Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Breaking endless circles

There were always photographs: black-and-white and grainy, bunched together in the middle of books, displayed on glossy and silky photo paper, captured scenes of sectarian savagery. My eyes moved past the piles of broken brick and the bulky armored vehicles and the drooping banners proclaiming "No Surrender" and the inky black smoke, and they lingered on the faces. And whether it was Catholics or Protestants, Republicans or Loyalists, Nationalists or Unionists, the faces contorted in the same grotesque fashion whenever the horror or the sorrow or the hopelessness became too much to bear.

For a long time, this was Northern Ireland to me: a land of monochrome violence, colorless existences, social catastrophe. A Northern Ireland I cobbled together from dense history books and hard-boiled fiction; a Northern Ireland that came into existence following an awakening of sorts in 1997. That summer, I returned from a trip to Kinsale and Co. Kerry with the rather embarrassing realization that my knowledge of Irish history, culture, and identity wouldn't fill your standard bar tumbler. So I read; then read some more. Then kept reading. (This being that dark age before the Internet reached the mainstream, when following the paths of self-education didn't include stopovers at Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia.)

And then I went to Northern Ireland, nearly 10 years after my first trip to the island. The morning we arrived in Belfast, unkempt and dried out from airplane booze, we walked down Donegall Place in Belfast center. I saw teenage girls with fresh, salon-primped hair and neon drainpipe pants and pastel high heels, and even younger boys with color-mottled football jerseys and dazzlingly chromatic sneakers. I saw a boy ran up behind a girl and goose her and then scurry back to his mates. The girl yelped and planted fists on hips and stared with mock outrage, and the boy laughed and raised his arms in triumph, like he had just converted a kick from the penalty spot.

And then a thought arrived: Here, on this street, nearly a decade after the Good Friday Agreement, are young men and women born long after the violence captured and depicted in the old books I once read. For the first time in generations, there are adolescents growing up here with the understanding that it's possible for endless circles of hatred and violence to be broken. They are recognizing that a life circumscribed by sectarian and political boundaries is a life that is futile.

This is the Northern Ireland of today: a place, as I wrote once before, where the future is uncertain, where there's a steely determination to reconcile with the past, and where the present is laden with so much hope and optimism.

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