- The Peace Walls
On a street where Protestants and Catholics once torched each other's houses a generation ago, Noel and Danny—men who fought on opposite sides of the bloody Troubles—look each other straight in the eyes and shake each other's hands, as if they were old friends. They linger in front of a spike fence that surrounds Transform Family Fitness Centre on Lanark Way on an unusual, blue-sky day in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Forty years earlier, Noel and Danny would have viewed this scene as an absurd, impossible fiction. Seeing each other on this street, they would have reached for a gun.
Yet here they are, sharing a quiet word. Noel is a slight man, wearing a puffy, black ski jacket and faded blue jeans and tennis shoes, pulling Danny's hand close to his body.
Noel Large is unlike his name—standing just over five feet tall and 140 pounds. His bald head shines in the sun. When he walks, his left leg loops on a tricky knee, an old soccer injury that ended his dream of escaping the tough streets of his youth. He pummels his chewing gum like a restless teen. There's a kindness in his eyes. It's hard for me to imagine that he was a killer. But he was. A Loyalist Protestant and former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Noel got into the game some years after the death of a friend in an IRA bombing. In 1981, Noel signed up for revenge. The first kill was of a random Catholic, one Eugene Mulholland, guilty of walking in the wrong place at the wrong time. He knew he would be judged for what he was doing.
But it didn't stop him from killing. Maybe it made it easier, knowing he could not be forgiven. At the lowest point, he found himself among the notorious Shankill Butchers, who had taken to a level of vicious torture as part of their terror campaign against Catholics. Following his arrest for the death of Joseph Donegan, a Catholic civilian, Noel was sentenced to four life terms: 357 years. In prison, Noel had a conversion experience—first political, and then religious. He still recalls [End Page 96] the day when he saw the vaunted Loyalist preacher, Ian Paisley, rile up a crowd and then disappear like a coward. Then came his return to his faith, disavowing sectarianism and committing himself to make amends for his violent past. After thirteen years as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, he was released.
Back at Lanark Way, next to Noel, Danny Murphy stands stiffly, as if his body aches. Wearing a classic Irish cabby hat, he's flung his black jacket over his left arm as if he were a waiter. A former volunteer of the Irish Republican Army, Danny spent years in prison for carrying explosives. Unlike Noel, he refuses to divulge much about what he calls his active service.
Two men, who during the Troubles would have just as soon shot the other, ask after each other's families. But it's what they say with their bodies, standing there together, trying to find the right words, that makes up the secret volume of the Troubles, when for thirty years in this tiny country, 3,400 people died and half a million were victims of the violence. To this day, over twenty years into the peace, people still walk the streets reliving the Troubles, suffering from PTSD and emotional disorders at levels seen nowhere else in Europe and rivaling the worst postconflict zones in the world.
Yet ever since the peace took hold, former prisoners from Coiste na n-larchimí (Ex-Prisoners Committee) and EPIC (Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre) have been meeting here on Lanark—a street connecting the ethnically Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist neighborhoods and divided by a massive Peace Wall—to hand off groups learning about both sides of the conflict. I'm here coordinating the John Carroll University peacebuilding program's annual visit to Northern Ireland to study the unfolding peace, as I've done for years now. Fellow faculty, students, and I first...