Friday, September 26, 2014

My Long Journey to Ireland

I disliked history classes at my high school in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

The focus on studying for examinations did not fit my learning style. The teaching style often reflected the teacher's lack of interest in teaching.

To be fair, I did not then have the life experiences to sufficiently understand the nuances of how the world works.

Then, one day my ears pricked up when I heard the teacher talking about exploding mail boxes and post offices.

We had reached the Ireland of 1916. Domestic terrorism seemed so improbable.

Heading for the Hills

Around that time, my backpacking days began.

My brother and I headed to Wales to conquer Mount Snowdon. An old lady overtook us on the way up.

After that adventure we were ready for something more "exotic." Over time, I've come to dislike that word, as it is really a reflection of my ignorance of another culture.

Back then, Germany's Black Forest was exotic. Ireland was not sufficiently exotic.

Love and Hate

Then along came 1968, and the Summer of Love.

1968 was also the year The Troubles flared up in Ireland. Over the ensuing years, Ireland became an increasingly unattractive destination.

The Troubles started to spill over to England, with some dreadful bombings. Bomb threats became routine.

In the mid-70's I turned the radio on in my Manchester, England flat, only to learn the department store I had visited an hour earlier had been firebombed.

In 1979 I moved to the U.S.A. and heard IRA operatives being interviewed on the radio. This was a first for me, as the UK government had banned such interviews on domestic media.

The BBC got around this ban by using actors to read transcripts of the interviews. The real thing sounded much more evil to my ears. Catholics in Northern Ireland had just grievances, but they were being represented by thugs.

In St. Paul, Minnesota's McCafferty's Irish bar I heard anti-British rhetoric, and witnessed naive donations to the IRA.

In that bar, I was too close to Ireland.

Making Peace with Ireland

A few years ago a friend who grew up in Northern Ireland told me I had to meet his friend, Kathryn.

Kathryn is a peacemaker in Northern Ireland, one child at a time. For years she chaired an organization that brought equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children from Northern Ireland to Minnesota's Twin Cities to live with local families for the summer. The summer trips were preceded by months of weekly classes for the kids.

They would learn about strange concepts like tolerance, and living together in peace.

Kathryn was coming over to line up host families for the summer. She stayed with us for a couple nights, arriving as a stranger, departing as a firm friend.

On my subsequent trips to England, we would get together for an evening, along with our mutual friend. She would subject herself to a bare-bones airline, for a session of great, nonstop conversation.

The last time we got together in England, she declared the next get-together should be in Northern Ireland.

And that's how Dwight and I eventually got on a plane to Shannon to explore parts of Ireland. September 2014 was my first visit to Ireland.

Our trip culminated with us staying with Kathryn and her husband near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

Trapped by Our Perceptions

Of course, the reality is, I could have safely visited Ireland any time during The Troubles. I doubt I would have experienced any discomfort either in the Sheep's Head Way in the South, or the Mourne Mountains in the North.

Note: The mail box pictured at the start of this post is in The Burren, in the Irish Republic. It predates the founding of the Republic 

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