Our trip to Northern Ireland took place under dark skies and low clouds filled with rain. I don’t think we were fully prepared for the weight of the trip prior to departure. As I packed my bags for what I assumed would be a weekend like the first study tour, I had no clue I would be greeted by stories of death, pain, strife, and anger. I DID know that we would learn a bit more about the “troubles” in the North… I guess I just wasn’t prepared for the state of conflict existing even today.
As we watched the rain and our eyelids fall during the long ride to Belfast, we were introduced to some back story on Northern Ireland by our tour guide/bus commentator. She made valiant efforts to open our world to the vast information she possessed, but I don’t think it was until we actually made it to Belfast and began hearing the real-life stories, that what she said really started to stick.
Upon arriving in the slippery street of Western Belfast, we were joined by a man who identifies as a Unionist/British citizen of Northern Ireland (all terms that apply here). He introduced us to the Peace Walls in Belfast where we gained a first hand glimpse of the division ever-so-prevalent in Belfast today. I could not believe that people still lived in fear of attacks. That Protestants and Catholics live completely segregated existences in 2014. How much do I have to be thankful for that I don’t have to worry about the height of a fence to protect my home from a bomb. But these people do.
After this first man finished his passionate dialogue on the state of his country from his perspective, we were joined by another man who had a much different account to tell. Hearing the differences, yet completely sympathizing with each one’s tale filled me with some heavy emotions. I was by no means expecting this nor was I in the least bit prepared to deal with such confusion and uncertainty.
Honestly, even the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge didn’t do much to lighten the weekend as a whole. It was nice to get away from discussions of troubles…but the weather and ever-present thoughts of this country made it hard to fully escape. Furthermore, we ended the weekend with a walking tour around Derry. Here, we witnessed some incredible murals dedicated to the lives lost right under our feet on Bloody Sunday just a few decades ago. Everything seemed so near and the stories our tour guide told us about rebellions and bloodshed couldn’t have been more realized. Finally, we visited the Free Derry Museum where a man guided us around each painfully intimate room as he recounted memories of his brother who died on Bloody Sunday. I literally could not believe my ears or eyes as I experienced this place. As he showed us pictures of his brother suffering a fatal gunshot wound as he laid on the streets just outside.
I must follow all this up by saying how thankful I am that we were able to get exposed to the realities and history of such a place. I am beyond grateful for the specific men who shared their stories and answered our questions. My heart went out to them as I’m sure they hoped we could but catch a glimpse of their lives, passions, and purpose.
Sometimes, heavy is necessary. Sometimes, I think we need to bear the weight of the sadness and conditions around us, even if momentarily, in order to awaken an awareness within us that rings true to reality. For that, I am appreciative for our weekend in Northern Ireland. I am proud to say that I will be able to carry my new-found knowledge and perspectives on the Troubles with me throughout my years to come. I hope to remind people that situations that seem black and white… often have more grey than one wants to realize. It’s uncomfortable to see those shades of grey. We want to know where we stand. But, i think, the discovery of where one stands is the most important of all. I’m proud to say that’s what I’m doing now. Learning. Listening. Seeing. Discovering.