Many of my forebears were Ulstermen and women from Northern Ireland. My great-grandfather, Joseph Ward, was the last of our line born among the hills and Atlantic coastline of Cú Chulainn’s great province. Stories of his piercing brogue, learned from his childhood in County Donegal, came to my mind as the dockworkers lashed us to the harbour in Belfast. Coming ashore did not feel like crossing a threshold; it was a homecoming.
Most of the street graffiti in Belfast is politically charged. A boarded-up café carries the slogan “Acht Gaeilge Anois” where its windows once were, demanding the introduction of the Irish Language Act. Here, with the grandiose City Hall rising ahead in Donegall Square, there is a supposed equanimity; rival republican and unionist neighbourhoods are found outside the central district.
It is in these quarters, however, that bittersweet but familiar sights are found: Falls Road and its murals depicting scenes of solidarity; the beaming smile and scarlet shirt of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) hunger striker Bobby Sands that colours a brick wall. Slightly north, on the Shankill, the opposition is stark; unionist communities are awash with red hands, crowns and memorials to their slain commanders.
The spirit of division lives on in the people, as well. Civil strife does not easily breed or bleed out. As I wandered around a ramshackle, volunteer-run republican museum, a man behind me noted his father’s presence in monochrome footage of a skirmish. On mentioning that I was headed to Derry the following day, on the eve of the Marching Season’s zenith, an elderly shop attendant cautioned me to remain vigilant. It was the same wariness, though magnified, that could be found in my English parents’ generation; but who can criticise the concern of a mother who had seen Manchester and Canary Wharf engulfed in the IRA’s flames? What does it matter that it occurred some twenty years ago? It is unlikely that the warzones of our era will be cut along the same lines two or three decades into the future, but we shall still warn those days’ youth about the danger of which they never knew.
In some regards, the worried words are justified. At a newsagent’s in Derry, I browsed the front pages of the morning’s papers. Bold, capital letters told of a growing scandal in nearby Strabane: a mural depicting two armed paramilitaries had been erected by republican group Saoradh, with the ominous subtitle “Unfinished Business”. As I read this, I stood within a short walk of the stunning Peace Bridge that straddles the River Foyle. But the Bloody Sunday Monument and Free Derry Corner were also close by. Two opposing ideas, one of healing and one of claret-stained remembrance, threatened to strangle each other within those famous walls.
Across Irish culture, there is a sense of struggle. The Republic’s national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann (‘A Soldiers’ Song’), speaks of eliminating by force the safe havens of despots and the concept of slavery. Unionists frequently use the slogan ‘No Surrender!’ Rebel songs mention eight hundred years of resistance. The six counties outside the Republic go by many collective names: Northern Ireland, Tuaisceart Éireann, the North, the Occupied Territories. But whether they might be happy to know it or not, the people there do not lack that Gaelic endurance.
In other countries, such as in Australia, lessons may be learned from Northern Ireland’s scars. Reflections and corrections remain unmade here. Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate and national poet of the North, often etched a striking mixture of cynicism and optimism into his work; it is so influential that it appears to have infected the public ethos. His most celebrated stanza instructs us to note the following:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
But for the future of Northern Ireland, and those who may wish to avoid ethno-cultural divides and foster diplomacy, his final words may be the most appropriate. They balance a parental tenderness with a commanding air — a binding appeal to the people of the Six Counties who, weary of war, must face fresh crises with a stern outlook.
“Noli timere” — Do not be afraid.