Seeing humanity in conflict

Seeing humanity in conflict

Students analyze The Troubles in Northern Ireland through courses that provide literary and philosophical perspectives

By Laura Bednar ’17

Shared conclusions are not always possible, despite the good-faith efforts of groups in conflict. This is one of the revelations for students taking new linked core courses examining The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the longer colonial conflict between the Irish and British. Beginning in 2016, students have had the opportunity to enroll in “Irish Literature and Film: Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation” and “Selves in Conflict: Northern Ireland.” The content of these classes extends far beyond the surface of a religious dispute. Students analyze the effects of the conflict on people living in Northern Ireland from the perspectives of English, philosophy, and sociology faculty in a team- taught model, a signature of the University’s new core curriculum.

The Hands Across the Divide monument in Derry, Northern lreland, near the Craigavon Bridge symbolizes the spirit of reconciliation and hope for the future. It was unveiled in 1992, 20 years after Bloody Sunday. The bronze sculpture was designed by Maurice Harron, a teacher in Derry.

The Hands Across the Divide monument in Derry, Northern lreland, near the Craigavon Bridge symbolizes the spirit of reconciliation and hope for the future. It was unveiled in 1992, 20 years after Bloody Sunday. The bronze sculpture was designed by Maurice Harron, a teacher in Derry.

Starting in the late 12th century, Ireland had been ruled as a separate kingdom under the British crown. After a military victory in the province of Ulster in 1603, Britain gained complete control of Ireland. Since then, the Irish have battled to gain their independence from Britain. British colonial settlement and the harsh Penal Laws forced the Catholic majority to lose their land and voice in Irish parliament, increasing the amount of violence and death. After the war of independence, the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, but previously, as a way to protect the Protestant minority in the north, Britain established Northern Ireland in 1921. When injustice boiled over into violence in the late 1960s, The Troubles were born, lasting until the Good Friday Peace Accords in 1998. While the conflict is no longer violent, lasting effects remain. The peace needs to continue to be won.

Course evolution
The idea to learn about The Troubles was first actualized in 2004 when John Carroll students went on a four-week trip to Northern Ireland, taking classes at Queens University in Belfast. After a hiatus, the program was reborn as a two-week summer trip in 2011 and 2013, with seminars about the history of the conflict taught by English professor Philip Metres, Ph.D. In 2015, Metres began teaching an English course during the spring semester called “Irish Literature and Film: Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation,” which was intensified with additional reading materials and projects to promote a more through understanding of the conflict before tudents went on the two-week trip.
“The course came out of a desire to provide the students more background and understanding, as well as enable them to ask more informed questions,” Metres says.

“We were not terribly happy with the background knowledge students had, so we looked at how we could make this a more meaningful experience for them,” says sociology professor Richard Clark, Ph.D., who has been involved with the trip since its inception.

Philosophy professor Dianna Taylor, Ph.D., became involved with the trip to Northern Ireland after Clark encouraged her to accompany the group in the spring of 2015.

After 2015, Metres, Clark, and Taylor decided to expand the academic component by creating a linked pair of courses in the new integrative core curriculum, which would fulfill the engaging the human experience requirement. In 2016, Taylor began teaching “Philosophy 399, Selves in Conflict: Northern Ireland” as a linked course with Metres’ English class.

The integrated courses encourage students to reflect as they approach timeless and immediate questions. These courses pose questions about the desires and responsibilities of oneself and others when encountering unfamiliar or conflicting viewpoints. The linked Ireland courses also count as elective credit for the Peace, Justice and Human Rights program. The PJHR program requires an internship, and some students have used the trip to Northern Ireland to fulfill that requirement. Students are required to write a paper or complete a project that expands on the conflict to receive internship credit.

“Students were more engaged and asked better questions on the trip after taking Metres’ course,” Taylor says. “If the students took two courses, they’d be even better prepared.”

Students and faculty in Northern Ireland

Students and faculty in Northern Ireland

Conflict with ourselves
Taylor’s course focuses on the philosophical problem of the relationship people have with themselves. The relationship to oneself is the basis for ethics and can facilitate complacency in the face of, participation in, or resistance against oppressive power relations. Students read primarily philosophical texts, but trauma theory also is included in the syllabus. Trauma theory includes narrative accounts by Republican ex-prisoners and former loyalist paramilitaries, as well as the personal stories of victims of Bloody Sunday (in which British soldiers killed 14 Catholic civil rights marchers on Jan. 30, 1972) and the Nov. 8, 1987, Enniskillen bombing by the Irish Republican Army (which killed 13 people). Students consider the effects of trauma on self- relation generally and on people’s ability to resist oppression more specifically.

Taylor believes The Troubles are undertheorized from a philosophical perspective.

“Our relationship to ourselves reverberates when we act in the world,” she says. “In my course, we discuss how to create conditions under which it is possible to cultivate an ethical self-relation that promotes peacebuilding rather than conflict.”

Sometimes the conflict is reduced to being primarily or even solely about religion, but Taylor hopes students gain the practical and theoretical tools to understand the complexity of the situation.

“I want them to have a sense of how living in a context characterized by violent conflict can shape us in fundamental ways,” she says.

In the philosophy course, English major Matt Rentz ’18 learned that there’s always another perspective.

“It’s not easy to see the human side of the person you didn’t want to see,” he says.

A literary view
In Metres’ English course, students develop a sense of the conflict through stories, poems, and film. The class reads narratives by the Irish during the conflict and The Troubles era. The Troubles, a key term in the class, was explained by Metres as being a time of civil strife in Northern Ireland when 4,000 people were murdered as a result of violent acts that were politically motivated.

Rentz’s takeaway from the English course was that fear causes division among people and can cause them to act offensively in stressful situations.

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and former paramilitary commander Martin McGuinness with Leah Applebee ’19

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and former paramilitary commander Martin McGuinness with Leah Applebee ’19

“Writers such as Seamus Deane, Brian Friel, and Colum McCann offer us a window into new stories,” Metres says. “We look for new stories coming out of the ruins of the old stories.”

In literature and film, students look for the concept of moral imagination, which includes having empathy for others, being open-minded, having faith in the creative act, and having the courage to move into the unknown.

“I want students to read each work and go on a journey to encounter people’s lives different than their own, but that are worth understanding and empathizing with,” Metres says.

The main focus of Metres’ course is peacebuilding.

“We use the term peacebuilding, not peacemaking or peace, because most people consider peace to be a static condition or about politicians making treaties,” he says. “We need to widen our sense of what making peace looks like in the world to create a society that’s safe, just, and vibrant.”

Bill Shaw, who students met on their trip, exemplifies the skill of peacebuilding. He was raised Protestant and didn’t meet a Catholic until he was 17. He has overseen the renovation of an old church at 174 Antrim Road in Belfast and created a safe space for Protestants and Catholics to meet. There, Shaw is the director of 174 Trust, an organization that helps people in his predominately Catholic neighborhood find employment and child care and promote reconciliation.

“On a person-to-person level, he’s doing work that turns people away from joining a paramilitary organization or engage in violence,” Metres says. “Peacebuilding is an active process that involves the community because violence divides us so quickly.”

“I hope students understand the causes and consequences of violence and why they should move toward peace,” says Clark, whose sociological view of the conflict is explored on the trip.

Immersed in both sides
In May 2016, 13 students left for the experiential part of the course. In 2017, the overall Northern Ireland program will commence around May 14, after finals. The courses are a prerequisite to going on the trip.

A pro-England mural

A pro-England mural

“It’s the trip of a lifetime,” Metres says.

“Students can’t get nearly as much out of the course if they don’t hear people’s stories face-to-face,” says Angie Zappitelli ’17, an exercise science major.

Students – along with Clark, Taylor, and Metres – visit mostly areas in Northern Ireland, including the city of Belfast. They also explore other cities such as Londonderry/Derry and Dublin.

When on the trip, students can see that the conflict is far from over. There are still murals painted on building walls that glorify the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups. Thirty-foot walls still separate some Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

“Students are able to understand that despite the difficulty of doing so, people in Northern Ireland are engaged in trying to create a lasting peace,” Taylor says. “To hear a person who was directly involved in the conflict talk about a need for peace is something we can’t provide in the classroom.”

Taylor was able to get to know the students better during this course because of the trip.

“Processing our emotional and intellectual reactions together is unique,” she says. “I was learning with the students.”

Clark, who has accompanied students on the majority of trips to Northern Ireland, has developed a sense of the history and changes that have occurred throughout the years.

“There has been a decrease of militarization, and the past two times I’ve traveled there, I saw more forgiveness and a sense that people see the humanity in the other side,” he says.

Once in Northern Ireland, the trip is coordinated by Raymond Lennon, an on-the- ground coordinator who’s in contact with the people with whom JCU students talk. Students hear stories from people involved in the conflict, anyone from Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and former paramilitary commander Martin McGuinness (pictured with Leah Applebee ’19 on page 8) to people who’ve lost loved ones as a result of bombings, police, ex-paramilitaries, and community organizers.

A united Ireland mural

A united Ireland mural

Rentz’s favorite part of the trip was meeting McGuinness. When walking from one conference room to another, Rentz was able to speak with him, discovering they had a mutual interest in fly fishing.

“It was surreal to realize Martin McGuinness isn’t just a person in a book,” he says. “He’s a real person who shares a common interest with me.”

“It’s crazy to see how people can completely forget the humanity of others and become savages,” Zappitelli says. “On the fourth day of the trip, I broke down and cried. I was so sick of hearing how terrible people’s lives were during the conflict.”

Zappitelli’s favorite person whom she met was Eibhlin Glenholmes, who was a terrorist during the conflict and involved in a bombing in Brighton, East Sussex, England, as part of an attack by the Irish Republican Army on the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party Conference in 1984. The prime target of the attack was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Glenholmes now works for an organization that provides support for Republican ex-prisoners.

“It bothered me that I sympathized with her and admired her for her passion,” Zappitelli says.

The trip was demanding for Rentz because the group would meet with someone from both sides of the conflict, and he would argue with himself about whom he agreed with.

“When you meet these people, you live their story when they share it with you,” Rentz says. “You can ask them what made them feel like they wanted to get involved in the conflict, and that’s not something you can learn in the classroom.”

“The trip aligned with JCU’s values by developing our intellect and applying the lessons from Northern Ireland to situations back home,” Zappitelli says. “We must use our critical thinking skills to not blindly choose one side to change a situation.”

“It’s important that people seek the causes of conflict and reduce the dehumanization and animosity we direct at human beings,” Clark says. JCU

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