A N. Ireland Lesson for South Siders

(Chicago SunTimes on March 9, 2012)

Recently I traveled to Northern Ireland, where I had lived for six years during the ’90s. I was curious to see how things had changed nearly 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, whether the walls still separated Nationalist Catholic and Loyalist Protestant districts, and whether riots were still waged over parades and marches. Ironically, it appears the Battle of the South Side parade in Chicago is bigger news than the controversial marches in Belfast.

Parades are not uniquely Irish, of course, but the tension surrounding parades in Northern Ireland have historically erupted into full-scale riots over symbols like flags and other representations of identity. At heart is the desire to celebrate one’s heritage.

The divides here are different of course, and in Chicago we don’t quibble over whether St. Patrick was Protestant or Catholic, or whether it’s OK to parade through a Nationalist district to celebrate Protestant King Billy’s defeat over Catholics 300 years ago.

The split over the parade in Beverly, where I grew up, appears in many forms: the North Siders vs. the South Siders; the Irish vs. Everybody Else Who Has a Parade (Facebook and blog comments demand the cancellation of the Bud Billiken, Gay Pride and Mexican Independence parades, among others), and of course the divide within the community itself. Many who were relieved by the decision three years ago to end the parade because of mass public drunkenness, violence and disrespect towards the residents and property are not welcoming its return.

Some say it’s all politics; others want to support the businesses but in fact they’ve enjoyed the house parties and smaller community celebrations that have replaced the chaos of the parade.

The similarity with the Northern Irish parades is the question of how people celebrats their heritage. And despite the divides, talks and negotiations are very much a symbol of progress, like the Good Friday Agreement.

Hard to respect a vandal

For years in Northern Ireland academics pushed the idea that the divide between Catholics and Protestants could be overcome by celebrating what they shared historically, or what the two groups had in common. Catholics, however, were quick to point out that while a criminal had a shared history with the person he robbed, the victim had little desire to “celebrate” that history. I see a similar argument here from Beverly residents who care little about bonding with the person peeing on their lawn or disrespecting an elderly neighbor.

Years ago I lived in a Protestant area of Belfast during one of the worst riots in the 30-year history of the Troubles, a riot that began with a parade. The July 12 parades celebrating King Billy’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne often march through Catholic areas. This is seen by Catholics as unnecessarily triumphalist and provocative.

When the marches were canceled, my Protestant neighborhood protested by building barricades to keep police and others out, and each night were set afire. The neighbors who previously carried my coal and fixed my faucet wore paramilitary armbands and stopped talking to me. I wondered who knew I was Catholic and that my son was half Jewish. I grew more frightened when I ventured outside and my friend Alec grabbed my arm and said, “Get ye in the house and don’t come out!”

Night after night I sat by my son’s crib watching the smoke rise from the barricades, terrified. I wanted to leave, but another neighbor insisted it would look like I was fleeing and wouldn’t be allowed back. She concocted a plan where I pretended to go into town shopping. Once past the barricade, I caught a taxi to the train station and joined hundreds of others trying to get to Dublin. She had my house key and turned the lights on and off so people wouldn’t know I was gone.

We moved the following year, before the next marching season began, into a “mixed” district. Here a Protestant neighbor would knock bravely on a Catholic neighbor’s door selling poppies on Remembrance Day to raise money for British army veterans — poppies are also considered a Protestant symbol — and my Catholic neighbors would smile (perhaps through gritted teeth) and give her a dollar.

I think the word is tolerance . . . perhaps even mutual respect.

Ireland today

While in Belfast a few weeks ago, I visited my old neighborhood — the one that teemed with kids and friendly neighbors most of the time — except during that one marching season. The recession had hit hard; houses were boarded up and “For Sale” signs lined the streets. Apparently during good times people moved on to bigger houses. Peace also brought immigrants who previously had stayed away because of the conflict. They rented here for a while, but were burned out and chased out. Some say the Polish were assumed to be Catholic, but mostly the Eastern European immigrants were simply Other.

It was incredibly sad to see this lively street so empty, and it didn’t say much about their chosen way to celebrate heritage. On the bright side, another Catholic friend who grew up on a different contentious parade route said it has gone back to the way it was when she was a child. Her Protestant neighbors put up their flags, they stop talking to each other for a while, the flags come down and everyone is friends again.

South Side tolerance

Divides don’t go away easily, but negotiations, meetings and proposals generally signify progress. Those from outside Beverly may not understand the importance of celebrating this heritage, but it’s hard to find common ground with that person peeing on your lawn.

Whether you were for the parade or against it, there is no doubt this day means a lot to the South Side Irish, with or without the parade. Whether you are South Sider or an Outsider, Irish or not, for it or against it, tolerance and mutual respect can go a long way.