Sit back while I tell you a story. It’s not about China or food for once. It’s about something that runs deep within all of us – our sense of identity.
In 1994 I was a civil servant. Part of my job involved working with women’s groups and trying to find ways of tackling the problem of domestic violence against women. I got to know wonderful, strong women in representative and community groups all over the country. Some of them thought it would be good for me to meet with women in the disadvantaged Catholic communities in Belfast. At that time a ceasefire was underway and an unexpected consequence was an increase in violence against women in the communities from which the terrorists came. These women were working with their colleagues in the south to try and identify the root causes of this upsurge in violence and to harness the energies of the women and men in more positive ways.
I spent some time meeting women in the Falls Road and other Catholic areas as they told me of their stories and struggles and the efforts they were making to reach out to women’s groups in Protestant working class areas who were facing similar challenges. This was a courageous strategy at the time. The fragile peace was far from stable and they risked the wrath of their menfolk and the wider community if their efforts to build bridges became known.
Two of the women took me in their car through a network of back streets across the Peace Line to meet women working in community groups on the Shankill Road, women struggling with the same challenges of deprivation and disconnection and the violence that permeated their lives. The Protestant women spoke to me with openness and passion about the problems in their community and the risks they were taking to build common ground. Their fears proved well-founded. One of the groups I met had their premises burnt out a short time later for fraternising with Catholics.
Those women, Protestant and Catholic, were ahead of their time. Long before their men found ways of accommodating one another they were quietly building understanding and empathy and getting to know one another’s hopes and dreams. They are the unsung heroes of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
One thing led to another and through my new friends I met Jackie, a community worker who was trying to establish a men’s group on the Shankill Road to engage the men who found themselves at a loose end as a result of the cessation of violence. Like many an Irish woman who grew up in the south I was struggling to fully understand what the conflict was all about and wondering could the ceasefire hold.
One day he asked me if I was sure I really wanted to get an insight into the men’s thinking. I nodded a cautious assent. He took me high above the Shankill Road to a spot in Glencairn where Ulster Defence Association men gathered. The atmosphere was hostile. I was nervous. They were wary of a woman from the Republic who was most likely a Catholic (and I was unsure which of those three characteristics was the most problematic from their perspective). After an uneasy start they began to open up and talk, really talk… about the importance to them of flags and emblems, about the significance of the first world war in their history and how they felt it was ignored in the south, about their fears about their culture being absorbed in a nationalist Irish State, about their resentment of what they saw as the unfair treatment of the Protestant working class, decimated by the loss of jobs in traditional industries such as ship-building.
When the time came for me to leave, one of them appeared from a back room and placed a gun in my hands. In an attempt at levity he said “here, tell your boss it’s the first instalment of the consignment”. My boss at the time was Dick Spring the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and a leading player in the tentative peace process. I sincerely hope that that gun, with my finger prints on it, has long since been decommissioned along with all the other weapons of that troubled time.
I came down from that eerie spot and fell into the Palace Bar in Belfast to meet friends for a pint, shaken by the experience but with the beginnings of understanding of how far we all had to travel on these islands to build reconciliation. The tinkle of glasses, the lights of the city jolted me back into normality but I never forgot those encounters.
I thought of those women and men the other evening when I sat in the Albert Hall and witnessed Ceiliúradh - Celebration an evening of music, spoken word and dance lovingly curated by Philip King on the occasion of the State Visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins to Britain. I thought of them and a lump welled up in my throat as Amhrán na Bhfiann and God Save the Queen rang out in succession in that august building and, in my minds eye, I saw the Tricolour and the Union Jack hanging proudly side by side on the streets of Windsor. As I listened to the words of writer Joe O’Connor I thought of all those people who have found themselves dislocated or dispossessed be they Irish emigrants in London or natives of Belfast caught, as they saw it, on the wrong side of the divide.
I thought of my great aunts Bella and Sheila who went to London to earn their living in the early 1950s and came back to sepia-coloured Wexford every summer with suitcases of exotic clothes and shoes from shops we could only dream of. I remembered my first trip to London on the mail boat with my Mum and Dad in the early 1960s and the novelty of triangular cartons of milk from dispensing machines in the Underground and seats in the “gods” at the London Palladium. I reflected on my mother and her family’s obvious regard for the royal family and all things British, tuning into ITV Wales and the BBC for preference, while my Dad’s father’s who fought in the War of Independence, spent time in Brixton prison and then fought his fellow countrymen in the Civil War, had photos of Michael Collins on his wall.
I spared a special thought for David Irvine leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, a former Ulster Volunteer Force member who became convinced of the importance of peace. I had flashbacks to an evening I spent with him in The Four Provinces pub in Washington at the time of the White House Economic Conference in May 1995 when he told me his life story and what drove him to want a better Northern Ireland for all. I wished he had lived to witness this evening along side John Major, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
I watched the obvious delight of Princess Michael of Kent at the evenings entertainment and as the members of the Irish Defence Forces Pipe Band and the Band of the Irish Guards rang out “The Minstrel Boy” in unison the hairs stood on the back of my neck. The tears welled up once more when Olivia O’Leary spoke of recognising the small part we Irish and British will always be of one another noting “It’s official, we’re allowed to like the British now” only to return again at the grand finale – the voices of the choir from the Irish Community in London raised as one in “The Parting Glass”.
As we gathered our belongings to leave, the Irish man beside me who has lived in London for twenty years wanted to know where I was from in Ireland, as in exactly where I was from, right down to the parish. Despite his years in London he was Irish to the core but this week he felt as if he truly belonged in his adopted city.
I wonder now about the women I met in the Falls Road and the Shankill and the men I met in Glencairn all those years ago. I hope the intervening years have been good to them.
They can be justly proud of the part they played in bringing about peace and making our Ceiliúradh – our celebration -possible 20 years later. We have travelled so far on a pathway to peace and reconciliation, proud of our separate identities and appreciating what we have in common. Let the journey continue.
“Ar scath a chéile a mhairimíd. The shadow of the past has become the shelter of the present.”
President Michael D. Higgins, April, 2014
You can watch Ceiliúradh – a Celebration on the RTE Player wherever you are in the world at this link.