Irish Healing

On Northern Ireland’s spectacular Antrim coast lies a picturesque village nestled at the foot of an emerald green glen. Here, for more than 200 years, people of all faiths have lived in harmony. Protestants greet Catholics on their way to church and chapel or commiserate about the long line up at the post office on pension day. We admire one another’s gardens, applaud a baby’s first steps, and shake our heads at news reports of sectarian violence in other communities, thankful that the ugly tentacles of “The Troubles” have not yet intruded on our innocent little corner of the world. But that was before last summer.

One night a group of hooligans from the next town stopped at our village pub then reeled out at closing time, joined by a local Catholic lad who shinnied up a post and tore down a flag displaying the Red Hand of Ulster.

When they disappeared around the corner, a Protestant fellow who had been watching climbed the pole to retie the flag. But the drunks returned and attacked the Protestant, beating him to death with a hammer.

The next morning, feelings of disgust, anger, and shock hung in the air. Tempers flared and accusations flew. When the case finally went to trial, the judge declared there was not enough evidence to determine who had perpetrated the crime, so all were freed. Resentment seethed.

Just before Christmas, the victim’s best friend, “H,” could bear the injustice no longer. Egged on by other angry young men, he made a crude explosive device to plant on the doorstep of the Catholic who had reportedly been the ringleader in the murder. But the bomb detonated too soon, and H lost his right hand in the explosion, devastating his staunch Presbyterian parents who never dreamed their son could harbor such hatred. For months, they hid from friends and neighbors in shame. The Catholic man and his pregnant girlfriend hibernated too, fearing further attempts at retaliation. A community that had once prided itself on peaceful coexistence began to question the extent of the bigotry in their young people.

To outsiders, sectarianism is founded on religious intolerance, but in Ireland the issue is rooted in politics and the traditional need for a solemn public ceremony on the anniversary of any major historical tragedy or victory. Marching season includes dignified Orange order parades in tribute to the regiment of Irish soldiers (Protestant and Catholic) slaughtered in the first war at the Battle of the Somme. The Presbyterians march to celebrate the 1798 victory of the United Irishmen (of all faiths). On Ascension Day and St. Patrick’s Day, members of the Catholic parish in our area march throughout the village with no disturbance from the Protestant community.

After the Troubles crept into the village, a special service was organized in the Unitarian church for women of all faiths to come and pray for peace. We joined our voices in song, our hearts in prayer, and our spirits in hope that the children in war-torn Bosnia and Africa, as well as youngsters in our own Irish glen, might face a better future. The mother, aunt, and grandmother of the Catholic assailant attended the service, anxious to heal the rift dividing the village. We shed a few tears and extended hands in friendship.

The Presbyterian mother of the lad with the hook (where his hand used to be) explained privately that she felt too embarrassed to attend, but the family has made their own commitment towards a new tomorrow. For the first time in four generations, they have decided to send their youngest daughter to an integrated school this fall, a bold step for members of the fundamentalist Presbyterian church.

In July, despite the support of 71 percent of the population, the Good Friday peace agreement was ravaged by small bands of hate mongers who have disrupted commerce and transportation.

At the height of the recent crisis, a trio of policemen in bulletproof vests walked the village streets after a group of insensitive young louts, emboldened by drink, threatened violence. As is often the case here in the heathered glens, a torrential downpour dampened the plans, and conflict was averted.

But on the following Sunday morning, we awoke to learn that in another town, 25 miles north, the extremists had succeeded. In our respective churches and chapels, Catholics and Protestants mourned the horrific loss of three little boys. This year’s marching season is over, and normalcy has returned, but every household is tinged with sadness.

So we scramble to find a spark that will rekindle the candle of peace that will last through many marching seasons. The village festival committee, local business leaders, educators, craftspeople and the elderly are resolved to find a way for residents to display allegiances and cultural differences in mutual respect. Once more we join hands to weave the ribbon of harmony that links the diverse corners of this ancient coastal community in a bond of tranquility and friendship.

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