April 4, 2021
I was born in 1971, two years after the Troubles in Northern Ireland began. When they ended, in 1999, I was 28. For more than half my life (thus far), Belfast was a “vortex for the worst of the world’s cruelty and pain.” At least, that’s how the South African writer J.M. Coetzee put it in his blurb on the back cover of This Human Season by British novelist Louise Dean.
Dean’s novel, which is set in 1979, against the hunger strikes in the notorious prison Long Kesh, led me to reflect on the Troubles. Growing up in Canada, with no family connections to Ireland or England, my knowledge of the conflict was wafer-thin. I don’t believe we discussed it in school. It didn’t come up around the dinner table. What I knew came from headlines and soundbites— and, most often, interviews with Irish bands like U2, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Cranberries. Dean’s novel made me realize just how little I knew about the genesis and legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
And, I suspect I am not alone. As Paul Gray writes in his 2007 New York Times review of This Human Season, “Readers under 35 will probably have no direct memories of the very bad news that came from Northern Ireland during the 1970s — of the daily (or so they seemed) stories from places like Belfast and Londonderry relating horrors unmitigated by hope.”
The “Troubles”, he continues, is a “euphemistic understatement” to describe the decades-long conflict that ostensibly began with the riots of 1968 and ended in hope with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In reality, the conflict between the (predominately Catholic) republican and (mainly Protestant) loyalist paramilitary organizations, civil rights activists, and Britain’s security forces was percolating before ‘68 and violent incidents continued after the signing of the bilateral agreement, although to a lesser extent.
This month, in Sift. Shift. Lift., I am building up my knowledge of the Troubles, layer by wafer-thin layer. I am sifting through dates and data; eavesdropping on some difficult conversations; immersing myself in the arts; and finding out how to support the ongoing work towards peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
I hope you will join me.
Learn how to say Na Trioblóidí (the Troubles) in Irish.
Find nuggets of truth in research and journalism.
Take a look at these timelines if you, like me, want to better understand where and when violent incidents and political events occurred.
We may know where and when violence occurred, but do we know why? A few years ago, Joseph M. Brown (assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston) and Gordon C. McCord (assistant teaching professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego) turned to census and location data to find out “whether mixed neighborhoods—neighborhoods in which Protestants and Catholics lived together—led to greater mutual tolerance or greater conflict.”
Turns out, fatalities were highest in the most diverse communities. Why? Brown and McCord conclude that, in Northern Ireland, “Protestants and Catholics in mixed neighborhoods never created social ties or a shared sense of community. Instead of generating tolerance, geographic proximity resulted in more intense violence.”
Want to know more about the data and their research? Read their article in the Washington Post (August 22, 2019).
Too tired to read? I’ve got you covered.
If you have fewer than 10 minutes, check out this video from curator Carl Warner of the Imperial War Museum.
Got heaps of time? Curl up on the sofa and watch this critically acclaimed seven-part documentary series produced by BBC Northern Ireland.
The series offers a peek behind the scenes to reveal how investigative journalists Jennifer O’Leary, Darragh Macintyre, and Mandy McAuley were able to dig up never-before-told stories about the Troubles. For example, the one about the former missionary priest who smuggled weapons to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Interested, but not sure if you are ready to commit to the whole series? Read this review by Billy Foley in The Irish News (September 14, 2019).
Spotlight on Pádraig Ó Tuama
He doesn’t know it, but poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama has been my companion on this journey to learn all I can about the Troubles. He’s explained the hidden context and deeper meaning behind poems about Northern Ireland. He has invited me to eavesdrop on some deeply meaningful yet difficult conversations. Most importantly, he has taught me that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live/ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.” (He also makes me want to speak Irish.)
Of course, his invitations extend to you, too.
The Corrymeela Podcast, hosted by Ó Tuama, has been critical to my understanding of the ongoing striving towards reconciliation within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between nations. I urge you to listen to the series from start to finish. If that’s not realistic—I know time is scarce—here are a couple of my favourites.
Episode 2: “Host Pádraig Ó Tuama talks with the poet Gail McConnell, whose forthcoming collection The Sun Is Open considers an archive-box of her father’s writings, clippings, poems and pamphlets. He was murdered by the IRA in 1984.”
Episode 7: “Professor of Constitutional Law, Christine Bell, speaks to the Corrymeela Podcast about Peace Treaties, Brexit, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and Human Rights.”
For many years, Ó Tuama led Corrymeela, a community organization dedicated to peace and reconciliation. His memoir, In the shelter: finding a home in the world, mines this experience to reveal the “power of storytelling in communities of conflict.”
Watch a presentation on In the shelter: finding a home in the world. St. Paul’s Cathedral, February 9, 2016.
Buy a copy of In the shelter: finding a home in the world. Broadleaf Books, 2021 (American edition).
Widely regarded as the host of the Poetry Unbound Podcast with On Being Studios, Ó Tuama is a masterful poet himself.
Read “Hunger strikers.”
Let literature, drama, art and music move you towards a deeper understanding.
If you read the preamble to this issue, you know that my interest in the Troubles was stirred by Louise Dean’s novel This Human Season. A novel that considers the hunger strike at Long Kesh from the perspective of two protagonists: a Catholic mother whose son is imprisoned there, and a retired British Army officer who is working as a guard (aka “screw”) in the prison’s notorious H Block.
In “Top 10 books about the Troubles” (The Guardian, January 30, 2019), David Keenan notes that as he was writing For the Good Times (Faber, 2019), “it never occurred to me that we might be approaching a kind of Troubles “moment” in literature.” He then proceeds to offer up a handy shopping list for anyone heading to the bookstore. The list features some outstanding fiction, including the highly acclaimed novel Milkman by Anna Burns and the short-story collection Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, which looks at life in Northern Ireland post-Troubles.
Listen to 24 hours of peace: “A dramatic reading of a real-life conversation between Jo Berry, daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, killed in the 1984 Grand Hotel Brighton bombing, and Pat McGee, a member of the IRA who was responsible for the attack.” Directed by Neil Bartlett, a playwright and associate of the Imperial War Museum.
Tune in to the TV sitcom Derry Girls, which balances teen comedy and sectarian conflict brilliantly (according to this NPR review).
Read “Not another Troubles play: Theatre of Conflict in Northern Ireland 1968-1998” by Imelda Foley.
I highly recommend a visit to the Troubles Archive, where you can explore myriad works created by Irish artists in response to the Troubles, and gain insight into the broader context in which the works were produced. There are more than 200 works of visual art in the archives. Here are the links to just three.
Check out this video about the Art of the Troubles, a major retrospective of work by 50 Northern Irish artists based around the themes of conflict and resolution.
Finally, read “a fusillade of question marks: some reflections on the Art of the Troubles” by Ciaran Carson; “Prison art” by Mike Moloney; and “Visual art” by Declan Long.
There is no shortage of articles (not to mention opinions) about the best and worst songs written in response to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Here are just two.
Watch Paul Brady perform the #1 song from this list, “The Island.”
In “Popular music”, Stuart Baillie charts the impact of the Troubles on Irish music, and the music community, regardless of genre. Blues, pop, punk. Here are just a few of the songs referenced in the essay.
“Belfast blues” recorded by Juke Boy Bonner in 1969.
“Give Ireland back to the Irish” by Paul McCartney and Wings, recorded in 1972.
“Alternative Ulster” first released by Stiff Little Fingers in 1978.
“Streets of Sorrow, Birmingham Six” released by The Pogues in 1988.
I am not sure I can write about the Troubles and the arts without mentioning the band U2 and its front man Bono. So, before closing out this section, I will leave you with the video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Followed by these words from Bono.
Support organizations seeking peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Donate to the Corrymeela Organization, which is raising funds to support vulnerable communities and to address the Covid crisis.
Learn about Co-operation Ireland, an all-Island peace-building organization that brings youth from diverse backgrounds together to address legacy issues of the conflict.
Support the work of Musicians without Borders. Through Music Bridge Northern Ireland, this organization uses “music as a tool to build connections, foster empathy and shape community” in Derry-Londonderry.
Want to recommend another way to be engaged? Comment below.