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Editor’s note: Chay Reigle was among 13 Bluffton University students who studied in Northern Ireland during fall semester 2013. The junior from Bluffton reflects on his experience here.
In some ways, my time in Northern Ireland wasn’t any different than my life here in Bluffton: I attended class, spent time with friends and churned out essays with crossed fingers and a weary mind. In either place, I slept way too little and ate way too many fried foods. In a broad view, the average day here and there is nearly identical.
But internal violence has traumatized Northern Ireland on a scale our country hasn’t seen since the Civil War. What I saw on the streets of Derry, the city where I lived for more than three months, was a stark contrast to the tranquility of Bluffton: Building-sized murals of slain children, stop signs coated in thick paint of paramilitary propaganda, a bomb threat on the street where I purchased my groceries. All served as tragic reminders that Northern Ireland is not yet at peace.
The conflict of Ireland spans centuries, but perhaps the greatest precursor to violence was the Act of Union in 1800, when England absorbed the island to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Only Anglicans were allowed to join the Irish parliament, despite a Roman Catholic majority.
Fast forwarding to the 1960s, the “Troubles” were underway, a period of conflict marked by intense nationalism and religious head-butting between Catholics and Protestants. The mostly Protestant unionists wanted to remain in allegiance to Britain, while the heavily Catholic nationalists wanted to unite all of Ireland to form an independent nation free of British rule.
Thirteen of us spent a semester analyzing this conflict, which has borne thousands of casualties and led to the rise and fall of many paramilitary organizations. We studied peace theory and conflict transformation and practiced facilitative mediation, which brings disputing parties together to resolve conflict. Each of us spent a month volunteering at a local nonprofit, from mediation firms to arts charities, to catch a glimpse of how locals attempt to mend a nation that so many times has seen peace collapse with the firing of a musket or the shattering of a petrol bomb.
If there’s anything I learned about the Troubles or conflict in general during my semester in Northern Ireland, it’s that conflict there is generational. I spent my final month volunteering full time at the Verbal Arts Centre, an educational charity tasked with encouraging the local arts. I spent that month touring the nation for a play called “Crows on the Wire,” which told the story of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force during its transition into the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001. The subject matter was controversial, to say the least, because the RUC was composed primarily of Protestants.
The play was performed at several high schools in Northern Ireland. Afterward, the students, most of whom attend schools determined by whether they are Protestant or Catholic, completed an evaluation that asked about their religious backgrounds and their perceptions of the RUC and the conflict.
I had the opportunity to read through hundreds of these evaluations, and the responses were encouraging: Most students were not only unfamiliar with the RUC, which dissolved in 2001, but most of them had no clue it ever existed. In the evaluations from a school in nearby Limavady, all but one student explicitly stated they did not know what the RUC was.
They didn’t seem to care about religious matters at all, really. Many Catholic-reared teens expressed their apathy toward prejudice and the conflict; there were little qualms over Catholic vs. Protestant, nationalist vs. unionist. I saw the few Protestant students at a Catholic-dominated school chat gleefully with their Catholic friends. The sense of tension that permeated the air at the public performances wasn’t there with these children.
The conflict, I realized, is a societal construction: The Catholic minority of Northern Ireland felt persecuted and devoid of rights at the hands of Protestants. The Protestants didn’t want to leave England and join with the Republic because then they would be the minority. The struggle for power and equality reaches a boiling point, paramilitaries form, and people begin to die.
The pain and suffering that both sides have endured cannot be disputed. And my reflections do not affect every Protestant, every Catholic, or every unionist or nationalist by any means. But now that I’ve lived in that culture, where bomb scares and propaganda continue to inject the peace with unease, what I hope for Northern Ireland’s future is that troubled parents don’t instill their children with the prejudice and hatred that the Troubles instilled in them. Crimes were committed there in the past five decades that no amount of mediation and healing can undo. But if the emerging generation can learn about the Troubles, reflect on it, and then have lunch with friends from both denominations, both political ideologies, then Northern Ireland may live in peace after all.
There’s a mural down the street from where I lived that I passed on my way to the grocery store. It includes a quote by Bobby Sands, a Catholic hunger striker who died in prison in 1981. The mural portrays several smiling men, including Sands, who died during the Troubles. Surrounding them is a sea-blue chain, its links broken at the top by a dove. The mural reads: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” I pray that we not only hear this laughter throughout Northern Ireland, but that people can see this period of tragedy as a reason to give peace a chance.