Travels through Northern Ireland

Author Archive

Derry in a Day

First we visited the Pat Finucane Centre, founded in the 1990s, where we spoke with Maggie O’Connor who is a case worker with the center and has a background in law. The Centre has three offices throughout Northern Ireland, and early in their work were mainly focused on policing – many times looking to see if collusion resulting in death had taken place between the government and the paramilitary groups during the Troubles.

After the conflict, people started coming in saying they wanted more information about the death of a family member, or wanted to correct misinformation that has been circulated in relation to the death of their family member. At the time, there were many volunteers who helped look into the public records and began piecing bits of information together for the families that were looking for more answers.

When looking at the past the centre strives to correct the narrative that the state was a neutral broker, standing between two tribes. States have a responsibility to take a neutral road. One of the most distributing parts about  the track record of collusion that has since been discovered is that as far up as the cabinet in the government knew about it. They considered much of the violence a safe release of loyalist energies. Hindsight is a great pair of glasses, so we know that actions that were considered a safe release really only served to escalate the situation. The centre also sees their efforts as modern ones, because whatever the theater of violence (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) the state has a legal obligation to look at how military forces conduct themselves.

There are still many families in Northern Ireland that are looking for answers, which means the Historical Enquiry Team (HET) at the police service remains very busy. Their commitment is to give a much information as they can to people, and there conversations with people can have a huge healing effect.

We then visited the Bloody Sunday Museum and took a political tour. If you have not seen it already, I highly recommend watching the movie Blood Sunday. After seeing the footage and artifacts the museum had, I can say that the movie does a really good job of capturing many movements of a terrible day. There were also several murals in the city that did the same, such as the one below.

The land where Derry now sits used to be a walled city up on an island surrounded by water. This shallow water was eventually filled in as people began to need the land. The walled city was built by English settlers, and was part of a larger attempt to plant the Protestant British  in Ireland to displace the native Irish Catholics. However, as our tour guide rightly pointed out, even if everyone had been the same religion there would have still been trouble because it was much more about one group of people denying the other their civil rights.

Thus the Civil Rights Movement was a working class thing, not a religious thing. They attempted to get people to see past the religious divide and the conquer tactics that had been employed against them. On the  day of a Civil Rights march the British military shot and killed civilians in a day that would forever be known as Bloody Sunday.

The struggle was not peaceful in Derry, there was a strong paramilitary presence. After Bloody Sunday, IRA recruitment shot through the roof, as people became more committed to violence struggle rather than peaceful protest. The museum even had some of the hand written notes requesting supplies from this paramilitary groups.

The resistance eventually built barricades around a population of close to 18,000 and declared the space Free Derry. This was a space that was policed entirely by the paramilitary groups that manned the check points.

All that remains of Free Derry is this wall, which used to be the end of a row of houses that have since been knocked down in redevelopment processes. But Derry suffered as much as Belfast did during The Troubles, both were places of heavy paramilitary activity and much damage was done.

Also, at the museum we encountered Jude Law. It distracted everyone.


Dublin in a Day

So we tried to see Dublin in a Day – with moderate success. The objective was to reach as many of the points on our scavenger hunt that we could, and my team decided to use the hop-on, hop-off city bus tour to get us from point A to point B the fastest.

We saw the Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship Museum, which is a replica of a ship that took passengers from Ireland to Canada and the United States during the years of the famine. The ship has the honor of never having someone die aboard, which is particularly impressive given the track record of some of the other ships who made the same crossing.  They managed this feat by insisting passengers get fresh air every day, washed their bedding once a week, and by keeping a good doctor aboard. It was a wonderful tour, besides the slightly creepy wax figures meant to represent various passengers that would have been aboard.

We also saw Dublin Castle, Christ Church Cathedral, the General Post Office Building, The Old Parliament Building, the Garden of remembrance, the Wolfe Tone memorial in St. Stephen’s Green, the Daniel O’Connell memorial, and Aras an Uachtarain (the house of the president).

In addition to all of those we saw Kilmainham Gaol.  This is a jail, that though its history held many famous individuals and has deep meaning for Ireland’s political history. It was considered to be a reform prison for much of its existence, meaning the goal was to change law breakers into law-abiding citizens. And while there were some good things that happened as a result of this distinction, efforts to segregate the genders (to protect the women from sexual exploitation), there were also some bad ones. For example, each cell door was equipped with a peep hole so that any time, day or night, prison guards could watch the prisoners to ensure their good behavior. The psychological effect of this constant watch is said to have been significant. The Irish Famine also had a great impact on the prison, causing conditions of over crowding and the spread of disease. The prison records show us one of the many social implications of the famine – prostitution. In the year prior to the start of the famine there were two recorded prostitutes that were imprisoned, in the years following the famine it sometimes got as high as 250. According to our tour guide, in the years during and directly following the famine, Dublin developed a huge red light district with some estimates of over two thousand girls working there.

The city of Dublin is busier than Belfast, and has an entirely different feel. Fortunately, I will be returning to Dublin towards the middle of this month because there were many things that I did not get a chance to see.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)

Chief Commander Andrew Freeburn is a PSNI area commander, working out of the Tennent St. station. North Belfast represents an area with low levels of education and high levels of unemployment. Every July the Orange Order (a Protestant group) marches, and passes through a piece of land about 150 meters long. This land, consisting mostly of storefronts (including Chinese and Indian Restaurants), is deemed to be a Catholic area. Last year on the night following the parade, and the subsequent three nights, there were massive riots with more that 85 police officers injured – some very seriously.

I don’t have access to the compiled footage that Freeburn used to walk us through the events surrounding the police response to these riots, and so I have done my best to link to various videos which contain bits and pieces of footage that were shown to us.

Before the parade even began, the Orange Order would have had to request permission to hold the parade through the Parades Commission. This body is composed of a mix of community leaders, political leaders as well as professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc). They are designed to act as the final approval on parades, taking this decision out of the hands of the police, as it used to be. Once the Parade Commission makes its ruling, then it becomes law. This leaves the police to implement that law. Freeburn sees the parades as a choice of serious risk versus serious risk. You have the Protestants exercising their right to assemble, and the Catholics exercising their right to protest.

Prior to the parade day police have a policy of no surprises. They sit down with community leaders and tell them what the police response will be to various levels of violence. This is done so that if a water cannon is deployed then it does not come unexpectedly.

The day (July 12th) starts with a morning parade that passes with only a few protesters on the side of the road. The parade then passes back through in the evening, by which point a sit-in has begun. With the world media’s watching the police must remove the sit-in Catholic protesters to allow the Protestant parade to continue on the path approved by the Parades Commission. I like the video below for several reasons, the first being that you can see, as Freeburn called it, the “graduated and flexible response” of the police. They issue three verbal warnings for the protesters to disperse, then attempt to arrest one individuals but when they resist the police back away… gradually using more force to arrest the protesters. The second reason I like this video is you can really see the intrusiveness of the world’s media, there to capture cable-TV news gold but showing little respect for the efforts of the police to de-escalate the situation.

This next video illustrates a few points. The sad fact is that a lot of the youth you see rioting don’t feel that they have a future, and they don’t care if they have a criminal record. They don’t see themselves as ever getting a job. Around 1:30 the footages changes to helicopter footage taken by a PSNI helicopter. Until about 3:50 you see the PSNI’s attempt to hold the line. This line has been place there to allow for the gradual response depicted in the first video. Around 3:30 you see particularly violent attempts by the rioters to ramp a metal pole into the line. When Freeburn described the actions by police to hold the line as ‘heroic’, I think it was an understatement. To physically put yourself in between two groups of people who are determined to do violence against each other is impressive.

During the last portion of the video you see a police land rover get immobilized after its tires are slashed. You see the rioters attempt to turn the jeep over, while surrounding jeeps try and keep rioters away from the immobilized jeep. Freeburn remembers hearing over the radio the pleas of the officers inside the vehicle asking for backup. After several minutes they request permission to use plastic bullets. They are told, “Yes. Save your life.” It is a sad situation, the aggressiveness of the rioters towards the police seems unfathomable. Although not seen in this footage, another jeep manages to get in front of the immobilized vehicle and physically push it back to safety.

The riots didn’t end by police efforts. They ended on the 5th night when the community held a mass vigil on the very spot where the riots had been taking place.

To say that these riots define this community is utterly false. It is a peaceful place 360 days of the year. The police have year-long efforts to attempted to de-escalate the situation around the parades, including youth programs that create opportunities and look for leaders within the youth that can then be used to inspire others to want to better themselves.

Freeburn was then gracious enough to take our questions. Both the questions and answers are my best attempt to paraphrase what was said.

What is the role of alcohol in these riots? It was only adults in the sit down protest, and those actions inspire the youths who rioted for the next four nights. And yes, alcohol and illegal substances do play a role. That is why the police try and do outreach through out the year.

If you have a background in one of these communities, how do you table that within the police? Previously the police force was primarily Protestant, and then they began 50/50 recruitment. You overcome any basis through training and through briefings. I don’t think emotions come into play. We have Polish officers, Chinese officers, Protestants, Catholics. The golden thread is to protect people’s rights.

What needs to happen to change this yearly cycle of riots? There are three to four hundred parades a year, with only two or three that are contentious. Before the parades the communities often negotiate, offering concessions in order to make them peaceful. Those sometimes break down. I want to see this contested space become a shared space. The contested space is only 150 meters. The police can play a part in that process, which is bigger than just policing. There needs to be a great understanding from both sides, and more mature conversations.

How do you keep your police force modern? It all comes back to the day-to-day policing and there has been a change in how policing is delivered. The fact that members of the community call us to take care of a problem, and that the police can deliver – that is good. But then you get something like the Rosemary Nelson report and we are pulled back into the past. The question is, how do you deal with the past? This is a question that is asked all over Northern Ireland. You need to strike a balance. The PSNI tries to move on and change. We also have a zero tolerance policy for sectarian, racist or homophobic comments or actions. There is literally a book of words we are not allowed to say.

What is the most challenging part of this? The riots because it is not indicative of what happens 360 days of the year, but they are dangerous and hugely frustrating. It is hard to go back to the community a couple days later, after the parades have happened. Sometimes it is about realizing it is all baby steps, with a couple forward and several back. But the direction of travel is forward. Last year I went into a community center after the parades and took very hard criticism. I then went to take with a parish priest, full of doubt and he said I was looking at it wrong. Ten years ago, the police would never have been allowed into the center to have a conversation. There has been progress.

The Election of the Lord Mayor

On Thursday (May 26th) the Belfast City Council elected its new Lord Mayor. The chamber is set-up such that on each half of the room sits parties that generally agree with each other, meaning they are very often physically facing off against one another. The session began with a representative from each party articulating the successes of the outgoing Lord Mayor, what a joy he was to work with, the strength of this character and the fairness he demonstrated as Lord Mayor. The debate then moved to the election of a new Lord Mayor, to serve (as best as I could tell) as a moderator for the debate within the City Council and its external representative. The outgoing Lord Mayor called for any nominations, and one was put forth and the room was silent. Then a point of order was called.

Apparently on Tuesday the City Council had meet to determine the voting process for the new Lord Mayor, and had decided to go with the d’hondt system – meaning that votes were allocated based on the number of people represented by a given party. While this voting method had been agreed upon on Tuesday, the point of order held that the decision had yet to be ratified.

According to the SDLP (a political party) representative sitting in front of us, ‘they always use the rules to delay debate’. This is not an uncommon tactic in political debates from student groups to governments, and the associated frustrations are not unique either. And, as is the case with most stalling tactics, there is an underlying grievance. In this case, the Unionists did not want votes to be allocated by political party, but rather by political bloc. This is because there are many smaller Unionist parts that make up a larger bloc, and so more power was to be had when voting was allocated by bloc.

The outgoing Lord Mayor asked again for any other nominations and none were made. So it became clear that whatever objections the Unionists (more precisely, the DUP) where not significant enough to reverse the decision the council had made on Tuesday night.

And so the incoming Lord Mayor, Niall Ó’Donnghaile of Sinn Fein, was elected. At only 25 years old he is the youngest mayor to ever serve the city of Belfast, and he is only on his first term as a city councilmen. He spoke with confidence during his acceptance speech and said as a relatively young mayor he wanted to reach out to youth to show they to have a role in society. He also spoke about the increasing role of minorities and the need to include them in society – promoting Sinn Fein’s equality platform.

Then came the election of the Deputy Lord Mayor, again with only one nomination put forth. Ruth Patterson was elected, which caused a significant amount of murmuring as Patterson carries a reputation of being a hard-line Unionist (someone in favor of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK). During her acceptance speech she said she believed, “Belfast is the best city in the United Kingdom.” She spoke of continuing development, and she spoke without ever looking at the incoming Lord Mayor who sat next to her – it was a very clear snub.

The incoming Lord Mayor, who during her speech made no indication he noticed the snub,  said thank you. And he said it in Irish-Gaelic – which promoted an eye-roll from the newly elected Deputy. Unfortunately, it would seem that neither have the easiest of work relationships ahead of them.

But the show was not over. An elderly councilman stood and expressed his concern that such a young Lord Mayor might not have the experience needed for such an important role, to which a member of Sinn Fein stood up and replied, “It didn’t stop Barack Obama.” This prompted laughter from only one side of the room.

After the elections we got the opportunity to speak with Guy Spence, a newly elected DUP councilman and only 19 years old. Right off the bat he confirmed that he is indeed, “the baby” in the room. When he found out we were from Boston, he excited told us he had a great-great-grandmother from Boston. Spence was hugely optimistic about the future, and about the potential for development in his district. He said he sensed a change in his neighborhood’s approach to politics. During his campaign he was very frequently asked, “What are you going to do for me?” Despite having been out on several campaigns before, he had never heard that questions being asked – which he hope was a sign that people were finally ready to seek change through their representatives.

Giant’s Causeway Tour

This tour was designed to get us up to Giant’s Causeway (pictured above), but it turned out to be a wonderful journey along the northern coast.

Our first stop was Carrickfergus Castle – where William the Orange is said to have landed.

We then traveled along the Coastal Road, a long coastal road that has some spectacular views. It was envisioned by William Bald, and in many places the road was built by simply blasting the sides of cliffs, creating dramatic drops down to the road and then down to the sea. It also passes through several Gleann, the Gaelic word for  valley – many of which are glacial valleys formed at the end of the Last Ice Age.

Along this coastal road we saw several salmon farms, fairly close to the shore. Our tour guide told us that a couple years ago, one of the salmon farms was ‘attacked’ by a swarm of jellyfish typically native to Portugal. They destroyed the fish farm, and it took the farm several years to recover from the loss.

Our next stop was Giant’s Causeway – a massive series of basalt columns formed as the result of a massive volcanic eruption approximately 60 million years ago. It is a World Heritage Site – and very deservingly so. Legend says that the Irish giant Finn MacCool wished to challenge a Scottish counterpart, Benandonner, and so he built a causeway connecting the two islands. But when Finn MacCool saw how big Benandonner was he realized he made a mistake and ran back to his wife. Now his wife being very clever dressed Finn MacCool up in baby clothes and told him to wait on the causeway. When Benandonner crossed he saw the ‘infant’ and realized he made a mistake for if that was the size of the baby – imagine how big the father would be! And so Benandonner ran back across the causeway, tearing it up behind him.

In reality these basalt columns formed from a relatively fast cool lava flow. As lava cools it shrinks, which is easy to accommodate in the vertical direction but less so in the horizontal direction and so a series of fractures form – and depending on the rate of cooling the columns will be different sizes. And while there are examples around the world, these are perhaps the most famous – they are said to be the most geometrical, giving them the most “man-made” appearance.

Our next stop was Dunluce Castle. At that location there has been a castle since the 13th century, the last owners where the MacDonnell clan who alternated the decorations of the castle between English and Irish depending on how favored by were by the various royal families. They moved away from the castle after a great coastal storm wiped out the kitchen, killing 12 servants.

Our final stop was the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which was once a bridge used to fish salmon. But as Atlantic salmon populations declined it was no longer profitable, so the fisherman abandoned the operation but the rope bridge remains. It is fairly narrow, but with tons of wiring and a reported 2 million people crossing each year – not as scary as I thought it would be. The rope bridge is surrounded by impressive coastline, with towering cliffs.

US Consulate in Belfast

Today we visited the US Consulate in Belfast. 

It was an interesting visit, and we got a really interesting perspective from the Consular-General herself, Kamala S. Lakhdhir, who was gracious enough to sit with us for over ninety minutes as we asked questions, both historical and current, regarding Northern Ireland.

The consulate is located in building that used to be the family mansion of Samuel Barber. Before the site was home to a mansion  (a long time before) there was a Viking fort, due mainly to the site being located a top a relatively high hill. The Consulate moved to the building around 2005 for reasons I will mention further on.

The History between Northern Ireland and the United States

The Consulate in Belfast reports to London (as it is under the United Kingdom branch of operations) but must also maintain a relationship with ‘the South’. The United States has had consular presence in Northern Ireland since 1796. There is some debate over whether it was the first US consulate, the other contender being Casablanca (US presence there was surrounding the negotiations for the release of US sailors from Barbary pirates). In Northern Ireland, the first Consular was General was James Holmes, and this began what would be the start of a long history between Northern Ireland and the US.

During the US Civil War there were two significant things that happened, in the context of Belfast. The first was that Belfast ship makers were approached by the Confederates who were looking to build faster ships to overcome the Northern blockade. The second was that as a result of the Civil War, cotton was not entering the international market which allowed linen trade to flourish. Both of these benefited Belfast, bringing a boom in industry to the city.

According to Lakhdhir, generals on both side of the Civil War were from Northern Ireland and our first constitutional amendment (separation of church and state) was most heavily supported by those who had come from Northern Ireland, and who had experienced first hand the danger of having a state religion (largely, concerns with the associated discrimination).

The relationship continued through WWII, when Northern Ireland was used as a final place of training for US military personnel before they were set further West. The city of Derry was a US Navy port, and the relationship was ‘immeasurable strengthened through wartime cooperation.’

Continuing further the US was a facilitator of the peace process that lead up to the Good Friday Agreement, the key players there being President Clinton and Sen. Mitchell. In the sprite of honesty, it was also mentioned that some within the Irish-American community were actively engaged in fundraising for the IRA during this time.

After the Good Friday Agreements

The Good Friday Agreements came to be through the efforts of many people, but special mention was given to Tony Blair, Berty Ahearn and Bill Clinton. The agreement was only the start of a vision, which continues to be shaped today.

It was followed by the 2006 St. Andrew’s Agreement, shortly after which a government was formed that contained two former rivals (Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness – nicknamed in the press as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’). This in itself was an extraordinary feat. You had a self-proclaimed former member of the IRA (McGuinness) working with a very influential Protestant leader (Paisley). It was not an outcome that anyone could have predicted in the decade prior and so there can be no doubt that progress is being made.

However, there are still pressures at play that can not be ignored. 77% of the GDP of Northern Ireland is sourced back the the UK government, meaning that employment is being driven by British government spending. This is a huge imbalance between the public and private sectors, and an area of concern for long term sustainability. Without employment for youth, then you are not guaranteeing peace.

Thus come the Three Pillars of US activity in Northern Ireland:

  1. support a stable and independent government,
  2. promote a shared and pluralist society, and
  3. help to develop a strong and entrepreneurial economy.

One  interesting aspect of the discussion was ways that deep-rooted sectarian thinking can be overcome, which lead to a thought that perhaps politicians in this area may not be keen to give this up. Currently, politicians get elected based on community lines – so how much political will is there to change this? (I personally elect not to take such a pessimistic approach.) One community leader in Northern Ireland went so far as to call the extent of the separation a kind of ‘sectarian apartheid’.

Research done out of Queen’s University provided evidence that children as young as three have picked up on this sectarian separation.

So what does this separation mean? In the context of a some future referendum determining Northern Ireland’s place between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, it is not clear. Assuming people are voting along sectarian lines, there are changes happening that make predicting the outcome of such a vote difficult. Catholic birth rates are dropping, although the still remain higher than Protestant birth rates. And 50% of young people are attending some form of higher education, of those the majority of Protestant students go ‘abroad’ to Scotland and England but then don’t come back. It is unclear what this changing demographic will mean.

But assume it is not a sectarian decision, which it very well could be if the religiosity of Northern Ireland continues to decline (not that this was ever about religion), and the communities continue to come together through a variety of successful projects. It can be seen as an economic decision (are the benefits I get from the UK better than those I would get from Ireland? Do I want my business to be operating in GBP or in Euros?) or it can be seen as a highly personal decision (Am I Irish? Am I British? Am I both?). Again, the outcome is uncertain at best.

One of the sustained struggles in the context of sectarianism is stopping the recruitment of young people into groups who promote that mode of thinking. Essentially, stopping the twelve year old from thinking that the actions of the IRA in the 1970s were heroic. Lakhdhir said that what scares her the most is not the 45 year old getting arrested for sectarian violence, but the 17 year old getting arrested. If you 17 now, then you were only 4 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed – meaning that since then someone convinced you that this was something worth fighting for. What did they tell you? And how can we convince you that they were wrong? How do we tell you that violence is not the answer to your concerns?

But the situation is not without hope. Constable Ronan Kerr (a young Catholic police officer killed by ‘dissident republicans’ for ‘betraying’ his religion and joining up with ‘British forces’, aka the police) was killed through an act of sectarian violence, and during the aftermath of that tragic event a very clear message was sent. His mother gave speeches encouraging other young Catholics to join the police and promote peace. Martin McGuinness attended Kerr’s funeral, making if the first funeral of a police officer the former IRA leader had ever attended. Tom Elliot, a Protestant, attended – making it the first Catholic Mass the former paramilitary man had ever attended.  Representatives from main branches of Christianity were in attendance, praying side by side. Mickey Hart (highly respected coach within the GAA) attended, carrying the coffin and passing it on to the police. [The symbology of that is complex, but essentially the GAA is a Gaelic, Catholic sports league that can be associated with Nationalist tendencies, so to be seen ‘cooperating’ with the policy is huge. It is similar reasoning that made The Queen visiting their arena so meaningful this past week – in addition to the deaths that once occurred there.]

Some interesting notes about the impact of 9/11

There were two things that we spoke about that touched on the impact of 9/11 to the region. The first is why the US Consulate is located in its current building. After 2001, US Consulates/Embassies were not allowed to share building space with others in an effort to protect the other people in the building from any attacks directed at the US. This had never occurred to me before, and I thought it was interesting.

The second thing regarded a conversation between Richard Hass (then consular-general in Belfast) and Gerry Adams (president of Sinn Fein, a political party with close historical ties to the IRA) on 9/11/2001. The paramilitary groups were still going back and forth about the process of decommissioning their weapons stock. Hass was in Dublin when he heard the news and was unable to fly back to Belfast. During his conversation with Adams he said that never again will terrorism have support from the United States or its people. He pressed Adams to think about the decisions he made, because the world had changed and Adam’s decisions now need to be defined in the context of 9/11.


Our group has been doing internships at various organizations throughout the city of Belfast, and many of us had heard concerns that funding was slowly being cut as the ‘problem in Northern Ireland was solved’. This was the last thing we asked the Consular-General about, and we got an answer that we did not expect.

She conveyed to us the possibility that this may be a good thing. As it stands there are many, many community groups. While many try and work across sectarian lines, they tend to do so only in their immediate community. Cuts in funding would force those that wish to survive to walk across the street and see how they can work together to keep the spirit of their programs alive. There is no longer enough funding to support every small program, and so only those programs that coordinate and become more effective will survive. This applies to schools as well, there are many, many schools. Some have facilities that they do not have teachers for, while others have teachers they do not have the facilities for. Schools who previously considered themselves separate may have to come together, in a truely cross-community way to maintain the standard of education they wish to provide.

While, I am not sure I agree with all of what was said, it certainly gave the group quite a bit to think about.

Glencolmcille – Drums & Language


This weekend our group visited the village of Glencolmcille in County Donegal located in the Republic of Ireland. Located along the coast, the village is surrounded by a dramatic landscape and tons of history.

The main business of the town is employment at a fish factory three miles away. The factory processes mainly shellfish caught in Britain, which is then exported to continental Europe. Within the town there are many farms that raise lamb that will eventually go to market as organic lambs.

Throughout Ireland the main industry is dairy farming, due to the major concessions given to Ireland by the EEC. However, as our guide Patty pointed out, this came at the cost of the fishing  industry. Irish fishing vessels have lower quotas than other vessels in the EEC which are allowed to fish in Irish waters, our guide specifically named Spain and the Netherlands as examples.

He also said that prior to these concessions the fish factory processed mainly mackerel, but now they Irish fishing fleet is docked most of the year and the factory processes shellfish.

Hike to the Watchtower

This watchtower was built in the 19th century when a French invasion, lead by Napoleon, was expected. From the top of each tower two others, one to the left and one to the right, can be seen. They were made to serve as an early warning system.

The watchtower sits atop Glen Head (769ft), and our group hiked all the way up, through swampy ground and rain – but the view from the top was spectacular.

Learning to Play the Drums

 We were taught to play traditional Irish drums by Patty Donahue, not to be confused with our tour guide Patty. Donahue also plays the guitar and sings in local pubs when he can. He used to be in a band that toured throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. While I don’t think that I really got the hang of playing the drums the conversation with our instructor after the class was over was fascinating. I embedded one of his favorite songs below, and I highly recommend listening to it.

Waltzing My Matilda

Donahue grew up in Belfast, and had an interesting connection to The Troubles. His father had volunteered in the 1916 battle, and is brother was a member of the IRA. Donahue saw this violence around him and thought it was ‘stupid’, but he knew there were problems. He remembers Protestant families getting seven votes to his family’s three votes in any election. He remembers not being able to get a job because of his very typically Irish-Catholic name, and being frustrated with the problems that this presented.

However, he also stressed that violence was not the answer to any conflict. He asked us to imagine the history of the Earth, all the billions of years of history, lined up against a wall. Then add the tiniest pin prick at the very end, and you get the amount of time our species has been on this planet. Then think about how long each individual life lasts compared to the whole history of Earth. Donahue then asked us, why would you want to fight with the little time you have here?

He emphasized that what happens in the past is in the past, and we should be much more concerned about the present.

We also asked him about how we felt about the Queen visiting. Donahue was quick to say that the Queen was just a women doing a job, and while some stupid things might be said, he did not feel it would change things one way or the other. He also recounted a time when he accidentally met Prince Charles while fishing, and Donahue, not realizing who he was speaking to, had only commented that there seem to be no fish for the catching. Prince Charles then suggested coming back the next day, but Donahue replied he didn’t think he would be able to make it – a perfectly normal and unassuming conversation, emphasizing Donahue’s original feelings about the royal family simply being people doing a job.

Learning to Speak Gaelic

We also got an Gaelic language lesson during this trip. Our instructor, Josephine, grew up in Northern Ireland.

For the first hour of our lesson we learned a little bit about the history of the Irish-Gaelic language. Because the language is over 4,000 years old our discussion about the history of was brief. In the context of our studies of Belfast and Northern Ireland, I think it is meaningful to mention that Glemcolmcille is located in what is know as a Gaeltacht, meaning an area where Gaelic has been spoken unbroken for generations. In the study of the Gaelic language, the Gaeltacht quarter of Belfast is joking called the ‘Jail-tacht’ because many people who speak Gaelic in Belfast learnt the language while in prison for their political beliefs. They learned Gaelic as a confirmation of their identity, and because they wanted to do something for their country – bringing to mind the Irish harps and other traditional crafts we saw on display during our tour of the Republican neighborhood.

Josephine remembers taking great pride in learning Gaelic through Secondary School as it grounded her sense of identity which she did not feel was confirmed anywhere else. Josephine identifies as Irish, and yet while growing up in Northern Ireland, she remembers everything around her being British.

Of course, now in Belfast there are Gailtacht schools were all instruction is given in Gaelic and this, says Josephine, is a wonderful thing because it allows more people to learn Irish and to learn more about their Irish identities.

Gaelic is listed as the first official language of Ireland, but the more commonly used language is English. This growing gap between those that speak Gealic and those that do not is wonderfully illustrated in this short film recommended by Josephine called ‘Yu Ming in ainm dom’ (My name is Yu Ming). It tells the story of a young Chinese boy who learns Gaelic to visit Ireland but then doesn’t find it very useful.