Minimal spoilers here. Less than you would get in a theatrical preview.
We watched the movie Belfast a few weeks or so ago. My appreciation of the movie has increased since then. I thought that it was beautifully filmed in black and white with a wonderful performance from all the cast. A special shout out though goes to the young Jude Hill who carried most of the film on his young shoulders.
In the late 1960s what was sometimes referred to as The Troubles started in Northern Ireland. News coverage tended to focus on the violence of that time, as was illustrated by television and radio broadcasts running in the background throughout the film. Belfast, however, chooses to focus on the humanity that existed despite The Troubles, based around the memories of the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh, who grew up in the city at that time.
What surprised me was the memories that the movie brought up for me of growing up in England at that time. I make no claim to have been as close to The Troubles as the characters in Belfast are, but I was reminded of the omnipresence of the Northern Ireland conflict in the daily news broadcasts, and episodes from the conflict that occurred on mainland England.
I was growing up and did not understand the origin of what was happening in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand the cause of what I was seeing in the ongoing news reports. While its roots were in the politics of the status of Northern Ireland, to the degree that I paid any attention to the history of the conflict (none), I saw a religious fight and in many ways it tainted my view of religion. As a child my interest was in science, and the idea of a God as he (as that is how God was presented to me) did not make sense to me. I always say that I am a better Christian now through my Buddhist faith. While I was fine with people following a religion, I could not understand religion if it was creating the upset and hatred that The Troubles were.
There were many terrible events that happened through that time, most of which I will never know about. I am reminded of two high profile murders, a bomb outside Harrods in London, an attempt to assassinate the British Prime minister and her cabinet, and the killing of soldiers and their horses in Hyde Park. Looking back now, I am amazed that this was just a part of the news cycle…or as my memory presents itself to me.
Then in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed bringing self-government to Northern Ireland based on “power-sharing.” Over the next nine years the political process went through continual tensions and development. Through this sectarian animosity remained.
In the year 2000 I was blessed to attend an interfaith event at the House of Lords in London. One of the presentations that day chose to look the hatred full in the face and offered another way, a better way, a more compassionate way, a way that looked for understanding and reconciliation.
Here are my memories of experiences of that time, the bad and the good.
The IRA used to carry out bombing campaigns on the English mainland. A lot, though not all of these campaigns were accompanied by warnings. Sometimes the warnings allowed enough time to clear the area, sometimes not. The emphasis appeared to me to be on disruption and confusion, though death and carnage was definitely the intentions at times. When I worked in London in the late 1980’s it was not unusual to have to take a different route home from work because there was a bomb scare. This was especially true around Christmas.
One Christmas my Grandmother gave me a calculator. It was the early days of calculators, and they were the size of bricks. The day after she bought the calculator from a store in the city of Bristol, the shop was blown up.
An old friend of mine used to be in the British army and he had been stationed in Northern Ireland. While there, a nail bomb detonated in a rubbish bin, making him partially deaf in one ear. When it came time to renew his time in the army he was told that he could only have a desk job. He chose to leave. From my memory, colleagues of his in the forces had also succumbed to the violence in one way or another. One evening I met him in a pub in London after work. The landlord of the pub was Irish. The evening started off well but as the night drew on, with a few drinks in my friend, things became a little more unpleasant towards those running the pub. I apologized to the landlord and led my friend out of the pub. It was sad to see what conflict can do to human relationships.
Just into the year 2000, my Buddhist teacher was invited to take part in a multi-faith event at the House of Lords in London. Along with another friend, I was asked to accompany him. This was only a couple of years after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. Animosity still remained in Northern Ireland and although the Troubles were essentially political, because of history the disturbances saw lines being drawn between the Protestants and the Catholics.
The event at the House of Lords was being filmed for television and those in attendance were told not to clap at the end of each faith tradition’s presentation as the function had a strict time schedule to fit into and there was no time for interruptions such as clapping! So dutifully, as each faith completed a reading or such like from their tradition, the audience sat quietly and waited until the next faith stepped up.
In the middle of the event a group of teenagers from Northern Ireland representing both sides of the divide took to the stage. I cannot remember clearly what they offered now, but from my memory it was of a nature of a call and response, with one ’side’ responding in a compassionate and restorative way to what the other ’side’ had just said.
When they had finished there was no option - the audience applauded. This was a vision of how things could be, spoken by the future of Northern Ireland, the young. To hear them speak was inspiring and uplifting. I always remember it.
I have found it interesting to sit and write about my memories around this time growing up. As I said above, I did not follow the details very closely - initially being too young and then just not having sufficient interest in politics. But as the memories here have shown, and the reading that I have done following watching Belfast and while writing this piece, the presence of the Troubles in my life, even if it was in the background, has stayed with me. I can only imagine what it was like for those more directly caught up in the conflict and those who lost loved ones and friends.