Walls by Marcello Di Cinitio, a Canadian writer, chronicles the experiences of people living on both sides of walls in Palestine, the U.S./Mexican border, Cyprus, the Western Sahara and of course Belfast.
Di Cintio is a sensitive and engaging guide, full of sympathy for the people he meets. He tells the story largely through brief profiles of individuals on each side of the walls. The book is highly readable and often very insightful, especially if you are new to the particular conflict he is describing. It’s well worth a read.
But readers of The Wild Geese will be primarily interested in De Cintio’s treatment of Northern Ireland. He talked to a wide range of people, Protestant and Catholic, on both sides of the “peace walls” that cut through Belfast neighborhoods. They included community workers, former republican and loyalist paramilitaries, a former member of the Ulster Defense Regiment and community photographers.
Di Cinitio can’t help but like and appreciate the people he meets, describing “their generous Irish character’ and “their quickness to friendship.” He writes that “I don’t know if it is ironic or apt that that those most divided by physical walls, most mutilated by barriers, were the most willing to let me in past their own.”
In the end, he finds it all inexplicable. “I could not see the conflict here with the same clarity with which I viewed the Israeli occupation of Palestine or America’s policies along the Mexican border…In Belfast, though, all the wounds seemed self-inflicted. I couldn’t tell whom to blame.”
Di Cintio falls back on the old cliché that for some inexplicable reason Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland just can’t get along. This view is shared by virtually the entire establishment media to the point where it is treated as an unquestioned, accepted truth. Unlike most of the establishment media, Di Cintio has actually spent time in Northern Ireland.
It may be no coincidence the establishment analysis has little or nothing to say about the British government. They take it for granted that all it is doing in Northern Ireland is keeping Protestants and Catholics from killing each other.
We can either accept that there is something in the DNA of people in Northern Ireland that makes them fight each other, or look for some deeper explanation. That would mean taking a brief look at the actual history of Northern Ireland. The Irish are often accused of taking refuge in the mists of history, but there is no other way to understand the current conflict.
The north of Ireland (there was no Northern Ireland until 1920) was the most rebellious part of the island that clung most tenaciously to the old Gaelic civilization. It was at the center of resistance to the British conquest, especially in Hugh O’Neil’s rebellion of 1594 to 1603.
It was in reaction to this persistent rebelliousness that settlers, predominantly Scottish Presbyterians, were “planted” in the north. They were given the best land with affordable rents and long leases. This provided a level of security and modest prosperity that would have been impossible at home.
The problem was that the native Irish, who happened to be Catholic, had been displaced from these lands and driven to the bogs and the mountain sides. Instead of accepting their dispossession, they waged an intermittent guerilla war against the settlers. Sometimes, as in 1641, there were actual revolts in which settlers lost their lives.
In these circumstances, the settlers were forced to depend on the British government to protect their land and even their lives. They must have felt that being British wasn’t a choice but literally a matter of life and death.
When Belfast became the only part of Ireland to industrialize in the 19th Century, this conflict over land became a conflict over jobs. Protestants were given the most highly skilled, most secure, best paid jobs. Catholics were by and large relocated to unskilled, poorly paid, often insecure jobs. This reality was reflected in periodic communal rioting.
Belfast’s prosperity was inextricably linked to the British market. Its shipyards supplied the British merchant fleet and its linen mills provided clothing for the steadily expanding British market.
Each community developed its own ideology to explain its situation and provide a strategy for future action.
In the Protestant community this became known as unionism. They felt that their liberty and prosperity were entirely dependent on the union with Britain.
Protestants in the North developed a kind of conditional loyalty – they would defend the British government in as long as it guaranteed their superior way of life. If it appeared to desert them, as in the Home Rule crisis, they felt perfectly justified in taking up arms against it.
It became widely accepted in the Protestant community that they were entitled to be better off than their Catholic neighbors. They saw themselves as the guardians of religious liberty and civic virtue. They were a sober, industrious, hardworking, people.
Catholics were seen as ignorant and priest ridden. If they were poor it must be because they were drunken or lazy or just didn’t want to work. This of course has striking echoes in American racism and white supremacy.
Catholics developed a nationalist ideology. They were oppressed by Britain because they were Irish. The only solution was an independent Ireland, free of British rule. Nationalists might disagree on many things – reform or revolution, armed struggle or constitutional politics – but they have shared the same basic goal of an independent Ireland.
These ideologies have taken on a life of their own, even now when the economic realities underlying their development have largely changed.
The shipyards and the linen mills are practically gone. But the Protestant community still clings to unionism.
Catholics have significantly narrowed the earnings gap. For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland there is a prosperous Catholic middle class. Still the vast majority of Catholics in the North see themselves as nationalists and vote for nationalist political parties.
This is, of course is a cursory, incomplete, sketch of a larger history. It is meant to suggest an alternative to the establishment line which Di Cintio, through little fault of his own, has bought into. Either Protestants and Catholics are just congenitally incapable of getting on with one another or there must be a deeper explanation like the one I have outlined here.
Marcello Di Cintio, 2013, Walls – Travels Along The Barricades Soft Skull Press: New York. ISBN-10: 159376524X. Price $16.95