The alarm sounded way too early this morning. I couldn’t go to sleep last night until just after midnight, so 06:30 hurt a little. So did my back. While the bed was comfortable for a hotel bed, it was no Tempurpedic! Thankfully the linens were clean and crisp. I was unable to locate a washcloth, but I brought one. The funniest part of the hotel experience was getting the lights/electric to function. Just inside the door is a slot for the key card. Guests must place the card into the slot on the wall for lights, electrical outlets and climate control. Removing the key card meant I was no longer charging the iPad.
We met downstairs at the hotel for a fairly comprehensive breakfast. Then we met up with our tour guide, Richard Mealy, for Belfast and the murals. When I saw Richard introducing himself to Jim, I immediately thought he reminded me of Ron Pelias, though I wasn’t sure why. I met Ron at the National Communication Association conference years ago as part if the ethnography and performance divisions. He teaches at SIU. I couldn’t quite place the similarity except the kind and expressive eyes. As soon as Richard began our tour, I realized another familiar aspect–Richard, like Ron, is an amazing storyteller of personal and cultural narratives.
Richard directed our driver, Noel, around the city, specifically in the east Belfast areas/neighborhoods of the Falls and Shankill (sounds like “Shankle”). He explained the Troubles in the last few decades, pointing out security checkpoints, massive gates and walls topped with barbed wire. While rebuilt for the most part, a careful look reveals the evidence of battle ground that has only had about a decade or so to recover. The girls’ faces showed a bit of shock and slight apprehension when Richard spoke of his incarceration. Here, this wonderfully sweet man and trusted guide was also a former prisoner. A few girls confided that they were immediately concerned, but still felt at ease with Richard. Political prisoners give a much different vibe than criminal ones…and We learned how the criminalization of political acts (or suspicion of such) is both a point of intense contention among the accused, as well as a poignantly different set of rules of engagement. In short, it really sucks unless you have the power position.
Richard showed us the murals of resistance and remembrance and possibly reconciliation. He described the life on the streets–abject fear, strong affiliation, and a war zone for claiming one’s pound of flesh. He spoke of street assassinations, political executions, and the way in which the legal system would remand people on specious charges. The freedom fighters, the blanket protesters, hunger strikers, and female loyalists who remain incarcerated to this day…stories upon stories of loyalist experiences with the IRA, the nationalist fighters as well as the Shankill Butchers. As Richard told the stories, I found myself sympathizing with the protagonists, which seemed to shift and slip. I can see both sides. I’m somewhat of a cultural relativist, and always an empath. The pain was so evident across the borders between communities and individuals.
Even as Richard sounded somewhat impartial, I found slippage. He had been in the British Army. As other stories (Noel’s) would have it, the British Army had a long history of executing Catholics on trumped up charges on site. Not surprisingly, the loyalist stories told of vicious attacks from the Catholics. Every so often, we would get a peek at Richards allegiances, but I admire his attempts to remain balanced in his approach. The man grew up in the slums, with rats and bombings, losing family and “loads” of friends at the hands of the IRA, or perhaps unorganized gangs from the next neighborhood over. He said that violence is still just under the surface of the streets of Belfast. I suspect likewise, Richard’s pain and resentments lie just beyond his sparkling blue eyes. I recognized another similarity to Ron…I could listen and talk to Richard for as long as he would let me. When I told him I was more Buddhist than anything (easiest shorthand for my beliefs), he grinned and asked, “so are you Protestant Buddhist or Catholic Buddhist?” A shrug and an eyebrow raise indicated that he was only half joking.
The girls asked questions and were more engaged than I have seen to this point in this trip. They were surprised and entranced by the personal, first hand information (and possibly his impossibly blue eyes). I am painfully curious by nature, and couldn’t keep myself from asking Richard about the charges brought against him that led to his imprisonment. Hs eyes flicked to the side, he hesitated for the first time during the tour. I started to evaluate the question. Had i crossed a line? Was this too intimate, too raw for this, a typical tour? Did i erroneously assume a deeper, friendlier connection that wasn’t really there? I prompted him by saying my characteristic catch phrase “no judgement” and, as always, I meant it. I focused my voice and my intention–I needed to make sure he could feel the veracity of my claim, and the innocence in which it was asked (much like when my four-year-old self asked One-Armed Charlie, my grandfather’s friend, how he came to have only one arm).
Richard gave me a slight wince and hedged a bit, then opened up…he told us that he was arrested for being in possession of information (names and addresses of nationalists and IRA members and other intelligence…). “That’s all. An’ I was taken in and remanded. It was only a list–I told them that it was my Christmas card list, but they dinna’ believe me!” his infectious smile returned with the jest. The time we shared with Richard was an empath’s version of The Beast at Kings Island amusement park…the worlds longest, fasted wooden (read: shaky and creaky) roller coaster… We were up and down, shaking and swerving emotionally, until the scariest part, seeing yourself in the mirror above and wondering if you’re going to lose your head. Literally.
The students really don’t (didn’t?) understand political prisoners and how perfectly “good” people could be ex-convicts. But I also don’t think they would have liked him any less if he were a criminal. He was just that entrancing. Silver hair and a silver tongue. And best as we could tell, a heart of gold.
It is so hard for our group to really wrap our heads around the nature of the conflict and how pervasive the collective narrative of suffering and revenge for both sides. He used terms that at first seemed interchangeable… Unionist, Protestant, and loyalist. There are most certainly nuances that have escaped our group, but we began to get a handle on that side. Presented in opposition (what other way could it have been framed by someone who lived it?) to the Nationalist, Catholic, republican side.
This morning we went to the Corrymeela Reconciliation Center…but there is so much to say, it will take another post…
Ciao for niao