Yesterday we visited the Northern Irish city of Londonderry/Derry. The reason for the dual name of the city is apparent as soon as one walks through the town. It is divided between Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Loyalist, much like Belfast. The city is known for the Bloody Sunday massacre that took the lives of 13 Catholics a few decades ago. The most striking features of the city were, without a doubt, the murals that have emerged throughout the “Bogside” (the Catholic side of the city.) These murals were moving and powerful, and told the story of the massacre from the Nationalist side. Additionally, some murals show the solidarity of the Catholic Nationalist movement with other civil rights movements throughout the world, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s. Derry’s murals were quite a sight, and the city’s stark divide between its citizens left an unforgettable memory.
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There are times in life that you experience another person’s life story in a way that really resonates with you. You feel their sadness, joy, anger, frustration, confusion and/or love as they tell you how their worldview was shaped. Each of us is a combination of our experience, shaped through our family, community and world our perspective is a tapestry of not only how those interactions with others has occurred, but also our response to them. My experience here in Belfast has been profound in seeing how resilience and courage come together with family and community ties to shape each person’s life. While there are strong similarities and binding identities within communities there are also the different responses that each person has to those identities.
I now have an even stronger sense of appreciation for how the people I have met are turning extremely hard experiences and differing community and personal identities into working towards a common goal. Experiencing their courage and resilience as they do such important work is inspiring, especially in the way each of them brings their own worldview into working on that goal. It is an important lesson in how a community with such a difficult past can bond together to accomplish amazing feats.
Today we visited what is properly known in Britain as Londonderry. Well the name depends on which side someone is on. The republican Irish call it Derry, because they are not comfortable with anything Protestant/Presbyterian/British there.
The feeling of sadness was palpable in the city. We entered at a point, “the river side,” where the English had originally built a fort, and took command of the valley. Over time, the Catholics were pushed away from the water, and down into the “bogside” where they remain today. After that small detour, I will proceed to explain the tangible sadness we experienced. As the class walked down the main street, we saw mural after mural which all depicted the tragic history of trauma and politics that has dominated the Northern Irish culture.
So this image, among others, sent chills down my spine. Both for the fact that the image, among others, had to be passed by every day, and because they reminded the people of Derry, daily, what the city had endured over hundreds of years. In the 1600s there was a siege, and then of course the Troubles, and even the past 20 years with the IRA and British fiercely contending for the Bog side. What will become of Derry/Londonderry, is yet to be known. But I have the feeling that the resiliency of the people will carry the city through it all, and hopefully, one day, the people of Northern Ireland will really know peace.
Yesterday we spoke with the Minister of Arts and with people from Restorative Justice. The man from Restorative Justice spoke about at one time being a political prisoner. It was very inspiring to see someone who spent time in prison give back to his community rather than be angry about what had happened to him. It was amazing how much history the Minister was able to speak about and it actually made me feel disappointed that I do not know my own country’s history better.
Today we visited Derry/Londonderry. We saw the Guildhall and walked along the edge of a fortress that overlooked the Bogside. It was surreal to see the cannons that were once used against the people in this town. I was able to see many of the murals that were painted on the sides of buildings from atop the wall. We walked further down into the Bogside and took many close up pictures of the murals. I also had my picture taken in front of the “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” wall. Hopefully I will be able to upload my pictures soon so that I can attach them to the blogs. I also got to see the memorial for the people killed in Bloody Sunday. It listed their names and ages. It was sad to see just how young many of the victims were.
After visiting with two families that have lost loved ones to suicide I am struck by their both their resiliency and their continuing sorrow. A common thread has been that people are determined to create something positive out of tragedy. Families are determined to make changes in the mental health services available as well as to change the culture of silence that surrounded mental health for so long. Despite this incredible resiliency their sadness is palpable at the very same time. One survivor I spoke with lost three family members to suicide over a thirty year period. As he spoke of his oldest brother’s suicide he broke into tears. He made it clear that the completed suicide of a family member isn’t something that you get over, but it can be something you learn to live with. And if you can, try to take your experience and pain to make an impact on your community by saving lives. I can only hope that if I lost a loved one to suicide I would be able to find the strength to honor my pain and use it to save the lives of others.
I feel like I am really connecting with the people here now, both my classmates and the Northern Irish people we meet. I am also missing my family a great deal. It seems now that I have allowed my awareness of missing my usual supports, I am more open to other relationships. At the same time, I feel myself withdrawing into myself more. I took a day of rest today and created a space to let the profound sadness of trauma sit inside me. I was able to take some time to really feel it last night and to care for myself today. I discovered a place that sells hot chocolate made with 85% cocoa and so I am taking in the tryptophan to make more serotonin so I can better adapt to the increase in stress. I have been eating a lot since I’ve been here and might come back a bit heavier….but stress eating is usually a healthier sign for me than stress starving ( I do both). It is a profound experience and I think I am finding healthy boundaries in response to my coping limitations. I am letting go of the need to fix everything. The sadness is becoming manageable without the distancing and dissociation that helped initially.
It is amazing to me how quickly the time has gone by. I am having an amazing experience with some very incredible people. Everyday is a new adventure and you never know what you might hear or the unbelievable things you are going to learn that day. Yesterday, we met with two separate individuals. The first man worked for a restorative justice program. It was so touching to me how much this man wanted to give back to the community and create peace. No matter how many times their ideas fail or how slowly things are moving they never give up and continue to fight to bring peace among Belfast. The second woman we met with was a Minister of Sinn Fein. The most intriguing thing to me was that she really wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be talking to us about, but as soon as she got started she had no problem educating us on the history of Belfast, what she has been involved in and what she is doing to help now. Every single person has a story in Belfast and are more than willing to share. The amount of history and the feeling of resilience and community is overwhelming. It is like no other place I have ever been.
It has been a crazy week. We’ve been to two conferences, met with a Sinn Fein law maker, spoken with people who have been effected by suicide, talked to a leader at the Committee for Restorative Justice, gone to Derry, and probably done a few other things I can’t even remember. There was even a Royalist Parade just outside the hostel when we got back from Derry today. When we met at the Committee for Restorative Justice with Harry McGuire, he had gotten a text earlier that morning about a bomb threat.
I’ve never before felt the need to watch what I say in public, not out of worry that I might offend someone, but because the wrong person might overhear and something bad might happen. I’m not entirely sure what that bad thing might be or to whom it might happen, I haven’t heard the specifics. But there is that feeling of threat that I have never experienced before. It’s fine for now because it’s temporary, but I can’t imagine living everyday with that hanging over my head.
There are many times in life we face adversity. During those times it may seem like we are all alone as we face trying to overcome whatever obstacle has risen in our life path. However we are not alone, especially if we can find the strength to reach out to those in our lives who love us. During my time in Belfast I have been reminded of the power of community and how those bonds can take away that sense of isolation and help with resilience in even the hardest circumstances. The hardships many people in Northern Ireland have experienced are many times hard for me to comprehend. However the strength of their relationships and connection to community I can not only appreciate, but admire. I think this incredibly strong sense of connectedness to taking care of one another is the reason that they have been able to continue in spite of the hardships. I find myself learning many lessons as I talk with the individuals at PIPS and others throughout the city, many of which will stay with me forever, including how community can build resilience.
We’ve been in for a few days, and I’m really enjoying our time! I’ve met many people who have been extremely hospitable and are more than happy to inform us about the Northern Irish history, culture, and its struggles with suicide and trauma. There are reminders on every block of the hostility that plagued the region, but the welcoming and friendly people cause you to instantly forget about the area’s violent past.
I have participated in two interviews so far with individuals who have lost family members to suicide. Both of these people have touched my heart with their powerful stories, and it has been gratifying to apply some of the skills I’ve learned in school during these interviews. We’ve also attended a few conferences, and the similarities between the mental health fields in the U.S. and the U.K. have become striking. I feel fortunate to have come on this trip because I am learning so much! I can’t wait to learn even more in the next few days!