Friday, October 16, 2009

Listening in Ireland and Scotland

Downtown Belfast swarms with crowds of workers, students and tourists -- all kinds of people from all over the world

Camp Connell, CA -- The best meal we had on vacation was in an Indian restaurant in Dunoon, Scotland.
The best music we heard was from Afro-Cuban drummers followed by romantic Romanian singers in a Belfast, Northern Ireland, bar.
In some of the places we traveled recently we listened to not-always-pleasant echoes of American conversations about immigration and its impact. It seems Ireland and Great Britain are struggling with some of the same sometimes-divisive issues that test Americans.
In the polite atmosphere of a Belfast pub during a celebration of many cultures in Northern Ireland a woman explained why she was handing out little blue bracelets that said "Unite Against Hate."
In this modern Belfast pub we listened to Afro-Cuban music, drank Guiness, and discussed the wave of immigration

The bracelet was, she said, part of a government program to help Ireland's people understand the benefits of diversity and the positive side of immigration's impact on society.
A copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was handed out to the crowd as they sipped their pints and listened to the music.
The world is changing fast, and most of the busy people in Dublin and Belfast and Edinburgh seem to be enjoying that.
The upscale pub's patrons, drawn by the prospect of international music, seemed sympathetic to the woman with the bracelets, and cheered the music, and overall it was a warm and friendly atmosphere. Even curious American tourists are welcome here.
But some conversations elsewhere indicated not everyone is so thrilled with the influx of workers from Eastern Europe and Africa, an influx which was a flood until the recent economic collapse. I heard people talk about how immigrants took jobs from "natives," how "those people" were getting money from the government that out-of-work Irish people could not.
Depending where you are on the Emerald Isle, the Irish are not all that thrilled with each other, either. They've had a rough few centuries dealing with Viking raiders, famine, clan or tribal warfare, British colonialism, popes and pretenders, and the biggest challenge of all -- themselves. Their civil war was decidedly uncivil, and much more recent than ours. Scars still show.
The issue of religion and political alliances came up a time or two, usually with a comment that "some of my best friends are ...", but with the clear sense that "they are not like us."
In Ireland and Northern Ireland I never heard anyone put down anyone's religion. But I heard a lot about "sectarian differences."
It has been less than 15 years since Irish extremists and British soldiers quit killing on a regular basis in the North. Now, on the rare occasion when it happens, it is seen as something unusual. It is overwhelmingly sad to a visitor, and confusing. But it is clear to the Irish, whatever their political affiliation and/or religion.

Tour guides point out a mural honoring Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in prison; sectarian strife is a popular tourist theme

Most of the people we met are very glad the "Troubles" seem to be over, but they haven't forgotten. And fences separate neighborhoods and gates are locked at night. That's still a part of daily life, as are pubs that serve all-Catholic or all-Protestant clientele. Tourists are always welcome.

For some people, particularly those on the political extremes, it will take more time to forgive the past. Somehow it makes life easier to talk about "sectarian" differences than to label disputes as religious or political.

In Dublin, history is on every street corner. Modern sculptures honor the dead heroes of the 1916 Rising against the British. They were shot, or hung, just across the street at the jail

In contrast, in Scotland people seemed quite comfortable to wear a kilt, listen to a bagpipe, and still be considered part of Great Britain. The Scottish parliament now meets in Edinburgh, a source of pride, but any serious effort to a complete political divorce from Great Britain is invisible to the visitor, and isn't making news.
The ultra-modern Scottish Parliament Building is across the street from the Queen of England's summer castle in Edinburgh. Ironic? No, just the way things are in Scotland today

The histories of all these people are linked in many ways. The Scots came from Ireland originally, and some went back to stay. The Irish who stayed put -- many left the country during bad times -- take pride in their deep roots. And all are linked to Celts everywhere, and centuries of dispute and common ancestry make them more alike than different in language and custom.
Everybody has been involved in fighting, often bloody, for centuries. That's a habit most are trying the break.
Young people seem less concerned about all this than their elders, which is not surprising. The young were told about the troubles. Their parents were stopped and searched on the street by armed soldiers.
It would take me a while to get over having my grocery bag searched for a bomb by a soldier with a machine gun.
As a good friend said before we made the trip, we were safer on the streets of Ireland than we would be in almost any American city. There is no fear in a visit like ours, but there is some sadness in the midst of all the excitement and beauty and memories of kind people.
My ancestors came from both the protestant North -- County Antrim -- and the Catholic South -- County Cork-- so I get no guidance from genetic memory on the quandary of modern Ireland.
Another few centuries and they will work all this out. I'm sure we can all get along, given time.
That's a lesson to bring home and ponder.


eugenie said...

I liked all your blogs on the trip to Ireland, and enjoyed it vicariously. This was one of my favorites. Having been raised in the melting pot of NY, I could really identify.

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