Don’t order an “Irish Car Bomb” and other lessons from Northern Ireland

Written by Kerrin Smith

This summer I’ll be returning to Armagh, Northern Ireland as a teaching assistant for the Armagh Project (AP), a month-long writing residency in which students develop poetry collections, short plays and journalistic features during an intense cultural immersion. Though I made the same trip with AP in 2012, I feel as though I’m going for the first time: stressed about what to pack, nervous about making my connecting flight, and incurably excited. I’m trying to remember all the traveling wisdom and advice people offered me before my first international flight, and two stick out clearer than all the rest:

  1. Do not say “top o’ the morning to you.” Nobody actually says “top o’ the morning to you.”
  2. If you’re in a pub, do not order the drink widely known as a “car bomb.”

We, the group of six students who went on the first Armagh Project trip in 2012, were told that to understand the source of “The Troubles” (the time of conflict between British rule and the quest for Irish autonomy), you really have to start with the Battle of Boyne of 1690, an event that spurred centuries of systematic colonization and oppression of Catholic denizens, who tend to sympathize with Nationalist goals of united Ireland under a sovereign Republic, and Protestants, the descendants of English and Scottish colonizers who largely want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. When the Republic of Ireland was founded in 1921, six counties in the north–a region called Ulster with a large Unionist population–remained part of the UK. In the late 1960s, protests for a unified Ireland and military reaction burst into a decades-long conflict marked by bombings, assassinations, and firefights between the two factions.  So you don’t order a car bomb in Northern Ireland because it’s likely that someone in the bar has survived one.

Armagh Project group

Kerrin (front row, far right) and fellow Armagh Project 2012 students during the John Hewitt International Summer School, a five-day festival of culture and creativity where the students had the opportunity to perform their own short plays.

This is the history the other students and I had to absorb within our first week of the residency. Today, Northern Ireland is safe in its “frozen peace,” as former Irish President Mary Robinson calls it. Catholic and Protestant communities are more segregated now than they were before The Troubles–separate schools, separate sports clubs, separate neighborhoods. It’s difficult for an outsider to navigate such a delicate situation, and challenging to mine it for source material as a writer. We wanted to be comfortable and not disturb this peace that had been built over the last twenty years, but we also could not pretend that this history did not live in every corner of the citizens’ consciousness. I remember blurting out a question to Tony Kennedy, a community activist working to integrate the two populations, about how the two sides could even tell each other apart. He told us how his own son was assaulted by a group of boys who discerned from a slight difference in his accent that he was a Catholic.

This is where it was useful to be a visitor. Our ignorance and American accents were disarming. It allowed people to be frank with us, and their stories bubbled organically to the surface. For instance, Kimberley, one of our instructors, happened upon a meeting of socialists in the common room of our hostel who soon after disclosed their participation in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). When we met playwright Martin Lynch, he paused the recounting of his experience behind the barricade of his Catholic neighborhood in the 70s to ask if any of us had ever hijacked a truck, because it was a lot of fun and we should try it some time. In a bar our first night in Belfast, we met cops when one of the other students bummed a cigarette from them; they graciously answered my questions about legislation equalizing the number of Protestant officers and Catholic officers in the police force.

The best thing I took back from my first trip was that lesson–if you want to know something, understand, and have people open up to you, you have to be open. Ask questions. And don’t pretend to know anything you don’t. I thought I knew plenty when I first got off the plane in Dublin Airport. Thought I was prepared, educated hot stuff. But when I went to wash my face after the overnight flight, I ran into a janitor outside who was waiting to clean the bathroom when it was empty. I said excuse me. He, with a smirk, responded: “Top o’ the morning to you.”

Learn more about Armagh Project 2016.

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