I've always found the non Irish perception of Northern Ireland a fascinating thing. When on holiday in the US of A, my family were asked by an incredibly polite waitress (a sure sign that you're either in America or your Irish waitress is looking an incredibly hefty tip) where in the world we hailed from. To our surprise, she was aware of the country's existence, and knew of our capital city ("Belfast is in Northern Ireland, right?" she said); however, something that was oddly not surprising to my Northern Irish family was her next question.
"....Is it, like, safe back home?" Her question was posed as if we were a group of Syrian children just smuggled out of a van in the Denny's car park, yet my mum - even more used to these well meaning but ill informed questions than I am - simply smiled and said "No no, that was years ago". I don't, nor do many Northern Irish people, blame those from the US or any foreign countries for not knowing the ins and outs of Northern Ireland; after all, our wee country's about the size of Connecticut.
For those who may not know, when my mum referred to 'years ago', she was referring to The Troubles, an officially nearly thirty year long political conflict within Northern Ireland between two groups: the mainly Catholic Nationalists and the mainly Protestant Unionists. Nationalists wished for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland in order to form a United Ireland, while the Unionists wanted to stay under British rule. This is all well and good when the situation is resolved peacefully, but as we all know, peace is a rare commodity, and what followed was thirty years of constant counterterrorism between paramilitary groups from both sides, involving intimidation, car bombings and the building of an ironically-named 'peace wall' to separate Protestant and Catholic communities.
Questions about Northern Ireland's troubled past cause me to look around and wonder,
"How much has the religious divide changed?"
I must say, I'm very glad that, as a sixteen year old, I've avoided the majority of this conflict and have been able to live without the fear many teenagers in my country had to endure during the seventies and eighties, while enjoying simple activities such as getting a bus, walking to school, and particularly, going to church, an activity usually synonymous with a collective sense of peace and friendship. As a son to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, I recognise the sacrifices they made - losing close friends, intimidation from those around them - in order to stay together under huge pressure to move apart. Despite my country's troubled past, I couldn't have asked for a better upbringing, and I've rarely felt unable to be proud of my country, or my parents. However, an unsettling number of people, many my age, make it hard to have pride in Northern Ireland. Despite the hard work of many to resolve this thirty year conflict, there still remains a large number of people unwilling to accept the notion of peaceful co-existence between Protestants and Catholics.
With the mention of the word 'Catholic' in my grammar school - despite the fact that my school is generally more denominationally mixed than other schools in the area - comes a few disapproving mutters from a small group of students, while the derogatory term 'fenian' is thrown around as if it has no meaning. To many who use the word, it's use means little. Of course, if one of my classmates is caught using the term he'd be in a detention quicker than he could say the word again...yet I place little of the blame on the young people who use it, but rather see the root of the problem as being bigoted, narrow minded parents who pass down their prejudiced ideas to their children like a beat up game of Scrabble.
Often these militantly proud Protestants and Catholics emerge from their East and West Belfast flats and onto the streets on the 12th of July, a day intended to 'celebrate' Protestant King William's victory over Catholic James II to ensure Protestant supremacy in Ireland. Of course, a select few from both sides of the religious divide ignore this aim and use it as a veil under which to cause trouble. For those who are fans of mediocre modern films, see it as a Northern Irish 'The Purge'. This year was 'quiet' with only five stabbings and what appeared to be at least six of my facebook friends being battered by someone of the opposite religion until they bled. Unfortunately, last year was FAR worse.
This aspect of Northern Irish tradition is one that is lost on me, as a result of my somewhat unique upbringing. On the 12th of July I often stay at home and spend time with my family, as far away as possible from what could become a public religious dispute. For my mum and dad, this event marks a yearly reminder of the separations society tried to force between them in their younger days. However, with every Protestant-Catholic riot and tense standoff they also acknowledge the strength it took to break down the religious barriers so fiercely guarded by the prejudiced. My parents have shown me that unlike many subtly-brainwashed children in my country, religion is but one small aspect of a person's character, not a prerequisite to friendship. I've heard of childhood friends reject each other once they reach the age at which their parents' hatred influences them to judge their buddy on the side of the religious divide he stands on. Often the tension is not based on the ideas of the actual denomination but rather just the label of 'Protestant' or 'Catholic'; a label that they are taught to base the moral standing of others on. For this reason I am glad to have the background that I do, and for this reason I am immensely proud of my parents for basing their relationship on love before religion, despite being used to the contrary when growing up it 1980s Belfast.
I may not always be proud of Northern Ireland, but I will never cease to be proud of my family for the qualities I need to live in a country of religious divide without prejudice.