interesting work there in Belfast.

      Thanks again for sharing.


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