When I was a young girl, Ireland was not on my list of “places I could only visit in my wildest dreams” (or in another lifetime). So, when another lifetime arrived, I was not even mildly interested. And who knows why? Maybe it is just not a place that influenced my culture. For some centuries, my people looked to Paris—the literature, the music, the films, and, aside from that brazen Corsican conqueror, the history. Of course, we have forgiven the French after La Grande Armée was soundly defeated by the grander Russian winter.
In the ‘80s, as a Poli Sci college major, Ireland first burst on the scene of my life through a World Politics class. I was so spectacularly ignorant of the land’s history, demographics, and political structure (and, in fairness, the professor was terrible), that it came as a bit of a surprise to me that the island is divided, in every possible way but geographically. In that Dark Decade, The Troubles were someone else’s. Car bombingswere often in the news, the IRA was a terrifying specter of terrorism, and Sinn Féin seemed scarier than the Nazi Party. Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were already dead, and “The Crying Game” was not yet made. In my mind, Ireland was a lawless, scary place, Belfast was Beirut, and no one in their right mind would go there. This is how well they taught us in college—or how well I paid attention: I figured that the entire country was a mess, with Belfast at the center of the steaming rubble. It kind of sort of did not make sense to me that the island was partitioned and Ulster belonged to Great Britain. It still totally does not make any sense—the 18 year old me was right on the money!
Quite obviously, I have no Irish roots. But, many Americans do, and I have a “real American” (as my relatives initially referred to him) spouse. At some point in our European travels, he started lobbying for an Ireland trip. When the previous decade’s Big Birthday was coming up, it was his fervent wish. This is how much I thought of Ireland: we went to Greece. (Don’t feel bad for him, he loved it. Greece is great! And we did eventually make it to Ireland.)
In the spring of last year, I had an opportunity to go to Dublin for work. (Yes, there are occasional flashes of brilliance in this job…) The week following my business trip, “Chess” was starting a very limited engagement with the English National Opera at the London Palladium. Nigel Havers was touring England with “Art”, one of the best modern plays. And the original “Les Miz” was still at the Queen’s Theatre (sadly, no more, as of the date of this writing, replaced by the 25th anniversary abomination). So, Dublin, then London, but I had the weekend in between at my disposal.
In my lifetime, so many “enemies” changed. As scary as the IRA was in the ‘80s and ‘90s (I know the 70s were even scarier, but not on my personal radar), 9/11 changed all that. And then it came to me, for reasons passing understanding—Belfast. I will go to Belfast for a couple of days, just to say I went. It might be a terrible depressing place, but just the fact that The Troubles are over and I have the opportunity to visit—well, never could I imagine such a thing a couple or three decades before. I mean, BELFAST!
Words cannot do it justice. Maybe more accurately, *my* words cannot do it justice, because I am simply not skillful enough in describing how this entirely foreign, previously unknown town of sorrow and rebellion got under my skin and into my heart. I finally not only understood, but felt the history of these people, NOT my people, NOT my religion (on either side, really), yet still deeply moving and traumatic. I sobbed throughout my visit—the walls surrounding the Catholic enclaves, the murals (oh, those murals!) depicting their struggles for self-determination and the right to join their ethnic brothers and sisters in the Republic, the room in the City Hall with quotes from the families of the disappeared and the murdered…
Dublin is like the continental South—joyful, friendly, party town. There are some dark moments there, of course, and memories of the Empire’s oppression are alive and well. But Dublin is a capital of its own country and people. The Republic is still a comparatively new political entity, of course, but these days, it is a fabulous country with a rich heritage, and God bless it!
Belfast is a Northern city, beautiful but sad, the Empire not a distant memory but a giant wing over the skyline, the memories fresh in their defiance despite the recent reconciliation, the specter of the martyrs ever-present, the separation of religions still a reality, the most bombed street in Europe (not in Stalingrad, not in Dresden) eerie in its quiet, the very ground almost unsteady with the winds of unrest of those few recent decades.
And what about the IRA, heroes or villains? Hard for me to say now, after walking through Belfast. The violence is suppressed, but it all just feels unfair, even to this semi-detached outsider. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Can we all just get along”? It hurt my heart to think of what happened in that city and in that lovely land just a short time ago. I left a little bit in love with Belfast, and over the past year, I have been aching to return. It touched me in a way few other places have over the years. It’s almost as if I find its troubled past enticing. It’s almost as if I want to go back and be reassured that it continues to thrive. And, as we say back in the Old Country, what is not a joke to the devil—might we see a United Ireland yet this side of paradise?