Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"Every goodbye makes the next hello closer."

The SIT Spring 2013 Group during Orientation

I don’t know why I have such a problem with goodbyes. I’ve only noticed this about myself in the past few years. That urge to push the thought out of your mind until the last possible moment when it sneaks up on you. You feel it slowly bubbling in your stomach then all of a sudden it smacks you hard in the face when you begin to realize that you are not only saying goodbye to people, but also an experience.

I knew my experience of studying abroad would be amazing wherever I ended up. But I ended up in Ireland and for four months, that was my world. I saw incredible sites from the cliffs of the Aryan Islands to forests of Glendalough to the beaches of Donegal. I learned more than I could ever imagine about Irish history, the Northern Ireland conflict, and myself. I met some amazing people along the way: my Dublin host mother Carmel, the Lyttles – my host family in Derry, my academic director Aeveen, and many experts and lecturers who challenged us to look deeper into everything we studied.

But this is not just MY experience. I shared it with seven other students and this will forever be OUR experience. As John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” In my mind, it is impossible to separate these people from Ireland because it was with them that I experienced it. When I think of Ireland, I will always think of each and every one of them and remember how we all progressed through this journey together. So Arnela, Katie, Sean, Tyler, Holden, Danny, and Mike, I want to thank you for some of the best few months of my life. I hope that our group hug in the streets of Galway was not our last. We must remember, “Every goodbye makes the next hello closer.”

The group the day before we went our separate ways.
Picture was taken on Innismore, Aran Islands in front
of a fort built in 2nd century BC

Monday, May 6, 2013

Bridge Across the Divide

Again, I have been horrible at blogging over these past few weeks, but I’m sure you can understand that the end of the semester is always a whirlwind. Especially when you are writing a 45-page paper in one week!

After spending three weeks in Derry~Londonderry, and one week in Dublin to write, I have officially completed my Independent Study Project. As I said in my last post, I researched the Peace Bridge in Derry~Londonderry. I was skeptical of the bridge at first because it has been advertised as a physical facilitator of peace within the city. I didn’t believe that a bridge could unite a city divided by decades of political turmoil. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bridge has indeed helped to increase interactions between members of both groups within the city.

Peace Bridge

I’ll leave you with a small excerpt from my conclusion:

With the weight of history and memory upon the city that has lasted for generations, it may be difficult to understand how a bridge could help a community overcome an inherited historical memory. The success of the Peace Bridge in overcoming the hindrance of history rests with the creation of a new historical narrative for the city and the introduction of shared space. The new bridge is free of the symbols that so often mark the territory of one group or another throughout the city. The bridge also connects the city center to Ebrington Barracks, a space that had been closed to the public previously. The story of Ebrington as a base for the British Army during the Troubles is quickly fading as the lost history of Ebrington’s role during World War I and World War II, reemerges; this is a history that the city as a whole can share and embrace together.  Because of the creation of this new historical narrative, the city of Derry~Londonderry has been able to redefine its identity and project a message of a forward progress that acknowledges a fresh start. At the center of this new identity is the Peace Bridge and its symbolic bridging between not only two groups, but also the past and the present.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

This Little Light of Mine

Sometimes it’s hard to believe what is going on in this world. This week in particular has been difficult. Back home we’ve had the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, attempted attacks on elected officials, and the explosion of a plant in Texas. Here in Derry, we’ve experienced heightened violence and protests in response to Margaret Thatcher’s death. It’s so easy for us to get bogged down in what seems to be a world of overwhelming tragedy and hate.

Northern Ireland has experienced its fair share of tragedies. Not too soon after we heard about the Boston bombings, my host mother told me about her experience in the Omagh bombing in 1998. She was taking her children to the park in Omagh that Saturday afternoon and happened to pick up a hitchhiker on the road. Instead of dropping him off in the city center like they agreed, she offered to take him all the way home. On their way back through the city, they were diverted by police officers. The bomb had gone off roughly a half an hour before they arrived killing 29 people and injuring 220. By some stroke of luck, or perhaps fate, the detour to bring the hitchhiker home saved their lives. It is terrifying to think how close we are to events such as this.

But one of the things that I’ve learned in the past few years is that a bit of good, no matter how small can shine its way through the darkness. A picture I heard about in a podcast I was listening to reminded me of this. It was a projection on a wall in NYC of a famous MLK quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” The words alone are moving, but below the quote, the universal NY font was connected the Boston Red Sox “B”  with a heart, uniting the symbols of rivalry.

It is small gestures like that keep me going. We saw that in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon: runners rushing to hospitals to donate blood, locals opening up their homes for complete strangers, and even just messages of support from across the whole country.

Sometimes all you need is a small example of hope to keep you going. I was privileged enough to hear the Dalai Lama speak today (you can read more about it here) and I don’t think it could have come at a better time. The Dalai Lama was invited by Derry’s own, Richard Moore, who has developed a special relationship with His Holiness over many years. A British Army Officer shot Richard in the face with a rubber bullet when he was a child and was blinded as a result. Despite this, Richard has met the officer who shot him and given his forgiveness. The Dalai Lama said that Richard is his hero for his ability to live a compassionate life.

The Dali spoke today about the importance of living a peaceful life. I could tell you about the inspiring things he said or the jokes he told, but I know that these are things that will fade from my memory with time. What I will always remember is the feeling I had, sitting with 2,500 other people, many from the city of Derry, listening to one of the most prominent symbols of peace in the world today, and applauding his every word. It did not matter if we were Protestant or Catholic. We were all experiencing the event together.

Peace flags on the Peace Bridge
welcoming the Dalai Lama to Derry

Dalai Lama speaking in Derry

Here in Derry, things are looking up. Yes, there have been petrol bombs thrown into the Fountain (a small Protestant community on the cityside) this past week, but this is a small minority of people behind such actions. The Dalai Lama called upon us to take action, and I certainly think that the city of Derry-Londonderry is headed in the right direction. In the words of His Holiness himself: “The last century was the century of violence. This must be the century of peace. My generation's century is now gone, but the future is still in your hands.”

Let us all work towards creating a century of peace. We have seen the affects of war and violence. It is our responsibility to do everything we can to make this idea a reality. I think Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: "It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it." Time to roll up your sleeves, people. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Iron Lady

The death of Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has sparked quote a controversy over these past few days. Here in Derry, people took to the streets in celebration, graffitiing walls with slogans such as: "Ding dong the witch is dead," and "Rot in Hell Maggie Thatcher." Petrol bombs were thrown as people waved the Irish tri-color. 

Check out the video below containing some pictures of the celebrations in Derry:

Here is a statement released by Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin politician and alleged IRA member, who holds a seat in the Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Irish Parliament):

April 8th 2013
Death of Margaret Thatcher

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams commenting on the death today of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said:

Margaret Thatcher did great hurt to the Irish and British people during her time as British Prime Minister.

Working class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies.
Her role in international affairs was equally belligerent whether in support of the Chilean dictator Pinochet, her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa; and her support for the Khmer Rouge.

Here in Ireland her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. She embraced censorship, collusion and the killing of citizens by covert operations, including the targeting of solicitors like Pat Finucane, alongside more open military operations and refused to recognise the rights of citizens to vote for parties of their choice.

Her failed efforts to criminalise the republican struggle and the political prisoners is part of her legacy.

It should be noted that in complete contradiction of her public posturing, she authorised a back channel of communications with the Sinn Féin leadership but failed to act on the logic of this.

Unfortunately she was faced with weak Irish governments who failed to oppose her securocrat agenda or to enlist international support in defence of citizens in the north. 

Margaret Thatcher will be especially remembered for her shameful role during the epic hunger strikes of 1980 and 81.

Her Irish policy failed miserably.

It is an interesting time to be in Derry~Londonderry. We all have personal opinions about politicians and sometimes we tend to demonize them and confine them into polarized symbols. I can sympathize with the people who disagreed with her overly-forceful actions throughout the world.  Perhaps it's the idealistic American college student in me, but I would hope we could have these discussions in a respectful way that recognizes that she was an individual who had her own virtues and vices. Many Northern Ireland politicians have publicly condemned the celebrations of Thatcher's death including the deputy First Minister or Northern Ireland, and I hope others will follow.  

Friday, April 5, 2013

You can tell it’s ISP time when…

Well it certainly has been awhile since I have blogged! These past few weeks have been intense in terms of workload. I wrote a politics paper, a reflection on my Northern Ireland experience (totaling 12 pages), decided on the topic for my final project, wrote a proposal for my final project, and organized the logistics of my field study.

So now I am off to Derry (I’m typing away on the bus) to complete my independent study project. This is the unique uniting factor of all SIT programs: a one-month period to conduct a field study and produce a paper analyzing your findings. I have chosen to complete mine in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. I have been fascinated with the topic of commemoration and memory in terms of the Northern Ireland conflict.

At first I thought about doing a project on the murals in Belfast as a form of commemoration that can provoke or hurt opposition groups, but this has been the focus of many other SIT Ireland ISPs and I wanted to do something a bit different. Then, my Academic Director, Aeveen, suggested I look into the Peace Bridge in Derry. The bridge opened in 2011 and is a pedestrian and cycling bridge that connects one bank of the River Foyle to the other. This might not seem significant, however, like many communities in Northern Ireland, Derry is a divided city. The Catholic majority stays on one side of the bank (with the exception of a small protestant community referred to as “The Fountain”) and the Protestant community lives on the other side. There has been very little interaction between these two groups, but in the past few years Derry seems to be making great strides in terms of the peace process. The bridge is meant to be a symbol of peace, but also encourage cross-community interaction. My project will be to examine if this bridge can overcome centuries of sectarian memory.

Peace Bridge in Derry

I have no idea where this project will take me, so I’m just going along for the ride!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Craic All Around

Last weekend was St. Patrick's Day and Dublin was transformed into one big party! We returned from Derry on Friday and the festivities had already begun. It was a weekend full of great craic and good friends. I'll let my pictures of the parade and other activities speak for themselves!


NYPD Bagpipers made the journey
across the Atlantic to celebrate!

St. Patrick himself!

I really have no explanation 

They told us they were spinning tops.


Toy soldiers dishing out some free high-fives

Awesome Steampunk costume

More Steampunk

It snowed in the city...for a minute at least!

Scenes from Dublin: Day and Night

The girls and the lights 

Katy, Elena, Tyler, Holden, Arnela (Photo cred: Arnela)

Katy and I enjoying some music at
the pub (Photo cred: Arnela)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Giant's Causeway

As part of our "relaxation weekend" before we start planning our big end of the year projects, we took a trip to Giant's Causeway. We were walkin' on a bunch of sixty million year old basalt columns. Legend has it, the giant Finn McCool wanted to have a rumble with another giant across the North Channel in Scotland. Finn began building the path, placing each individual stone. Scientifically speaking, the causeway was formed from an ancient volcanic reaction.

The causeway

Sean on top of the world


The whole group!

Sean and Katie on Finn McCool's shoe

Arnela navigating the rocky terrain

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Writing On the Wall

Over the past week we have toured Loyalist and Nationalist areas of Belfast. Both sides have used murals to promote their ideas or messages. Some are messages of hope and peace, some commemorate those who have died throughout the course of the conflict, and some seem to incite more violence. Whether they were painted by illegal paramilitary groups years ago who still refuse to take them down, or legitimate organizations, these murals are on display for the public to see every day. They are a constant reminder of the past, good or bad.

Murals are good indicators of the Loyalist and Nationalist divisions within the city. Check out this website to see how murals mark territory: 

Click on the picture to enlarge! These murals are detailed so don't miss out!

Nationalist: Bobby Sands, IRA Member who died while
leading a hunger strike in prison, 1981

Nationalist: Marion Price, IRA Member arrested for the
Old Bailey Bombing in London. She has been arrested numerous
times since. Her current imprisonment remains controversial.

Loyalist: Mural painted by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF)
also referred to as the Ulster Defense Association (UDA)
is a loyalist paramilitary group. 

Close up of last picture. UFF/UDA officially ended its
armed campaign in 2007. 

I think they make it quite clear...

Peace Mural near/in Loyalist area

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Heading Up North

I’ve been procrastinating this post for a few reasons. Firstly, we have had a jam-packed schedule for the past few weeks. Secondly, I have been trying to draft this post in my head but no words seem to do it justice. Thirdly, whenever I think about trying to condense my past few days into a post, I’m overwhelmed. Everything seems vitally important. What I’ve come to realize is that I cannot begin to understand this deep seeded conflict with origins centuries old. Northern Ireland is still a puzzle to me and anything I write here now is merely a part of my thinking process. In my attempt to wrap my head around my experiences here, I will share the stories about a few of the people we met along the way.

Story #1: Republican Majority View in South Armagh

Our first stop was in South Armagh, also known as “Bandit Country” to all those outside of the community. South Armagh is an unofficial division of the county of Armagh, which borders the Republic of Ireland, but is part of Northern Ireland. Some people in Armagh felt as if they were caught on the wrong side of the partition and defended Irish nationalist ideas. Our guide was Thomas Marron, a former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Thomas spent 16 years in prison as a political prisoner. He was released early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. As part of his job helping the community deal with the conflict, he takes groups on tours through South Armagh in an effort to give the Republican perspective and help to promote understanding of the conflict.


We met Thomas in his office: a room covered with artifacts of the Irish conflict: Maps of the location of the military bases in the area, unexploded petrol bombs, photos and lists upon lists of volunteers who had died. Thomas works directly with families who are still recovering from the Troubles and many contributed to this unofficial museum. Thomas is as cool as a cucumber and cares deeply for his surroundings and heritage as well as his political beliefs, but also recognizes the need for peace and healing.

Once we made our introductions, we piled in the van and set off on our tour. Thomas pointed out different landmarks, which were significant to the conflict. I felt as if every 100 feet there was another site. We saw O’Hanlon’s Pub which housed secret meetings of the IRA, Donnelly’s Bar which was the site of a bombing (with suspected British Army collusion), and granite monuments commemorating those who were killed or died for their cause. As we drove through the countryside, it was impossible to tell which side of the border we were on. There are no checkpoints, no barriers, or signs designating your position. Mailboxes were my only hint in orienting myself: green for the republic, red for Northern Ireland. South Armagh is mostly farmland. I found it hard to believe that it was once the most militarized area in Western Europe. During the Troubles, the British Army constructed military bases on every hilltop and used only helicopters to move from place to place as the region was so volatile.

Memorial of So. Armagh IRA Volunteers who died
as a result of the conflict

Memorial to those who died on hunger strike to obtain
political prisoner status

The group at the hunger strikers memorial

Thomas grew up in this militarized culture. He endured raids and harassment by the British Army on a daily basis. His family, friends, and neighbors were under constant supervision and faced a severe lack of privacy. The feeling of occupation was oppressive. This is what made him decide to join the IRA. During his service, he carried out many bombings and attacks on the British Army. One of the stops we made on the tour was to what the IRA called “The Street.” The Street is a former IRA hideout. On one side of the street is a memorial to IRA Volunteer Seamus Harvey who was shot by British soldiers in an ambush. Across the road is an old run-down farmhouse. Thomas told us that a local IRA sympathizer allowed them to use the building as a hideout. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to lie awake on the rickety floor of the farmhouse in the blackness of the Irish countryside; each snap of a twig or rustle of the grass evokes the fear of an ambush.

Farmhouse used as IRA hideout


View from the farmhouse

Monday, February 18, 2013

Co. Mayo: Conflict of the Shell Corrib Gas Project

Almost everyone I talked to in Dublin described Mayo as “wild country.” Being close to the coast and subject to any storm that crosses the Atlantic, the weather can be volatile. We were lucky and only experienced a bit a rain during our visit. The main purpose of going to Mayo was to study the conflict brought on by the pipeline project implemented by Shell Oil Company. Before I came to Ireland, I was completely oblivious to this issue, which is unbelievable to look back upon now that I’ve seen the land, met some people involved, and heard their stories.

During the past week, I have been on a rollercoaster ride of emotions listening to history, “facts”, personal testimonies, walking the land, talking with Shell representatives, touring the construction sites, and being physically present in an area that will be a place of unrest for many years to come.

The parish we stayed in is called Kilcommon, a predominantly rural and isolated area located on the Erris peninsula, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. The controversial Corrib gas field is located 80 kilometers off the coast. The pipeline has been laid offshore from the wells to Glengad. Shell plans to run the pipe from Glengad, beneath Sruwaddacon Bay, to the onshore refinery at Bellanaboy Bridge. The construction directly affects the Kilcommon parish community, but also impacts those who live outside the construction area.

Hostel we stayed in owned by Betty 

Beauty of the Bay
During our first full day in the area, Simon Sweeney, an environmentalist with a special interest in marine life, took us on a walking tour along the coast of Broadhaven Bay. Simon’s respect and knowledge for the land radiated through his descriptions about the many ways in which the locals interact with the land including the use of vegetation found in the bog and on the shore or special sheep grazing tactics. He also told us stories about the delicate balance that must be maintained in order to preserve the fragile area. Broadhaven and Sruwaddacon Bays have been declared Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) by the European Union in order to protect birds, fish, and reefs that can be found just off the coast.

Hike with Simon

Sphagnum moss found in bogs was used during WWI
in place of gauze

Sheep, sheep, and more sheep.

The communities that make up northern Mayo, like many other rural communities throughout the country, are rich in history and heritage. Some families have been in the same community for generations, while others are relatively new. Regardless of how long they have lived in the area, many people we spoke to expressed the feeling of having deep ties to the land. Farmer Willie Corduff was quoted as saying, “I was born and reared on this farm. It’s memories that are making us do what we are doing…They’re the memories you have and the memories you have to keep. To see someone coming in now and trying to destroy it, as Shell is doing, it kills you. Our footsteps are around the place since we were able to walk.” Willie was one of the Rossport 5, a group of men who went to prison for defying a court order which permitted Shell to work on their land. The motivation behind their protest goes much deeper than property rights: it cuts to the core and deals with the ideas of identity and heritage.

Green fence and yellow backhoes in the distance mark
site landfall site

Overlooking the bay where the pipeline runs

One of our lecturers, author Michael McCaughan notes, “This is a community which takes pride in mapping out local place names and restoring gravestones, maintaining a connection between past, present, and future.” In an area possessing so many layers of history, it is impossible to unravel the past from present day. We spoke with retired school teacher Micheál (pronounced: Mee-hawl) O’Seighin and he noted that the echos of the past are important for daily life. The presence of the past can be physical, with ancient ruins dotting the landscape or gravestones placed a few years ago. But the past is also present in the retelling of stories and in the mindset of the people and is often awakened in times of struggle. Michael is a soft-spoken former teacher who was one of the Rossport 5 and spent 94 days in jail. Remarkably, he didn’t own any land affected by the pipeline, but he told us he went to jail because for him it was the completely logical and rational thing to do. Michael is not a radical, tree-hugging, granola-eating hippie (I know at some point reading this you thought about it…). He is a man who has strong ties to his family, the land, and has a deep sense of place.  

To the people living near the Shell project, the structures of society (police, judical system, government representatives) which ideally were created to protect their rights could no longer be trusted. Betty Schultz, a resident of Kilcommon wrote, “My elected representative lies straight to my face...I experience hostile response from all authorities. I witness the judge in court not batting an eyelid when listening to blatant purjury by the police.” Micheál pointed out that with the threat of the Shell project and the failure of the legal system to protect their rights, arose the feeling: “The only thing we could depend on was what stood the test of time before.” 

At the dock area. The fishing industry was
hit hard by the pipeline project

Protesting sign on a building in the middle of a field
Some people we spoke with believed that out of this conflict arose a newfound sense of unity within the community. In the initial stages of the project, many came out in protest, spent time discussing the project with neighbors, and participated in community forums. One could argue that this conflict has pulled Mayo into a much more global community with a concern for social justice and environmental protection. The creation of the solidarity camp is a perfect example of this global community. The camp is currently composed of people from Ireland, England, France, and Germany and has housed people from an even more diverse list of countries in recent years. Each individual comes to the camp for different reasons, but their purpose is to unite with the local community and work with them to make their voices heard. Kate, a longtime member of the solidarity camp told us that people throughout Ireland and the world have contacted local residents in search of advice in creating protest campaigns. Mayo has become an example (whether it be good or bad) for the world to reflect on.

I am a firm believer in the idea that in order to truly understand a place, you must spend time there. But after many experiences both home and abroad, I have found that sometimes understanding cannot be reached until you have removed yourself from the environment. This has been the case with my trip to Mayo. Now that I have had the chance to reflect, I realize that I have taken so much away from our short time in Mayo in terms of environmentalism, social justice, and conflict studies: all of which I hope to apply in other areas throughout the program, especially as I prepare to depart for Northern Ireland,  as well as in other areas of my life. In a written piece by our friend Betty, she identifies Shell’s presence within the community as occupation, which I believe to be a fitting description when I think of historical parallels. My first thought went to the occupation of France during World War II and the introduction of the Vichy regime. It is hard to believe that I am attempting to compare WWII to a small rural town on the coast of Ireland, but the two conflicts do share uncannily similar themes of confusion, lack of authority, collaboration, resistance, feelings of defeat, and a strong sense of memory. Northern Mayo may be a small area with a small conflict, but to the people in the midst of it all, it is a continuous battle and it is anything but insignificant. I believe Patrick Kavanagh captures this sentiment best in the last line of his poem titled Epic:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided, who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul!"

And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen

Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -

"Here is the march along these iron stones."

That was the year of the Munich bother.
Was more important? I inclined

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.

He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row.
Gods make their own importance. 

More information on the Shell project in Mayo:

Video produced by Shell provides the corporate perspective.

Documentary The Pipe uses real footage from protest and town meetings combined with interviews to depict the feelings of residents living near the pipeline project. If your interested, it's definitely worth a watch.