Whether you say it with cynicism or genuine pride, there is no doubt that America is a “melting pot”, filled with people whose heritages are varied as a rainbow. Being that we are a country of immigrants, even if people often forget that fact, there is a strong emphasis on the origins of our past generations. Get to know people well enough and you will eventually hear all about where their ancestors were from and how they came to America.
In some cases, cultural traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. In others, people return to these traditions anew in an attempt to connect with their heritage. However, it often seems as if cultural traditions such as foods, music, dance etc. are not the only facets of a culture people keep alive. Whether in jest or in earnest, prejudices and enmities are adhered to just as steadfastly if not with more zeal. My household was no exception.
Growing up, there was a strong emphasis in my house on the fact that we were Irish. I am a descendent of many other nationalities as well, but Irish was the strand that always stood at the forefront. It has been said that the Irish have long memories, and Irish Americans are no different. I do not think my experience with this feeling is unique either; I think that since many Irish ancestors fled the country while it was still controlled by the Crown during colonial times, a prejudice against the British has become part of the Irish American identity, even if it often unarticulated. This negative bias was levelled not only at Britain, but at Northern Ireland as well.
For the purposes of this article it is important to understand some basic history of Northern Ireland. In 1922, at the conclusion of the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Free State was created and became self-governing. However as part of the agreement that brought this about, a region north of the island remained part of the British Empire. The six counties (out of the overall 32 on the island) that remained with the Crown were predominantly Protestant as opposed to the other 26 counties which are Roman Catholic.
It is not possible with any brevity to explain the centuries of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, but basically throughout the years of British rule, Protestants were given economic and political preference and Catholics were treated like second-class citizens. Over the next several decades, tensions between the two factions in Northern Ireland grew, finally exploding in violent period from 1969-1998 known as The Troubles. This thirty-year period was one of guerrilla warfare, characterized by explosive clashes between members of militant organizations and altercations with British military personnel.
The widespread understanding of the conflict that erupted in Northern Ireland is that it was (and still is) a religious conflict. In learning about it when I was younger this was also the impression I got. However, through my studies here in Ireland I have come to understand that the conflict was more political and cultural. The main split in the population of Northern Ireland is between Nationalism and Unionism. The nationalists want a unified Ireland completely free of Britain and the unionists want things to stay the way they are.
As I mentioned before, this nationalist attitude seems to have trickled down through the generations of Irish Americans. Therefore those who fight for the freedom of Ireland are seen as heroes. Even in the most subtle sense, there is still a feeling of pride in those individuals.
A trip to Belfast a few weeks ago completely changed my perspective.
During my weekend in the capital of Northern Ireland I learned even more about The Troubles and was able to see for myself the way that the city is still divided between Catholic neighborhoods and Protestant ones. Even seeing this stark division, I came to realize that it is impossible to paint Northern Ireland in black and white, or in this case green and orange. Hearing about all the killings and reactionary killings I came to recognize that both unionists and nationalists were victims, and both groups, at least the renegade militant members of both groups, were perpetrators of hate.
Most importantly, I came away from my trip in Belfast with the comprehension that no matter which side I felt was in the right, (for the record, that would be neither), the quarrel is not mine. As an Irish American, I have no right to say that one side was justified in their actions against the other. I have no right to engage in the angry condemnation or disdain of Northern Ireland because it is part of Britain. It is not my country. We have no business perpetuating conflict and hate for the sake of “staying true” to the cultures handed down to us.