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Posted by on Aug 29, 2023 in Blog | 0 comments

Northern Ireland and The Troubles: It Can’t Happen Here (or, Can It?)



You think racially charged shootings, acts of terror, domestic militias, fanatical rhetoric, hate spewed under the banners of flags and religion, and outright insurrection *can’t* happen in America?


Or, can it? Will it?

Last night, I watched the first two episodes of “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland.” This five-part series airing on PBS is a stunning, deeply moving, testimony of “The Troubles” told from all points of view.

We hear from IRA terrorists, hardline Northern Irish unionists, housewives, bartenders, dockyard workers, punk rockers, students, prison guards, and many of the people who lived and survived an era when domestic terror wasn’t the exception–but the norm. For three decades, they lived with daily fears that at any moment a bus on the street or a pastry shop or even a walk through the park could be obliterated by a random explosion or sniper gunfire. For what? For being the “wrong” religion.

It’s unfathomable (no, it’s OUTRAGEOUS) that thousands of people were murdered and millions of lives were clouded by fear all because the two main factions of Christianity couldn’t get along. So, you think that’s “their” problem. Believe that it’s just “ancient” history? That old stuff “doesn’t matter?” Think again. We’ll get to that in a moment.

I remember visiting Ireland some years ago (read that article here: Ten Things that Surprised Me About Ireland) and hearing about the gutter depths of bitter hate. A native of Belfast who lived through it told me the story of a (Catholic) woman who saw a (Protestant) soldier gunned down near one of the city’s dividing walls, laced with sandbags and barbed wire. The soldier was still alive, and squirming in pain on the pavement after being shot. The woman did an extraordinary act, risking her life to save the young soldier and drag him to shelter and safety. Later, when the Irish Republican Army learned she’d saved the Unionist soldier, they took retribution on her and her family. In this civil war, there was to be no quarter and no comfort given to “the enemy,” even though those enemies were living within the same city, as their neighbors, playmates, co-workers, who just happened to be in the other tribe of Christianity.

The power of “Once Upon a Time in Ireland” is hearing about the courage of these people who lived through it–on both sides. What also struck me is the revelation of how life went on, despite all the barricades, checkpoints, riots, and bloody violence. While gas bombs were blowing up throughout Ulster, people still had weddings. They continued to go to bars and restaurants. They did their shopping. Belfast even had a thriving music scene, including the height of the punk rock era. It’s surreal listening to testimonies of how people of the same two clashing cultures went along and got along even while their compatriots were murdering each other across the block and over the bridge.

Of course, we never seem to learn the lessons of history. The only certainty is that history repeats itself. Human hatred is a universal character trait and flaw, with no borders.

Though there’s no overt comparisons made in the PBS documentary (not, so far), I still couldn’t help but compare so many similarities of Northern Ireland circa 1970 and the deteriorating commonalities and brimming and burning divisions within American life and culture today. We must remember that Northern Ireland’s “troubles” were not caused by armies of millions. A nation and people lived in terror because a relatively small minority of fanatics seized the times and made life miserable for everyone else. You think racially charged shootings, acts of terror, domestic militias, fanatical rhetoric, hate spewed under the banners of flags and religion, and outright insurrection *can’t* happen in America?

Really? Do you REALLY?

Let’s learn from history, even though the cynic in me remains pessimistic. One way to do that is to seek out “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland” and watch it. There go we, all those years ago.



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