I have just returned from 10 days in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where I was chaperoning a group of American undergraduate students studying the Troubles. It was my first trip taking students overseas, and likely my last. Despite the youthful misconception that the trip was a pub crawl, most of the students were able to pull themselves together enough during the day to appreciate the tourist sites of Dublin before we headed to Belfast and London/Derry. On other trips when I have visited Ireland or just made a weekend pilgrimage to Croke Park, I have heard U2 blasting from every record store on Grafton Street and pub in Temple Bar. This trip, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard the band straining from an open window or door. Even my students were surprised to hear live musicians covering more American music than Irish. Alas, I found myself alone in my apartment most evenings keening over my tea and toast.
As a teenager, my knowledge of the Troubles was limited to the lyrics of one U2 song. Over the course of my adult life, I have learned and read about the sectarian violence from sources impartial and partial. As an educator, I have tried to present the conflict to my students fairly and with as much transparency as possible. As a result, our outings in the North were more focused and subdued. After a tour of the murals along the Falls and Shankill Roads in Belfast, we met with Johnston Price at Forthspring, an intercommunity group located along one of the peace walls working to bring Catholics and Protestants together through a variety of programming, including after-school activities and community gardening. In the yard behind the building, it was encouraging but still shocking to see geraniums and birdhouses hanging from the barbed wire that separates the two sides of the street. Where burned-out cars and barricades once blocked access to neighborhoods, beans and peas curl up hand-made trellises in a few square yards of a newly planted "every man's land."
In Derry, we visited the Pat Finucane Centre, a non-party political, anti-sectarian human rights group advocating a nonviolent resolution of the Troubles. The PFC believes that all participants in the conflict have violated human rights and works on behalf of victims' families with various institutions, such as the Historical Enquiries Team, Police Ombudsman, Courts Service and Public Records Office, to bring closure, if not justice, to the human suffering so that real healing can finally begin.
Having watched James Nesbitt portray Ivan Cooper in Bloody Sunday, and because they have all heard the U2 song, my students were particularly anxious to see the Bogside area of Derry. Gone are the "broken bottles under children's feet / bodies strewn across a dead end street." Instead, on what was one of the sunniest days of our trip, women pushed baby carriages as lunchtime traffic jammed the intersections. Like everything else we had encountered in Northern Ireland, the cognitive dissonance between what we had seen and heard in the past and were experiencing in the present was a welcome surprise.
We ended our stay in Northern Ireland with a two-day residency at Corrymeela, an interfaith/interface community in Ballycastle whose mission is "embracing difference, healing division, enabling reconciliation." Our on-site facilitator was a 25-year-old woman from Finland, Tytti, who arranged for us to spend several hours with two Loyalist ex-paramilitaries/prisoners now doing community building and cross-sectarian work in their own towns. Cyril and Jim's honesty and patience with what sometimes felt like our voyeurism was humbling. Their journey from men of hate to men of peace is far from over (they feel that the work of the Pat Finucane Centre is biased toward Catholics), but their ability to listen to the facts of an event and understand that another's truth is just as valid as their own was breathtaking given the history of the Troubles. I'm not sure I could do the same in my own life.
Finally, when we returned to Dublin last Friday afternoon, I made it to the Little Museum of Dublin to see the U2 1978-1981 photographs by Patrick Brocklebank. The museum itself captivated me much more than the photos. That Trevor White and Simon O'Connor, two young men in their early to mid-30s, were able to open a museum in October 2011 and score a U2 exhibit of this renown so early in the game is a remarkable feat. Connections, anyone?
The gallery housing the Brocklebank exhibit is on the ground floor. The photos are an intimate glimpse into the band's pre-celebrity world that fans would never have seen if the images hadn't made it to the light of day, but we've all seen early photos of the band before. What I found surprising were the images in which the four latter-day pacifists are holding toy guns -- photos Brocklebank took backstage at the Project Arts Centre, where pistols and rifles were being used as props. Equally as disturbing, though less sadistic, are a couple of shots of Adam wearing an empty slop jar as a crown. Those photos alone are worth the price of admission. For a limited time, signed exhibition catalogs are available for 11.95 euro; they resemble postcard books. The catalog text is identical to the material posted beneath the framed photos, so the pocket-sized book is just as good as being there. There are some pieces diehard fans will want to see.
What has stayed with me most about the exhibition, however, is that I found myself inside every frame, literally. Most of the pieces are hung at eye level and are behind such highly reflective glass that I was able to find my own travel-weary face staring back at myself among the pudgy faces of four Irish teens. I still feel as young as U2 looks in those photos, as if no time or distance separates me from those early days of anticipation and promise. For the few moments I stood in front of those frames and saw our faces connect in that fragile pane of glass, our lives were entirely and irrefutably parallel. I can't stop thinking about that irony. Those of you who have read this far know exactly what I mean.
(c) @U2, 2012.