January 29th, 2015
Tried to go for a run this morning before breakfast, but it was pitch black outside and the house is really creepy when you are the only one awake. We do have a two hour break later this afternoon, so I’ll go running then. Almost everyone here has some sort of flu/wicked cough and I have been dubbed ‘mom’ for the week because I have all the medicine and first aid kits for any and every illness (thank you, real Mom!! You have saved us all!!).
Today was all lectures – we learned about the Troubles and it was an absolutely amazing experience. When we heard that there was going to be a “lecture day”, we weren’t really looking forward to it. However, out of all the activities we did at the Inch House and around Northern Ireland, the lecture day was my favorite by far. We heard from three different people about their experiences of the Troubles while growing up in Northern Ireland – Tony (the owner of the Inch House, his Catholic perspective), John Guthrey (good friend of Tony’s, his Protestant perspective), and John McCourt (who was part of the IRA when he was 17).
Tony gave us some background history to how the Troubles began, discussing conflict between the English and Irish dating back to the 9 Years War in 1594 and Henry VIII. We had already been learning about the Troubles in history class, but it was hard to truly grasp the whole picture because of how little we really knew about it. Tony discussed the Plantation of Ulster, the Penal Laws (forbidding the practice of Catholicism, stopping Catholics from gaining wealth), the great potato famine and how it all linked to the underlying tension that eventually built up to the Troubles.
For Tony’s perspective, he focused a lot on how the Troubles have influenced children and the generations to come. What are the origins of hatred? Can children who grew up in the conflict change their perspective as adults? For example, he told a story of an IRA activist that was shot in front of his children. Later on, one of the children has married Tony’s niece. Tony asked “are children’s behavior affected today by the events that have happened in the past? How do you cope with seeing your father shot in front of your eyes as a young child? How do you move forward when the Troubles have directly affected your bloodline?” There was a silence, we were overwhelmed and shocked by his story. Tony continued, “this is what I do here. I educate people about the conflict here so that they may be able to gain a new perspective and build a strong, united community. Conflict resolution. That is my platform.”
We were given a short break and then went back into the room for a lecture by John Guthrey, the Protestant perspective. John was born in the 1960s and grew up in an Irish Catholic community. He talked about how as a young kid he always ran around and played with the Irish boys in the neighborhood – it was acceptable and normal to him. However, the months of July and August were “marching season” and it wasn’t acceptable in the Protestant community to be associated with the Irish in any way. Tensions were particularly high between both communities during these months, but John recalls that as a young kid he wasn’t really aware of why that was so. When the Troubles officially began, John remembers that he was confused that he wasn’t allowed to play with his Irish friends. In the Protestant communities, he was taught that if Catholics were given power, they would try to induct you into the Church. And if you didn’t convert, they would kill you. He was also taught that Catholics couldn’t be trusted, and that they had horns under their hats and tails. John asked us “how do you teach a 10 year old to understand that Catholics are bad?” His answer: constant reinforcement via the government, teachers, politicians, and parents. Catholic children were also told by their communities the same thing about Protestants, which developed a hatred and instilled fear on both sides.
John’s story is truly remarkable. He discussed how in 1976 he went to work in the Derry shirt industry, and that he worked side by side with Catholic women. He was able to socialize and interact with these women and realized for himself that there was no identifying Catholic mark on the women, and that they were no different from him. John and the women were both just trying to make things better for their families. Inspired, John went on to create community healing programs that would help break the tension between communities and begin a healing process. John became a mediator for both Irish and Protestant communities – helping towns and villages build new foundations for education, funding, and cross community events.
He then gave some background history of the conflicts in the 90s, how radical subgroups from both sides were attacking innocent civilians in hopes the war would flare back up again. John looked up at us. “I’m going to tell you one thing about myself,” he said, “it takes a long time to gain my trust. But once you gain my trust, I will die for you.” There was a silence. He took a deep breath and said, “I’m going to read you something now.”
He read an article about an attack that happened at The Grey Steel Bar on October 31st, 1993. Four Loyalists from the Ulster Freedom Fighters (radical Loyalists) walked into the crowded bar, said “trick or treat”, then opened fire. As John continued reading about the horrific and graphic deaths, we sat in a stunned silence, and John began to cry as he read the description of a woman’s body they had found in the destruction. “I knew her,” John said, “I knew her.” He sat with his head in his hands for a while, then looked up and said, “That night, October 31st, 1993, 3 hours after the attack, I was arrested and charged for 9 murders. The police held me for 72 hours, I was forbidden to eat, use the bathroom, and I was forced into painful positions that I had to hold for hours. My human rights were taken away. The police told me ‘confess now because we are going to beat it out of you anyway’. And I thought ‘maybe the Catholics were right. Why am I voting for this Union if they treat their own citizens like this.”
He looked up at us again. “I didn’t do it,” he said, “I sold my car that morning to a friend and the ownership was never changed. That car was used as a getaway car for the attackers. I later learned that someone in my own Protestant community, a dear friend of mine, set me up because he didn’t agree with my efforts in collaborating with Irish communities. My own friend, my own community, set me up. Like I said. It takes a lot to gain my trust. But once you do, I will die for you.”
We sat in a stunned silence. Here I was, a twenty-two year old from Michigan, not a worry in the world, staring at a man who is still deeply affected by the events of the Troubles, staring at a man who holds a book that gives details of the murders of his friends and family, staring at a man who broke away from what was ingrained into him as a child and is making a difference for positive change.
He looked up again. “I am a Unionist,” he said, “but I believe in a different union. I believe in the union of Ireland. Ireland needs to be unified. I am still a Loyalist, but I am only loyal to those who are loyal to me. Ireland once again will be a nation. What is the solution? How do we get there? Education. If you take the religion out of politics, take the politics out of religion, and take both out of education – a unified education system means there can be a unified Ireland.”
We were released for lunch and a few hours break (soup and sandwiches!!) and everybody was still a bit shocked and overwhelmed by the lectures. I was in awe of Tony and John – here they were, two great friends, a Protestant and a Catholic, coming together to educate and unite Ireland. It was truly amazing. I went for a four mile run along the coast and accidentally ended up going six miles because I got lost and couldn’t find the house (we had arrived in the dark the night before, so this was all new). The island is absolutely stunning and I ran to the edge of a pier and was able to look out across the ocean and see the towns and mountains on the other side. And I got caught in a hailstorm only briefly for a few minutes (this has become a normal occurrence)!
I then headed back to the Inch House for our last lecture by John McCourt, an IRA activist. His nickname “Big John” was understood immediately as he had to duck under the doorway because of his height. John sat down and said “You can’t understand peace until you understand war. And believe me, I’ve seen it all and none of it needed to happen.” He talked about his current work in the DDR Program (Demobilization and Disarmament), where he works with various conflict and war ridden countries and communities on finding a different life path than violence and guns. He works at “creating a conversation that finds the solution.”
John was a student in Derry when the civil rights marches began. He recalls having classes with Protestant students (“they weren’t trying to steal my soul, which is what the Catholic Church was teaching.”) and wasn’t really involved or affected by the tension between the two communities. He remembers seeing a flyer in his college about a protest speech, so he decided to attend even though he wasn’t very interested and thought that the conflict didn’t affect him. The speech that was given discussed “the imbalance of local corporations” – how it was up to the corporations to build homes, budget loans, maintenance, etc, and how the Protestant council had the majority vote. In those days, if you had a house, you were allowed to vote, so the Protestant council stopped building homes for the Irish so they could keep the Protestant majority and not allow the Irish to vote. As a young 17-year-old, John realized quickly that the conflict does actually affect him and his future.
John told a story about how when he was a young boy, his father was in the hospital injured from war and his mother was also in the hospital because she was going into labor. Since there were no parents to watch over John and his younger brother, he was placed in a boys home for temporary care. However, temporary care became a span of 10 years. While his parents were in the hospital, they were kicked out of their own home and were not allowed back because that would have meant an Irish vote.
John lived in a 100% Unionist police force in a 100% Catholic community. He would fight alongside other citizens against the police brutality by building trenches and making barriers around communities that stopped police from entering. They had hoped that the British government would see that this was wrong and something needed to be done, but the government kept sending more police and Irish citizens continued to retaliate. John was actively engaged in the IRA at the age of 17 – digging trenches and making bombs (“I had a certain skill set that would frighten the police.”).
“I don’t regret my life path,” John said, “I did what I needed to do. But I soon realized that there needed to be a different solution. I watched my friends die in front of my eyes. Young boys, fathers, sons. There needed to be another way to end this conflict.” In the 70s, John started working for the Peace and Reconciliation Group, which helped rebuild homes that were destroyed and help families find peace and healing. Communities were worse than when they had started – there was no education, no community structure, no homes – and the Catholics and Protestants were more polarized than ever. Similar to John Guthrey’s work, John (McCourt) helped rebuild communities and foster relationships between both sides. “I look at it this way,” John said, “you can make your life to be stepping-stones or stumbling stones, and I want to make mine stepping-stones.”
It was an overwhelming day. But I think I speak for all of us when I say we have gained a much better idea of the conflict in the North. For me, it was truly inspiring to see these three men come together and put aside their differences to make stepping-stones closer to a united Ireland.