The International Writers
I had dispensed lofty
vindications to those back home on why I wanted to study abroad in Northern
Ireland. It was the only place I could come to terms with the realities
of terrorism without being in danger as an American. It was a way to seek
out the message of peace, in a country where it is both precious, yet
so precarious, and bring it home with me. Lastly, it was a new method
of understanding the oppressed. I had seen those stricken by poverty,
but I had never witnessed the afflictions of war.
Brings You to Derry, Then?
brings you to Derry, then?" the cashier asked. She had noticed
me carefully examining each of my coins for their correct value
in preparation for the total. I stared at her, suddenly frozen
by a query that had been repeated to me almost daily since my
arrival in Northern Ireland and nearly twice as much prior to
my U.S. departure. It was intended to be an entirely harmless
question, no doubt, and she delivered it so, in that plucky, uplifting
Irish tone that invariably tugged at my heartstrings.
Yet this time, the accent brought me little cheer. The weight
of the past few days in this foreign land bore down on me with
suffocating precision. I could not bring myself to muster out
the standard reply of "Peace and Conflict Studies" without
feeling vomit creep into the back of my throat. I wanted to tell
her the truth, but it was a truth that I did not want to admit
to myself and besides, the supermarket check-out line was certainly
no place for matters of the heart.
There were whispers of other desires as well, but these were more personal
and carefully hidden. I was running away from the battlefield of my parents
marital catastrophe, closely augmented by the fall-out of my first true
love. Somehow, I harbored the belief that a country so marked by inexplicable
hardship and pain held the answer of how to heal the wounds of my own
Furthermore, all my life I have yearned to be a part of something grand
and meaningful to the world. There are many driven and kindred spirits
out there, but for every one, there are ten or twenty others consumed
by indifference. I had unscientifically determined this to be an entirely
American trait, fueled by certain economic and social pressures and the
idyllic lull of security and prosperity for all. I was convinced that
if I traveled to a place where conflict was a reality and not just played
out glamorously on a movie screen, that I would find throngs of people
pulsing with compassion and concern for the world
My kind of people.
Predictably, as most ideas that I entertain at the youthful age of twenty,
these notions turned out to be entirely foolish. The Bloody Sunday March
that took place on January 30th was a poignant introduction to my time
in Derry and my studies of The Troubles, but it quickly proved to be nothing
more than a gilded façade of the truth. People of all ages showed
up to remember the innocent that were killed by British gunfire in 1972.
Still more watched silently from their windows, yet few really took its
purpose to heart. The youngsters paraded around in their punk attire and
eagerly belted out IRA chants to any TV crew within earshot. It was clear
they were emboldened not by the Irish question, but by the general prospect
of rebellion. My university friends were "full on drink" from
the night before and slept through the entire march without an intimation
of guilt. Mothers and fathers pushed their children in strollers or propped
them on their shoulders; I suspect more for the educational aspect of
the event, rather than to foster any sort of revolutionary ideal. Notable
leaders from both Sinn Fein and SDLP culminated the march with fervent
speeches, but interest was scattered at best. The crowd departed quickly,
hardly acknowledging the ominous Bogside murals as they passed on their
way to the pubs.
Later, I confessed my disappointment of the political atmosphere in Derry
to my friend Conor. He is a fellow student at the University and a Dubliner
of slightly republican leanings. He shared his reflections with me over
a cup of tea.
"The Troubles have destroyed Derry
I work in a homeless center
for rehabilitating alcoholics and almost every one of them is a product
of our past. My friends brother was shot and killed walking home
from school when he was 12 years old. There are so many stories like that
People dont want to deal with it now. Peace is good. It is our only
measure of happiness," he quietly affirmed. A glossy sadness came
over his eyes then, but just as briefly as it appeared, he suppressed
it, adding, "We still want to be a part of Ireland, but we are tired
of paying the price with blood. Britain would be willing enough to offer
up the six counties, but they know that would result in a terrible civil
war. Enough people have died. So we just sit here
In the news, Northern Ireland has often been portrayed as a shining example
of peace after strife. I have found a much different reality. The students
do not care either way, as long as they are allowed to socialize, shop,
and live as youth are entitled to live. They even jokingly refer to the
armored police cars as "Paddywagons" as that is "where
they throw the Catholics."
But ignoring the problem does not mean it does not exist.
The other day, I filled out a job application for a minimum wage position
and there, staring back at me in bold print was the question, "Are
you Catholic or Protestant?" My cheeks burned at the audacity of
such an inquiry, and I had a fleeting desire to return to my homeland,
where we pride ourselves on equality and justice for all, if at least
The beeping melody of the check-out line pulled me away from my labyrinth
of thoughts and I found the cashier looking at me expectantly. Oh right,
the question. What brings you to Derry then?
" I started. "I guess I wanted to fall in
love with a revolutionary." (And a revolution as well.) There it
was: the truth, in all its idiotic and youthful naivety. There was no
revolution here and if there was, it was one without an answer.
The cashier startled a little, but let out a hearty laugh. "Oh, arent
you a dear!" she exclaimed. "All you lot coming to Derry when
all we want to do is get out! Well good luck to you!"
I picked up my groceries and walked out miserably into the Irish mist,
feeling as beaten and tired as those who had lived here their whole lives.
Ashley Dresser is a Global Studies major at the University of Minnesota.
Her work has previously been published in her hometown newspaper regarding
her travel experiences in Costa Rica and Montana.
© Ashley Dresser
Feb 9th 2007
Study Abroad Link: www.comm.niu.edu/
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