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Born to the "Troubles": The Northern Ireland Conflict in the Books of Joan Lingard and Catherine Sefton

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 21, Number 3, September 1997
pp. 387-401 | 10.1353/uni.1997.0013

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The Lion and the Unicorn 21.3 (1997) 387-401

The battle for the allegiance of young people is a crucial part of the Ulster conflict. From their early years, children in Northern Ireland are exposed to the slogans and ballads and sermons that proclaim the righteousness of the Protestant or the Catholic cause. And they are early aware that this righteousness may turn violent at any street corner. Until recently, the curriculum of religiously segregated schools reinforced these divisions. In counterbalance are both personal and fictional accounts, which have at their center a plea for a resolution to the conflict, a chance for the new generation.

In 1985, the Standing Conference of Youth Organizations in Northern Ireland sponsored the publication of a collection of writings by young people. While some of the pieces emphasize the warmth of family or the beauty of the land, the majority are dark indeed. A teenager in Northern Ireland, Elaine Harbinson, seventeen at the time of a 1984 visit to her home by "The Organization," writes of opening the back door of her house only to be "confronted by a small hand gun and beckoned into the living room" (Being Young in Northern Ireland 16). The family, held captive throughout the night, was forced to let The Organization borrow the family's car. After a week filled with police interrogations, the car was found, "but the army blew it up, not taking any chances. It might have been booby-trapped" (18). Harbinson comments, "My mother still bears the scars of that night; she still imagines we are being watched" (18). Among the many other pieces of prose and poetry one of the most moving is a poem entitled "Rainy Sunday" by Gavin Stewart. It reads in part

The rain cries at my window
. . . .
The mask laughs and the children weep;
        . . . .
                     rain falls on earth;
Yet nothing good dare grow here
For fear of being washed away in tears and blood.
        . . . .
A rain of sorrow, a hail of bullets,
Cannot the sun pierce this blanket of dark?
I have no memory of its shining.
Eighteen years it has rained in our hearts. (Being Young in Northern Ireland 21)

"I have no memory of its shining." Between the summer of 1969 when the most recent era of Irish "Troubles" erupted with riots in the Northern Ireland cities of Derry and Belfast and the summer of 1994 when Sinn Fein announced the much heralded IRA ceasefire, a generation of young people in Ulster grew up believing that bombings and reprisal killings were just the way life was. In fact, many of their children have grown to consciousness under the same political tensions: grown up in close companionship with armored car patrols, military checkpoints, and the ongoing possibility that the bus they ride, the store where they shop, even the home where they live may be subject to a bombing, a shooting, or an intrusion by terrorists or soldiers. They are the latest victims of a centuries-old struggle between the Protestant British presence in Ireland and the Catholic Celtic population. The ceasefire has itself ceased on occasion, and, although, according to a local source, the tension and violence have not yet returned to pre-1994 levels, a resolution seems ever receding.

Martin Waddell, in an unpublished paper that he presented at a 1989 UNESCO conference in Paris, speaks of the children he has met during school visits throughout Northern Ireland, children who

go home through street[s] that are marred by a so-called Peaceline, through fields guarded by watch towers, to houses impoverished by bitterness in some cases, and resignation in so many others.
These children are the experts in their own predicament, but the problem is that the ideas that form them and the ideas they articulate when confronted by a camera or a journalist or a writer-on-the-make are the ideas imposed on them by their daily lives in their own communities. (n.p.)

If there has been an easing of these hardline beliefs among the current generation, teachers and organizers who have worked for the integration of religious groups in schools are due some of the credit. So are those authors...


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