In the Skegoneill, the casual city wanderer (of which there are very few in this city, perhaps for fear of mistumbling somewhere improper) could not distinguish the fact this tiny roundabout is home to an Interface community. Not all Interfaces, where two communities come together, are separated by walls looming above, between, around. This community in North Belfast is home to Protestant Unionists east of the roundabout on Skegoneill, and Catholic Republicans west on Glandore.

The community center in this area is unique and encouraging. A brief documentary, Life as an Interface, explains how people from both sides of the Interface have needed to cross the invisible border between the communities. These people have had to come to grips and find solutions for what it means to share common ground. Sean Montgomery was hired a few years ago to be a community organizer. Through the International Fund for Ireland, the community center mustered the funds to hire full time community workers to help their neighborhood. It seems like more areas in Belfast operate on a hair trigger. In West Belfast this very week, violent flare ups have been associated with Interfaces and sectarian youth due to the Queen’s visit. This area is no different.

Going back as recently as 2006-7, there was a community call in the Skegoneill to cut down the constant conflict at the Interface. One community member opened a shop at the roundabout to reclaim the defunct open lot between the two communities. Both sides of the street utilize the shop and buy their free range eggs from the owner’s hens wandering around the Interface. A beautiful suture to reconnect the area.

Sean was entering the predominantly Protestant area as a Republican. People knew this. On his first day tensions were high. But he has an uncanny ability to speak the truth clearly. A man of his word, Sean has been able to take the emotional levels of conflict down a level. But he quickly found the pulse of the conflict and found the tensions in this area to be stemming from a familial conflict over the past few years. Once he knew and the community understood the conflict wasn’t political tensions dialed back.

One initiative Sean led was to take back the bonfire area next to the store on the roundabout. During marching season, enormous bonfires are assembled and lit in vacant lots across Unionist areas. But for the time of the year when no bonfires are lit, this lot was full of broken glass, broken bricks and trash. Sean pushed the community to help clean it and turn it into a space where small music festivals could be held. Success!

They developed a charter for the Skegoneill with a mission statement to facilitate programs in the neighborhoods, but “not to dilute someone’s culture.” There are shared parades for Christmas and Halloween. There has been a push from Sean to make sure there are no overt uses of sectarian or political symbolism for either side in Skegoneill-Glandore. Though last week he was away from the neighborhood and an older lady from the Unionist side hired young boys to put Union Jacks and bunting up around the neighborhood. Goes without saying, she’s not a big Sean fan.

Sean has incorporated a Let Youth Lead program to empower youth in the area addressing non-judgmental approaches to drugs and violence to change anti-social behavior. I love how drug use and violence is termed anti-social. It seems drug abuse and violent behavior are two ways the youth demonstrate their handle on our societies, both here and in Taos. Also, from youth feedback, Sean sees that the best age to work with youth is the 13-14 year olds. The older teenagers are telling Sean these ages are simply looking up to people and aping what they see. If change is to come, it would start with addressing this age group. I can attest. Sometimes our social justice curriculum falls flat with the high school crowd, as it is social suicide to be intelligent.

Sean is a certified youth worker, so most of the Skegoneill’s programs focus on the youth, as stated. He is now helping the North Belfast Youth Practitioners Forum to solidify youth work in across the north of the city. Progress is being made in this tiny area of North Belfast.

The Apocalypse

Kidding, but…here’s what happens when a former IRA man shakes hands with the Queen!

A city in flux, rolling with the punches. A couple posts for you tomorrow.

Belfast, Sort of Gray

Greetings from Belfast. Of course arrival was Sunday night. One night of wandering. Two days of purposeful searching. The city is bustling. Much like the City of Derry, locals have capitalized on the peace from the Good Friday Agreement and tourism is booming. The Crown Bar is a must see for the nightly reveler with its stained glass windows and 19th Century accoutrements. This lies across the street from the Europa Hotel, allegedly the most bombed hotel on the planet. No personal pictures as I just haven’t snapped them yet. Tons of seagulls live in this port city. They congregate after lunch above the buildings and talk about leftovers. Their calls were never so ominous at the beaches along the East Coast. But the brick and mortar monoliths capture their calls and throw them down the streets against the other buildings. One bird’s call can be heard for blocks. Oh yes, I was a Seagull in a former life…

Yesterday I found my way, finally, after much cross Atlantic communication, with the generous people at the Institute for Conflict Research. John Bell sat me down and we discussed the various community organizations that would be of service to my study. He also shared with me his perspectives on the clashes, crises and rebuilding efforts around Belfast society. More to come from his contacts as I have set up meetings for tomorrow and into next week with community organizers and Belfast youth.

Katy Radford, whom I had been in close contact with via email, welcomed me warmly and offered more help. Most interesting is what’s happening next Monday. Along with monumental stepping stones toward reconciliation like the Queen meeting with Martin McGuinness, an ex-IRA man now the First Deputy Minister of Northern Ireland, communities are reshaping their identity. Murals, as Ms. Radford put it, are what Belfast does. One of the most infamous Unionist murals is in Sandy Row, just a few blocks from my hotel. Sadly I did not go see it Sunday night because it is being removed and repainted with a less intimidating image, but still one with pride in their Protestant roots. A portrait of William III, famous from this blog in such topics as the Battle of the Boyne, the Orangemen and the Seige of Derry, will grace this wall. Whereas I wasn’t able to capture the old gunman ominously welcoming you to Sandy Row, I will be able to document the passage of this week with footage from the mural making process. Next Monday I will attend the unveiling ceremony and a brief reception where I will be able to rub elbows with cucumber sandwich wielding muralists and community members. Enjoy the contrast.

This is a small example of communities redefining their identity through murals and public art. This tradition in Northern Ireland goes back to the early 1900s when Loyalist communities shared their imagery on the walls of their areas. William, the Prince of Orange, was their muse. Artists, often from a single family, would retouch the murals each marching season. This outward demonstration of identity was civic duty, recognized and legitimized by the state and the governing party. Republicans had less freedom to fly flags, paint murals or march. Thanks to Bill Rolston’s books on Irish murals for this info. More to come on local murals.

“For too long we’ve looked inward”

I had a pretty strong Republican flare to my Thursday, so Friday had to even out a bit. After my tour of the Bogside and murals, my hosts hooked me up with a private tour from Martin McCrossin, Derry’s unofficially official tour guide. We talked about what was important to me on my final day. He drove me around for about twenty minutes before stopping into Derry’s First Presbyterian Church. Being the gregarious character he is, Martin walked right in and introduced me to Ronald Simpson, a congregation member. I also met, though briefly, Rev. David Lattimore. Rev. Lattimore is the man responsible for bringing in Martin McGuinness to visit the services held in the Church. Mr. McGuinness is a former Provisional IRA man and current First Minister in Northern Ireland. When I say Provisional IRA, I do mean terrorist. Rev. Lattimore was bringing into the church a sworn enemy of the congregation. Mr. Simpson included.

This was a pivotal step for the City of Derry. Reconciliation is happening slowly but surely as is across the North. Note everyone is quick to accept it, but nonetheless people are moving on. Mr. Simpson, by his count, lost 35 friends during the Troubles. The British Army was in Londerderry, by his estimation, to keep the Protestant civilians safe. The IRA used bombings and killings to seize the community into fear while charging the British government to pay for improvements across the community.

But at the core, Mr. Simpson, like much of the citizens in the area acknowledge that everyday people are the same. They were all poor laborers at the time of the Civil Rights push. And had the riots and killings not radicalized the Catholic Republicans, many in the Protestant community would have eventually joined the cause for better jobs, living conditions and access to home ownership. Mr. Simpson explained how the Protestant community was wary of the peace process due to how ravenous the IRA and the Bogside community had seemed in their thirst for destruction. When Martin McGuinness visited two years ago, it felt like a murderer had been let off the hook. According to Mr. Simpson, the peace process had pacified a war zone, but allowed many criminals to walk free with impunity.

Just a door down is the Apprentice Boys’ Hall. This organization preserves the history of the Siege of Derry. The Apprentice Boys closed the city walls and opened them when the Siege was lifted. The organization still preserves the memory of the Siege and the city’s walls themselves. This is a Protestant Unionist organization and their tactics have been perceived as antagonistic by the Catholic Republican population of Derry. Their annual marches in July are times of tense air.

With the help of Martin McCrossin, I was able to walk right in and meet with Billy Moore and his son Stuart Moore. Mr. Moore is the General Secretary of the Apprentice Boys. His leadership has helped open dialogues with members across the community to ensure safety during the marches and clarity on the desire to march. Mr. Moore said the Apprentice Boys are not trying to puff their chests and reignite sectarian violence. They simply wish to share the memory of the Siege of Derry, not the victors or losers. All history is shared. He envisions his organization reaching out to schools and community organizations to explain the mission of the Apprentice Boys. “For too long we’ve looked inward.” Mr. Moore sees the landscape of the City of Derry changing slowly but surely as the community tolerates as it moves toward acceptance with a shared space for celebrations. As he says, “Dialogue corrects misconceptions.”

(Pictured: Billy Moore the General Secretary of the Apprentice Boys, Apprentice Boys Hall, City of Derry’s Peace Bridge

Derry, A City Mending and Remaking

First of all Derry must be one of the most underrated cities in Ireland and the British Isles. Though much recognition has come its way. Designated as the UK’s City of Culture with events such as the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention hosted in this city next year. Just today, across the Peace Bridge, Derry hosted a free concert for 10,000 people in cahoots with the One Day for Peace movement culminating soon. OMG! Jude Law!

Needless to say I didn’t go. I was busy wandering the city, and by dinner I was worked. Should rallied and walked across the bridge but couldn’t imagine standing for another three to five hours. Fireworks from my B&B were good enough, pictured below.

I started off receiving a tour of from the Free Derry Museum. If you click the link you may recognize the song these Irish Catholics were singing. Derry is the birthplace of the Troubles so to speak, but its history in connection to the root problem of British-Irish conflict is not recent. In fact, Derry was the first plantation city in Ireland as the English throne sent settlers to build a fort to combat the Spanish and French forces trying to use the North Atlantic as a strategic route to attack their homeland in the 17th C. The Seige of Derry is remembered as an event in which the Unionisst recall their forefathers The Apprentice Boys withstood the onslaught of Catholic King James II in his assertion to the Divine Right of English Kings. This survival of the 100 day long siege from across the River Foyle is still commemorated to this day on July 12 with the marches that I mentioned in my first post.

The Free Derry Museum exists to commemorate the beginning of the Troubles from 1968-1972. The residents of the Bogside (a huge slum of a Catholic majority where the river used to flow in the days of James and the Apprentice Boys) used the cues and examples from the American Civil Rights push to assert their own human rights. Bogsiders were disenfranchised in the city, had little access to jobs and could not own property. In the slum generations of families were forces to live under one roof and squalor. One set of row homes housed 244 in 50 residences! The local police, The Royal Ulster Constabulary force stopped the marches and violence ensued. From there, the Bogside became the powderkeg of the Troubles. Eventually the British Army was brought in to relieve the tension and the RUC. Use the links to connect the dots if you wish.

Initially the locals thought this was the United Nations army to relieve the tensions, but the dark reality set in and the Troubles amped up. The presence of students from across the North flooded Derry to support in peaceful tactics a la American Civil Rights Activists. The wall commemorating the ideal, You Are Now Entering Free Derry, borrowed the slogan from a Berkeley student proclaiming the same.

Tragically, the Bogside is also home to Bloody Sunday. The brother of my tour guide was killed that day running from the Army. This was meant to be a peaceful march followed by speakers by the Free Derry wall. A few protesters decided to try marching into the forbidden route, shots were fired and each victim was killed from a wound in their back. All were running away. None were armed or dangerous. It took until the last few years for the British government to apologize and acknowledge these were in fact murders and not acts of self defense on behalf of the army. This a moving gesture on behalf of David Cameron. The link is a brief video of the speech with footage from Derry and the community’s response. The Saville Inquiryhealed many wounds.

In a more present sense, the Bogside’s deplorable slums were razed and newer more accommodating housing projects were built. Still the walls above the Bogside remained (they still remain if you notice from my pictures), the IRA set up shop in Derry and the British Army presence in Northern Ireland remained until 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement.

Now from my experiences so far, it seems that people of my parents’ generation and those who survived the Troubles acknowledge that things have changed and progress has been made. But I haven’t been able to crack their perspective as to the bridges across communities divides that I wish to find. The people my age, those who lived through the end but not worst of the Troubles, have a deeper perspective on the nature of education and efforts to remedy and remake the community. For many Bogsiders, the pacification of their community is enough and bridges unnecessary.

I then walked up the hill where the walls of the Fort from the Siege of Derry still exist. Around the corner, exists The Fountain, an intentional housing project to integrate Protestant Unionists into the City side of River Foyle during the seventies. They have provocative murals as well and colorful curbs to mark their territory. The communities cannot feel farther apart. The Bogside below, vast and grided. The Fountain tucked away, clean and close to the walls. I hope you find the pictures interesting.

The murals are obviously much different, but the Bogside Artists have been able to communicate the workings of peace in Northern Ireland. Subtle imagery communicates the peace process. I hope you can see the connections. I know I will be using these images in my classroom. At the Free Derry Museum I purchased a book cataloging murals across Northern Ireland, much of which I’ll see in Belfast next week.

The Verbal Arts Center is close to The Fountain and within the Walls. It is a nonprofit supporting Northern Irish literature and creative pursuits. They have a great library dedicated to Irish publishing houses. I talked to resident artist David Campbell who is a comic book/graphic novel artist. He provided me with some great resources and an example of art curriculum to bridge the youth divide. Celtic and Rangers are Scottish football clubs. You either love them or hate them depending on your religious, political stances. Very intriguing model. I purchased Stories in Conflict and Peace and Reconciliation Worksheets for Facilitators to use directly in my Borders curriculum next semester. Super excited by these.

Finally I stumbled into a community office that I forget the name of. Just dropped in and grabbed a booklet of the Sure What’s the Problem Community Relations Week for May of 2011 in Derry. Impressive curriculum for the entire community to dialogue and create new directions for the bridging divides. Such classes included: A Flag Audit of Households, Ethical and Shared Remembering, Screening Histories of the Conflict, Football for All, and the Launch of a Garden of Reflection to name a few. Impressive community building.

Derry is an unbelievable gem. It is only fitting that I began my research with this city. It is also fitting that I stumbled upon it, gathered steam with a chance encounter on a train to Belfast and culminates sooner than it should. This is a must visit city. Brilliant!

The Angel House has been a welcoming haven for me. Located just above the Bogside, eye level with the Walls if you will, this family has been great with advice, generosity and compassion. Cheers!

Tomorrow I head to Strabane, twenty minutes south. This is a border town that saw its share of the Troubles. No one in this city can imagine why I am headed there instead of staying in Derry. But I am going to connect with the family of Aidan McLaughlin, whom we hosted through Project Children. We have never met his parents. I’ll meet his niece and nehpew tomorrow as well. Greatly excited.

Keep in mind today was really the first true day of my hands on ethnography. I could’ve written another four blog posts about it. Whew. Thanks Fund For Teachers!

The Ride to Derry

Rushed my way out of the hostel by 8:30 this morning before the roommates were awake. Munching a PB&J on the walk to Connelly Station I realized how crushed I have been in these last few days. The jet lag has caught up to me and I entered the train station to buy my ticket to Belfast and Derry. I forgot my debit card at the ticket window, but thankfully I was aware enough to hear my name being called over the loudspeaker. One of the few places on earth where a stranger can look at the name on my card and pronounce it correctly. That was worth a laugh and a complete relief. I would’ve been super bummed had I lost that.

The train to Belfast rides the coast a bit looking east towards the British Isles. Beautiful. Sheep, vales and tiny towns. Wasn’t amazingly green, but apparently Dublin area is the driest part of the island. I was not feeling great from the evening before and a terrible night sleep. I could barely keep my head up on the way. Just before Belfast, I looked at the young man across from me and noticed he had a Che Guevara bracelet. Had to ask! Che’s mother was a Lynch. All the Irish know about Che. We started talking about education in our different corners of the world. We both had equal parts lament and pride, though I was more pessimistic about the American form of educating.

I was ready to deboard, change my Ameros into Pounds and head onto a train for Derry. Thankfully Chris Gaskin, my new buddy, knew that the bus to Derry is quicker and more enjoyable. It was great. I wouldn’t have known how to get through the city in our cab to the bus depot. Before I knew it, we were talking about the Troubles, Irish economics, the outlook for Irish youth and the similarities between our lives. Great conversation. We talked nearly the entire time, before I think we both realized how tired we were. He was on his way to meet his new ladyfriend and I needed to jot some ideas down from our conversation:

Chris is from South Armagh. One of the strongholds for the IRA during the Troubles. A town of 2000 people in a rural mountain valley just on the border. Mostly a Catholic Republican town. He explained how it was safer for the community itself during the Troubles when there were clear boundaries for crime. With the order of the Troubles, and clear cut enemies or philosophies to support, there was a need to support the cause in the community, that is the agenda of the IRA fighting the Unionist Protestants in NI. Crime within the Armagh community was frowned upon.

Ironically, with the arms away and no more political agenda, the area has eroded into a more fractured dangerous community. Granted many operations hatched in South Armagh were some of the bloodiest attacks on the Unionist community in the North. But without the pecking order of the IRA in his community, Chris related that South Armagh is more dangerous to the regular citizen. Keep in mind it is a majority, almost completely, Catholic community.

In general, not just with Chris’ community, the Catholic families have place a strong importance on education. Essentially, in the North, they had to work harder to level the playing field for themselves with the politics controlled by the Protestants. But this need for an education has increased as there isn’t a cause  to plug into and nothing to win from conflict.

Schools are mainly segregated in the north (Catholics/Republicans are likely to call it the North or the six counties while Protestants/Unionists are more likely to refer to it as Northern Ireland). Chris is 27, so he was 13 when the Good Friday Agreement was written. Without the violence of the Troubles combined with a more globalized experience due to the economic boom of the 2000s, Chris points to the Universities as contributing to a less radicalized place. Republican and Unionist fervor subsides, in Chris’ experience, due the sophistication of pursuing degrees. The educated see less sense in sectarianism. Those still passionate about the divides seem more like they have a grudge that can’t be satisfied. He thinks greater society does not want to see their grudges satisfied.

In terms of the religious roots of these issues, cultural identity is directly related to their faith based affiliations with the Church. It seems though less and less youth attend or practice their religion. So as the political divides in the communities have eased, as have the cultural distinctions related to seeing the differences between their faiths. Yet another reason to hate is being lost as the next generation comes of age, I suppose.

Entering Derry on the east side of the community, I noticed a lot of Union Jacks and Northern Irish flags. I asked Chris if flying these colors still incites the fervor and foul taste in the mouth as it once did. He said they are useful. It is nice to know where you are. Chris said he’s going to hook me up with a contact in South Armagh for the week of July 2nd. I hope that works out.

Here are some pictures of the Irish countryside between Belfast and Derry. GREEN!

Pictures of Dublin

I remember a scene in Howl starring James Franco about the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s American epic in the late fifties. He spoke of wandering the streets of NYC from dawn until dusk until he was brought to tears. Partly because of the strain. But after walking Dublin without an agenda and no great desire besides to see the city. I can understand why he would do this for humility and inspiration.

After the light breakfast fare at the hostel of rice cereal and a piece of bread, I headed out with a few goals. St. Stephen’s Green Trinity College and the Book of Kells, Dublin Castle and the Chase Beatty Library. Saw everything I wanted to. The Green was beautiful. Practiced some yoga with children’s voices and birds as soundtrack.

With that clear base for the day, things seemed to get spiritual. The Book of Kells is the illustrated Gospels so to speak. Created in the Dark Ages on Iona, it stands as one of the few artistic legacies from this time in Europe. Housed in an unbelievable Library with a copy of every book in the British Isles at the time the collection was commissioned in the mid 19th C.

Dublin Castleis about a mile away, but it took three hours to get there. Willfully lost, I headed way south on Camden Ave. Walked through some quiet neighborhoods and when I returned to the busier part of town I was famished and discombobulated by the noise and bustle. The Dublin Castle was cool, but a flyby. The highlight of the afternoon was a conversation from Javier from Nicaragua. A student of Princeton we talked about everything imaginable. He’s a student of Literature and I interrupted his reading of Moby Dick. Good man. Lucky to be here for his summer.

The Chase Beatty Library is a collection of this American’s unreal collection of ancient texts. He had the first biography of Rumi written in the 13th C written by his son. There were books of all religions. Remarkable collection. Something I had no idea existed in Dublin. A beautiful hidden gem.