A New Reading Project: A Cluster of Books on America’s Inception

Now that I am home after a summer as an intern at Manassas National Battlefield Park, I have begun casting about for new challenges. I have some exciting news to keep an eye out for, and I’m well aware that I need to write a blogpost about my experiences this summer, but for now, I’d like to share with you a new project I’ve taken on. For lack of a better term, I’ll call them clustered reading units.

Essentially, without classes to focus my learning, I’ve decided that it’s necessary to plan and devote time to learning about certain subjects in relative depth. A clustered reading unit is my fancy way of saying that I’m going to read a bunch of related books, supplemented by films and other materials, altogether over a period of two months or so, in order to get a better sense of the themes they convey.

Because I spent so much time this summer in historic Virginia, with several trips to presidents’ houses (including Monticello) and gravesites, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a two-month unit on the birth of the United States of America. I plan to call this unit A Perfect Storm:  The Making of an Independent America.

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The Seven Years War, called the French and Indian War in America, set the stage for the Revolution, though was a significant event in its own right, as Fred Anderson argues. The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, 1770.

What issues and ideologies converged to facilitate the emergence of the country I call my own? Sure, I can give the standard high school answers to that question, but I want to get a bit deeper into it, because most of my American history classes in college covered events either before or after the Revolution, but not during. This is especially important to deciphering and dismissing many of the origin mythologies that hold so much sway over popular discourse today.

My planned reading list for the unit is as follows:

A notable absence from that list? Alexander Hamilton. Given the musical’s current popularity, I feel remiss in this, but perhaps I can do him along with a unit on the Early Republic.

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John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, 1819.

As you can probably tell by the titles I’ve selected, my goal is not to engage with the material on the serious, academic level I would have in college. As a young professional, I doubt I’ll have time or inclination to do so. Instead, I hope this project will encourage me to continue filling holes in my knowledge base while helping me organize my reading and getting me to engage with new ideas and cultures.

Other subjects I’m considering for this project:

  • Japanese history, culture, and language
  • Welsh culture, mythology, and language
  • History and key figures of the Early Republic

A bit random, I know, but all things of interest to me.

Mostly for my own sake—to keep me honest—but also to satisfy anyone’s curiosity, I plan to post short reflections during and after each unit. Hopefully I’ll have the willpower to keep this project going for a bit. If you have any suggestions or thoughts on the project or books, post in the comments and I’ll let you know what I think.

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Forgotten Remembrance: The Story of the Irish National War Memorial

When my father asked me what specifically I wanted to see in Dublin over the summer, I gave him an unusual answer: “I’d like to see the Irish National War Memorial.” Not the Guinness factory, not the Book of Kells, not any of the tourist spots on the beaten path. I wanted to see those, too, of course, but the place I wanted to see above all others was the memorial. My interest in the site was sparked by an essay I wrote last semester on the First World War in Irish memory. On this Veterans/Armistice Day, I’d like to tell the story of this obscure site of mourning.

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Some background is necessary to understanding the long process of developing, constructing, and rehabilitating the memorial. The Great War came towards the end of Ireland’s time as a part of the United Kingdom. On the eve of war, Home Rule, long-awaited by Irish constitutional nationalists, had been passed—but not implemented. Although it was controversial, the passage of the Home Rule bill meant that both nationalists and unionists could feel justified in answering the call to serve when Britain mobilized for war. However, in the spring of 1916, even as thousands of Irishmen were fighting as part of the British Expeditionary Force, a rogue group of radical nationalists led by men like Patrick Pearse and James Connolly attempted to seize control of Ireland. The Easter Rising was quickly put down, but the British responded to it with excessive brutality. Old hatreds were reignited, but kindled beneath the surface for the rest of the war.

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Ninety-seven years ago today, the guns fell silent as the armistice came into effect. The Treaty of Versailles was signed a few months later, bringing hostilities to a formal conclusion. At a formal dinner in 1919, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and former BEF Commander-in-Chief John French proposed a memorial to the Irishmen who had died fighting for king and country. He imagined a living memorial:  a soldiers’ home for British soldiers stationed in Dublin. The Irish National War Memorial committee was formed as a joint effort by unionists and nationalists, and began raising funds for the venture. Its plans were sidelined, however, by the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War.

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, French’s plan for a British soldiers’ homestead was now entirely impractical. In 1924, the INWM committee announced a plan to purchase Merrion Square, a beautiful park adjacent to the Leinster House that housed the Free State government, in order to renovate it into a memorial park. Years passed as the government resisted making a decision. In 1927, Minister of Justice Kevin O’Higgins revealed government concerns that building a war memorial so close to the Leinster House “would give a wrong twist to the origin of this State,” suggesting that the new country was forged in the fires of the Great War. There was also opposition from veterans, though for a very different reason. They resented that so much money was being put toward an expensive monument for the dead, and urged that the money instead be spent on something practical like aid for unemployed survivors.

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The INWM committee scrambled to develop a new plan. Eventually, they settled on redeveloping a small section of Phoenix Park near Islandbridge, miles from the center of Dublin. The INWM committee managed to secure Edwin Lutyens, the famed British architect responsible for the Cenotaph in London among other sites of mourning, to plan the park. Lutyens was considered “the artist pre-eminent in the architecture of war remembrance” and his involvement lent an air of legitimacy to the project in spite of his nationality. During the construction, numerous Viking burials were uncovered and sent to be preserved by the National Museum of History and Archaeology, where they can still be seen today.

The Irish National War Memorial was scheduled to open in May 1939, two decades after it had first been proposed, but world events intervened. The government cancelled the ceremony, announcing that the “present critical state of international affairs renders impracticable the organization of the ceremony on the lines commensurate with the dignity of the occasion.” Overshadowed by the Second World War and forgotten in its aftermath, not even a semi-formal opening occurred until 1988, and it took until 1995 for there to be a formal dedication ceremony.

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Today, the memorial is a beautiful park on the outskirts of Dublin. A large grassy space hosts the physical monuments, encircled by a brilliant garden and a less formal space where Dubliners take walks, play catch, or just sit in the quiet space. Our cab driver didn’t know where it was, so he took us as close as we could get him and then we wandered until we found it. Even today, it feels isolated and forgotten, reflecting Ireland’s complex relationship with the First World War.IMG_1889

The story of the Irish National War Memorial is a poignant reminder that remembrance is not something to be taken for granted. As Irish society heals from the wounds of its twentieth century, the Irish veterans of the Great War may finally receive the remembrance so long denied them by the politics of identity.

 

The End of an Era

Late last month, after seven seasons of working at Hersheypark, I closed my drawer and locked my stand for the last time. On my way out of the park, I handed in my ID and name tag and departed through the employee gate, never again to enter through that portal.

My departure means little in the grand scheme of things — and rightly so — but to me it signifies nothing short of the end of an era. Seven years is more than a tenth of a lifetime, and exactly a third of my twenty-one years. I imagine that it will be quite some time before I hold another job for such a long time.

But still, it was just a part-time seasonal position at a local amusement park. I know I’m on to “bigger and better things,” as they say. So why do I find this bittersweet moment even worthy of reflecting upon?

First, it’s because I believe that life is worth considering. That’s just who I am. Second, and more importantly, it’s because I have loved this job in so many ways. I remember the night, about halfway during my first season in 2009, when I was leaving the park by way of the high bridge near the Aquatheater and noticed for the first time that a unique sort of energy filled the park. I recalled how as a child I had ridden Coal Cracker, Trailblazer, and so many other rides over and over again. Years later, I found myself as a part of the team that facilitates the experience I had enjoyed so much as a kid.

And now, at the end of my tenure, I want to offer a special word of thanks to all those who have made my time at Hersheypark so formative. To the managers, MODs, and TLs of my early years who established a work environment that I wanted to participate in; to to my current managers who have supported me over the years and have offered endless patience; to my fellow supervisors, with whom I have shared countless laughs and so many exasperated sighs; to the employees I’ve had the pleasure of working so closely with and had the honor of watching mature as employees and human beings; and to the guests who helped make my job so fulfilling:  thank you.

My final shift seemed an unrealistically appropriate farewell to the park that I have loved so well. It seemed that many of the guests who passed by my stand were part of a long parade of my old friends and coworkers — some who I have known since elementary school, others that I met in high school, and still others I had only met a month before. Seeing them all walk by helped provide me with a comforting sense of closure for this part of my life. Even some of the guests who I did not know personally helped to make my last night memorable. When I noticed two women standing near my stand, waiting for their family to come off the ride, I recognized them from the night before. Earlier, I had encouraged them to go on SooperDooperLooper after they claimed they were too afraid of it. It transpired that they had eventually taken the leap and rather enjoyed it. At another point in the evening, a family called out a number to me and I began processing their order. I was so intent on the sale that I didn’t hear them quite right the first time when they said, “It’s Kevin’s last day today.” As it dawned on me what they were saying, I looked up and realized I recognized them, too, from the day before. We had spoken about our respective experiences in the park and I had revealed to them that I was reluctantly approaching the end of my time at the park. On my final night, they not only remembered that they had spoken to me the previous day, they congratulated me and left me with a chilling reminder of why I felt my job was worthwhile. I wonder if they know how happy they made me that night. There were others, too:  a woman who confessed her fear of heights to me, a boy who asked me about my favorite hockey team, and a couple of teens who wanted my to give them high fives. There has always been a part of me that felt like I should be out doing internships or getting more varied work experience instead of returning year after year, but it’s always been moments like these that kept bringing me back to the park.

I will never forget my days at the park. I will never forget the times when I was Hersheypark Happy. And I will carry a spark of Hersheypark Happy wherever I go.

HP Happy

Encounters with An Ghaeilge

A beach on the Dingle Peninsula, another of Ireland's Gaeltachts.

A beach on the Dingle Peninsula, another of Ireland’s Gaeltachts.

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an that of an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

When I registered for NUIG’s Irish Studies Summer School, I was informed that Galway sits at the edge of Ireland’s Connemara Gaeltacht, a region designated by the government as an Irish-speaking area. For those of unfamiliar with Ireland’s odd relationship with language, here’s a rundown:  the Irish language, a majority language until around the mid-19th century, is today Ireland’s national language, though it isn’t widely spoken in much of the country. Although all children in Ireland are required to learn to speak it in school, many adults admit that they never worked too hard in their Irish classes because they never saw much point in learning a language they would rarely speak once grown up. These Gaeltachts are an exception; they receive special government attention and subsidies in order to preserve the traditional language and culture.

In addition to the two courses I was taking for credits (and the two courses I was taking for fun), I was also able to attend optional Irish language classes that I had not even known were part of the program before arriving. Talk about a nice bonus. Our teacher was a grad student at NUIG who put us through the gauntlet on our first day, calling on us at random to repeat the phrases she was giving us. When someone asked for the spelling, she laughed and said it wouldn’t help much. True enough. Only about half the class returned, but those of us who did found the course to be more relaxed and enjoyable from that point on, and we learned a great deal of the basics of the language.

I didn’t have many chances to put my Irish into practice — not that I’d get too far in a conversation beyond Cén chaoi bfhuil tú? (How are you?) — but I did meet many people whose first language was Irish. A retired teacher who taught a class on Sean Nó(old-style) singing didn’t start learning English until he was twelve. When we went down to Dingle for a weekend, we drove through a number of small farming communities where — had we stopped — we would have met plenty of Irish speakers. I also went by myself to Traidphicnic, a traditional arts and music festival held in Spiddal, Co. Galway. I even got to attend a bilingual play with some fellow students and a professor, with the Irish lines translated in subtitles that were projected along the top of the screen..

The great rainbow stretching over Galway Bay during Traidphicnic.

The brilliant rainbow stretching over Galway Bay during Traidphicnic.

These opportunities to encounter an endangered yet defiantly resilient language added a number of layers to my trip to Ireland. Curiously enough, I’m more tempted to learn Irish than a language that would actually be practical to know. There’s a certain love of the language among those few who still keep the old language — perhaps a contagious sort of sentiment that I contracted during my time abroad.

Fawning over the Fauna

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an that of an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

Those who have known me for a very long time will remember that I’ve long held a great appreciation for all creatures great and small. The aforementioned readers are probably not reading this post, so I will have to assure those of you who are that beneath my coldly rational exterior I harbor no shortage of sentimentalism when it comes to our animal friends.

Continuing in the vein of writing some light-hearted posts about my time in Ireland, I wanted to write a bit about some of the great animals I encountered over there. Not hard-hitting journalism, I admit, but it might be worth a chuckle.

Central to Ireland’s rural appeal are the many sheep, cattle, goats, and horses that make the isle their home. These animals are a lot more relaxed than their North American relatives, probably because of the absence of natural predators, and you can often find them laying in the sun instead of remaining on-guard at all times. That’s not to say they’re all indifferent to their surroundings; the calves pictured below rose as I approached and eyed me with a mix of shyness and curiosity. Cows of Athenry

Near the waterfall where a scene from the movie The Field was filmed, a horse was just chilling in the adjacent field when he noticed us arrive. The big boy walked over to us and whined like my dog until we petted him and fed him some of our lunch. He stayed close by as we enjoyed our picnic in the Irish rain, then wandered off to graze until I called him back over for a photo shoot.

And then, of course, there were the animals kept as pets. I’d never before seen the behemoth that is the Irish wolfhound, nor encountered such well-behaved pets. Rarely did I see dogs kept on leashes. When my archaeology instructor took us on a field trip to see some early medieval ruins, he kept his dog, Lily, on her leash only until we got off IMG_2078the bus, then let her run free through the fields and around the stone structures. The class all pitched in to keep the happy dog away from the perilous edge of the ring fort of Carcommaun. In Dingle I was followed into the bar by the place’s cat, who walked straight through the band of merrymakers and vanished deeper inside.

That’s not even to mention the wonderful wildlife. From the crafty magpie to the cranky swan, I saw all sorts of lovely birds. Window screens didn’t seem to be too common in public buildings, so there were always pigeons getting in to transport hubs and academic buildings. No one seemed to mind.

Unfortunately, I also encountered the wee beastie I thought I had dodged in Scotland two months ago: that voracious and indefatigable menace called The Midge. We came across them in force while hiking in Connemara, and it only took climbing a mountain to escape them.

Apart from that, though, I quite enjoyed Ireland’s fauna. Maybe someday I’ll move there and buy some sheep and a cow and a loyal wolfhound. If I ever accidentally get incredibly rich in spite of all my best efforts, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Kidding Ireland’s Celtic Cousin

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an that of an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

It strikes me that so far every post I’ve made about my time in Ireland has had an academic flair to it and this may have given you the impression that I’ve taken myself too serious in the land of Saints and Scholars (Me, taking myself too seriously? Never!). But I can assure you that I’ve been paying attention to Ireland’s more lighthearted cultural peculiarities as well. For instance, did you know the Irish are quite fond of slagging* the Scots?

When we first arrived her back in June, Dublin was bursting with tartan kilts and St. Andrew’s Crosses. On our way in from the airport, our taxi driver explained to us that it was the weekend of a big Ireland-Scotland football match. Ireland desperately needed a victory to keep alive its chances in the European Championship (which, incidentally, they lost). When we asked our driver how crazy the city would get during the match, he laughed and said, “The Scots are our cousins. It’s not like they’re the English.” Another cab driver joked, though, that it would still be a pretty mad night in Dublin after the match. “We’re both known for our drinking,” he confided, “but the Irish know how to hold it.”

My dad managed to get tickets to the match, so on the day after our arrival in Ireland, we took our seats in Aviva Stadium. We sat in front of a couple of young Scotsmen my dad had met while buying the tickets, and in front of us was a row of loyal Irish fans. The Scots behind us were having a grand old time. Apart from the time one threatened to kill me unless Scotland won (which they didn’t; it was a tie) and he proceeded to spit on my father while explaining soccer culture to us, they were rather entertaining to listen to. The Irish did not leave the Scottish taunts unanswered. They sang:19608940529_b8438ec0a3_o

We have our freedom.
We have our freedom.
We have our freedom.
We can sing if we want.

An obvious allusion to Scotland’s failed bid for independence last year. They weren’t the only ones making that joke since I’ve been over here. In an incident resulting from the very same soccer match, Paddy Power (a bookmaking company) is currently being sued by one of Ireland’s coaches for using his likeness without permission for a Braveheart-themed promotion. The billboard in question features Coach Keane with William Wallace-style warpaint accompanied by the declaration:  “You may take our points, but at least we have our freedom.” Ooh. Burn.

Although the football match gave the Irish the best opportunity to slag the Scots, it wasn’t the only time on the trip that I heard such jokes being made. Over our weekend trip to Dingle, Co. Kerry, I was at a bar enjoying a sparkling water and a band playing some classic Irish ballads when they announced that their next song would be “The Flower of Scotland,” a song about Robert Bruce. They sarcastically dedicated this performance to Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of “the nearly independent Scotland.” Sadly, there were no Scots in the audience to respond to this jab. Given Ireland’s own difficult road to independence, it comes as no shock that the country’s favorite thing to tease the Scots about is Scotland’s continuing place in the U.K.

You have to hand it to the Irish: they know how to throw a good joke that strikes the perfect pitch. I suppose it helps keeps spirits high over here on this rainy island.

*A term that has been described to me to mean good-humored but harsh teasing. Kind of like a roast, or like how I treat anyone whose company I enjoy.

Records Restricted

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

Imagine that in 100 years a historian stumbles upon your diary or finds your name in a collection of public records and decides that your life offers the perfect example to support his or her argument. I’m sure that a lot of people might be happy to be remembered in history instead of being forgotten forever. But what if they were citing a single diary entry that depicts you or someone you care about in a bad light? What if it was an embarrassing detail that in reality was only a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? What if the records discovered were your criminal profile, or a similarly incriminating document that only represented a one-off bad decision?

Last fall, I wrote a blog post about a man named Lebbie Lebkicher, a longtime associate of Milton Hershey who was known to be a private individual. I raised the ethical question of whether it was right of me to peruse and interpret the private papers of a man who shunned the spotlight in his life merely because he passed away many decades ago.

I was reminded of this matter once again in my Irish history class, in a lecture on the famine and the workhouses that were established to mitigate ‘destitution.’ My professor was describing the miserably conditions that the poor would have to be in before seeking admission to one of these institutions when he began telling us about his own experience as a historian of the period. A few years ago, when he went to a certain public records to request access to some files from a workhouse’s administration, the person at the desk told him he would have to wait. Eventually, an archivist came out and explained to him that those records were restricted; he could see the documents he was looking for, but only after they had been reviewed by a censor and any sensitive data had been blacked out.

Why all the secrecy surrounding these supposedly public documents? I thought at first that he meant censorship had been invoked to protect those involved in the management of the institutions — they, after all, were the ones with the power to protect their actions from later scrutiny. In fact, it was because of the sense of stigma and shame associated with the workhouses that these documents were kept with an extra level of security to protect the identities of those who had found no other recourse but to enter into them.

Union Workhouse, Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, established 1843. Courtesy of Kieran Campbell.

Union Workhouse, Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan, established 1843. Courtesy of Kieran Campbell, via Geograph.

It’s hard to imagine why it would matter so much to the miserable ones working in the workhouses, especially when we’re living in an age when we can realize and accept that some people simply fall on hard times and it isn’t something to be ashamed of (most of us can make that realization, anyway). Still, the public records office my professor went to obviously believed that it was important to keep these records out of the public eye as much as possible. My professor, although he recognized the highly sensitive nature of the documents, still found it frustrating that he had to go through so many hurdles to do research into something that was only tangentially related to the workhouses, and would not have endangered the reputations of anyone working there.

So I guess the questions I’m still struggling is whether historians, archivists (and, indeed, other professionals) have a responsibility to respect the values of the people whose records we deal with? Should the same question be asked of writers who base a plot on a true story? Or do we lose all individual rights after we’re dead and gone? After all, it doesn’t matter today to nineteenth century workhouse laborers if their dirty laundry is dug up. Or does it? More importantly, should it matter to us?

A Spoon Full of Tourism

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

Having grown up in Hershey and now living most of the year in Gettysburg, I’ve developed a keen interest in the tourism industry and its effects on the group identity of the communities that develop around it. Since the peace process began two decades ago, Northern Ireland has been undergoing something of an economic revolution as tourism rejuvenates the economies of its cities and towns. I felt this shift most acutely in Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your persuasion), where a group of local businesses have taken it upon themselves to transform the once-beleaguered city into a tourist destination built around the principles of reconciliation.

For centuries, the city of Derry has been an unhappy flashpoint of Protestant and Catholic interests, from its establishment in the early seventeenth century to its resistance to James II during the Williamite War. In more modern times, too, it has seen more than its share of tragedy. Throughout the Troubles, Derry was a hot bed of upheaval and played host to a garrison of British soldiers assigned to keep the peace. In 1972, those soldiers opened fire on a crowd of civilian protesters on a day that would be marked as Bloody Sunday.

When you visit Derry today, however, it seems like a completely different city. Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely convinced by our tour guide that Derry’s reconciliation is as thorough as he described it to us, and I can only imagine how much tension lays beneath the surface, out of site of visitors. He himself showed us one Protestant neighborhood that remains afflicted by a “siege mentality.”

I've already shared this photo with another post, but it underscores that Derry is not wholly reconciled... but it's getting a lot better than it once was.

I’ve already shared this photo in another post, but it underscores that Derry is not wholly reconciled to its past. Nonetheless, it’s getting a lot better than it once was.

Nonetheless, the strides taken by the city in the last several decades is obviously incredible. The army garrison is gone, along with the building that held it, and a jail for political prisoners is forever shut down. As you walk along the town’s great wall, you can see the grassy hills where the tenements once stood, and you can see the magnificent peace murals prominently visible on dozens of buildings across the city. One of these murals had been left incomplete when it was originally painted, with the artist’s promise that it would be finished when Derry had achieved “meaningful and lasting peace.” The mural stands completed today as a reminder of that triumph. In a similar spirit of reconciliation, there is a statue prominently visible at the city’s entrance which depicts two figures reaching across a gap to shake hands.

When you heard your guide — an enthusiastic local of about 60 — you were moved to hear him swell with pride and joy as he spoke of his beloved city and its happy transformation. He was a performer, for sure, and a representative of an industry looking to continue drawing in tourists, but you had no doubts of the genuine feeling behind all of his jokes and stories. He was just one of many individuals devoted to the ongoing work of re-imagining Derry for the twenty-first century. His colleagues, many of them local business people, have done much for the city, such as working alongside the Orangemen to ensure that the marching season is as benign as possible.

Derry's history is long and fraught with conflict. Most of the walking tour we took went along the 17th century stone wall built by English settlers to keep out the Gaelic natives.

Derry’s history is long and fraught with conflict. Most of the walking tour we took went along the 17th century stone wall built by English settlers to keep out the Gaelic natives.

The city still faces many challenges, not the least of them an endemic unemployment problem stretching back to the end of the Second World War. But it’s a model — one that links social change to economic growth — for many communities that still need a lot of healing. Belfast is still incredibly tense, but even it has started to see a growth in tourism through attractions like  the Black Cab Tours, which like the city tour in Derry, places the Belfast’s troubled past on display to help visitors understand it better, while simultaneously attracting visitors and helping the city’s economy to heal.

At the end of our walking tour of Derry, our guide charged us to act as ambassadors for his city. I guess that’s what this post is about, but I do truly want to believe in their project. Making progress towards peace can only be easier when the city is a thriving hub of tourism, complete with the economic development that follows that industry. He wanted us to pass a message on to you all:  “Derry is open for business.”

I’d like to add a slogan of my own based on what I saw and on what I want to believe: Peace is good for tourism, and tourism is good for peace.

The Writing on the Wall

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

I’ve been in Ireland for over a month now, and yet the experience that had by far the most lasting impression on me took place during the first week of the trip, when my family and I went to Belfast with our tour group. If you ever have a chance to visit Derry or Belfast or any other part of the country, I strongly urge you to take that opportunity. The deep wounds are still fresh, and can provide insight into the heavy burden that the past and future can place on communities.

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Even the peace walls can be used belligerently. The Union Jack in Northern Ireland is a key symbol of Protestant/British identity, and as such is not particularly reconciliatory in nature, to say the least.

This is especially true of the working class neighborhoods in Belfast. When we arrived in the city, we first stopped at the massive Titanic Experience museum down by the old shipyards. The city seemed a bit depressed and quiet, but that was about the worst vibe I had about the place at the time. After lunch, we headed out on a Black Cab Tour of Belfast (a must-do for anyone visiting the city). In the interest of giving a fair treatment to both the Protestant and Catholic perspectives on the Troubles, we were accompanied by two guides — one a Protestant, the other a Catholic, who each gave us a tour of one of their community’s neighborhoods. Today’s Belfast is no longer at war with itself, but it’s hard to say that it’s peaceful. We saw murals and monuments, half-built bonfires and giant steel walls. Only the last of these is an instrument of peace; the others are defiant symbols of identity:  belligerent reminders of resentment, loss, and pride.

My younger brother takes his turn as my father watches on.

My younger brother takes his turn as my father watches on.

The vast ‘peace walls’ dividing the city captured my attention in an odd way. These “Berlin Walls of Belfast” divide a number of neighboring Catholic and Protestant sections of the city, and although they were originally a temporary measure to put some distance between the two communities at the height of the Troubles, they continued to grow and metastasize across the city. Even today, huge metal gates close and prevent traffic from crossing from one side into the other without going the long way through the city center. Even today, the government continues to erect and repair these walls to maximize their effect. Even today, residents of Belfast will avoid crossing to the other side unless they have a good reason.

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Two interesting lines here: “We are all victims of our identity” and “Yes Equality”

The cab drivers took us to the wall and explained that it has become a tradition for visitors to leave graffiti messages on it. They gave us a marker and encouraged us to do the same. I wanted desperately to contribute something — to leave my mark there, if you will — and yet I was struck by how incredibly arrogant it must seem for a tourist to come into a place they know little about and preach a message of peace to communities that know the troubles of conflict and peace far better than I do. Who am I, who have never feared for my life or the safety of my friends and family, to tell people, “Really, now, peace is the better way, okay?” Who am I to preach that we’re all one people, when both they and I know that the world is far more complicated than that. I hope things do continue to get better up there, and I’m sure they do too. What they and I mean by “better” is probably very different and that makes it even harder to figure out how to wish them the best. What stake do I even have in the matter compared to them?

My message surrounded by others written over the years.

I ultimately wrote “One World,” which still sounds to me to be a nice but naive sentiment. It felt better than preaching peace, but that doesn’t mean I don’t realize how problematic the statement is itself. I suppose Belfast natives have grown used to people visiting and telling them how to fix their problems, but I never wanted to do that. All I wanted was to say something nice that would be my little contribution to peace. How much more conceited could I have been?

Hallmarks of Heritage… and the Roads to Reunion

This post is part of a series of reflections on my summer in Ireland. These opinions have not been copiously researched, and are primarily my reactions to all that I have seen. They are an outsiders’ perspective, not an expert, and I welcome anyone challenging me to think about a certain situation differently than I’ve written about it here. 

Well, it’s official. As of a few days ago, South Carolina has taken down the controversial flag that for too long has flow over the statehouse. Kudos to all of those who recognized that it was time for it to go.

Even though I’ve been here in Ireland for the last month, I’ve been following the story closely. Actually, I think being here has made me even more attentive to some of the issues at play in  the debate. You see, when the story first broke, I was in a region that, like the American South, makes extensive use of flags to defiantly proclaim heritage:  Northern Ireland.

Now, let me go no further without recognizing that the political divisions in Northern Ireland are very different in nature and in consequence than the racial divisions in the American South. Even still, as we zoomed around the countryside in our 4×4 Mercedes tour van, it was impossible not to think of the purpose of flags in both regions.

In Northern Ireland, although the peace process has been a remarkable success, the Protestant and Catholic communities of the country chose to mark their identities by flying the Union Jack and the Irish tricolor respectively from their houses (or sometimes by flying, well, dozens of them). Although the wounds may be fresher in Northern Ireland, the sentimental appeal to heritage does not seem to be all that different than in the American South. But this post would be rather banal if the extent of my thesis was that flags are emblems of identity. That’s not exactly a novel conclusion.

No, what struck me about the flags in Northern Ireland is that their prominence is diminishing. That’s not to say that people are simply abandoning their identities in the interest of peace, only that they seem to be projecting those identities in less belligerent ways. The tensions between the groups remains acute, especially in areas like Belfast, but our tour guide (from the Republic) repeatedly expressed his surprise to see so few flags, with the number apparently dropping even since he had last been to the North a year before. He warned us at one point to expect a hostile atmosphere in a certain town infamous for its displays. Driving through the town, though, we didn’t see a single one. Our guide expressed relief and shock — driving through parts of the North still unnerves him and many other guides from the Republic, he explained. Little wonder why.

There are still holdouts across Northern Ireland who still feel too threatened to lower their flags, but in many towns, remarkable progress has been seen. Displays like this one in Londonderry/Derry are slowly vanishing as time passes.

There are still holdouts across Northern Ireland who still feel too threatened to lower their flags, but in many towns, remarkable progress has been seen. Displays like this one in Londonderry/Derry are slowly vanishing as time passes.

One of the best parts of the peace process is that it has allowed the tourism industry to make a huge rebound. Accepting that flags not only represent one’s identity but also carry heavy stigmas is an important part of the healing process, and it bears its fruit in the form of a community that represents itself, not as divided and tense, but as peaceful and welcoming to outsiders. In the process, those divisions become less visible. Locals may know those divisions by heart without needing to see the flags, but I have to imagine that the absence of these potentially belligerent emblems can only be good for healing the wounds of the Troubles.

Heritage is important, whether you’re from the North, South, east, west, turnwise, widdershins, or Mars. But there are better ways to demonstrate it than waving a banner that unnerves some people and angers others. No matter where you’re from, there are better ways to define yourself.