Three Headliners essays

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Laoise, 13, Tarah, 15, and Fionnuala, 15, attend a youth media organisation called Headliners in Belfast. It is not easy for any young person to encapsulate what it means to be who they are but here their views hold a mirror to the rest of us.

Fionnuala McGill Tarah Graham Laoise Holohan
17 December 2012

The surroundings that the kids grow up in

by Laoise Holohan

I remember my first time in Belfast. Straight away I knew this was different to ‘down south’. I know people try to say that everything is changing in the world and how we’re less sectarian than we used to be. But the truth is, we’re not. Well, I’m not saying that everyone is, but there is people who are, but you’ll find that everywhere. Small minded people. I guess that’s not quite fair calling them that, but what else can you say? They’re people who have built up a prejudice about a certain type of person and can’t see anything around that.

I remember driving into Belfast. I was just visiting my aunty, nothing out of the ordinary. We were driving in on the Malone Road and automatically my mind jumped to the conclusion that Belfast was rich. I was only young and they were big houses. Almost everything about the whole Belfast set-up was different. The shops were different, the cars had a different registration, the people seemed different and even the radio stations were different. But what struck me the most was the houses. At the young innocent age of six, I had felt like I had stepped back in time to Victorian houses and new ways of living that up until then, I had seen only on television.

I had also been amazed with the amount of murals; there is hundreds, not many with particularly friendly messages. When I saw one that had ‘Easter 1916’ written upon it, I turned to my mom and said;

‘You’d think they would of cleaned it off by now.’

In the five years I’ve lived in Belfast I have technically been a child and as a child I noticed a lot. Like how in my primary school everyone went to mass. Everyone. Every day we learnt religion. Well it was a Catholic school. But it did say that they let in all religions. Well – not that I saw. But in secondary school and up, well that’s where I saw it the most. Not even then, the last summer is where I saw it the most. And by ‘it’, I mean the obvious split between two communities.

Now here’s basically how I see this all. There’s one big community of people, but the people don’t see it like that. They see it as two communities. Catholics and Protestants. Look, I don’t mean to dis these religions, but they’re in essence the same. They believe in the same thing, that Jesus was the living God on Earth and all that. The only difference is that Protestants believe in different sacraments, that churches should be less decorated, the way they understand the bread and wine at church, religious leaders can marry and that the Pope isn’t the head of the church. The hatred is no longer about this; it’s about that your lot killed someone out of our lot.

It’s ultimately circular and will continue to be so. Because when all this started with Martin Luther the world was more violent, people killed among each other with less hardship. So people continued killing each other because of one death and it’s still going on.

I was talking with a girl and the touchy subject arose in our conversation. She insisted that:

‘I hate all Protestants.’ She informed me as soon as I mentioned the word. ‘Don’t even try explaining it, I hate them all.’

‘But, that makes no sense.’ I said. ‘You can’t just hate a whole group of people; they’re not all the same person.’

‘Don’t even try explaining it to me, people have tried and failed,’ she persisted. ‘That’s just small minded.’ I said.

‘Is it small minded to hate the people who killed your aunt?!’ she asked rhetorically. ‘But they’re not all the same person!’ I insisted, because they aren’t.

‘Just don’t.’ she said. That was the end of that. Nothing more was going to be said.

But I don’t get it. If the person was black who killed her aunt, would she hate all blacks? If they were a woman, would she hate all women? If they were homosexual, would she hate all homosexual people? No, she wouldn’t. But the years of brewing hatred against one another is causing her to hate all Protestant people.

As an outsider on all this, being an Atheist, I just don’t get it. Some people refuse to say Londonderry instead of Derry, and that’s okay. But when it’s a teacher doing a lesson and it’s in the book, you can sense there’s hatred lying there. Sometimes it’s not even lying there. It’s coming up to you and smacking you in the face, parading on televisions and radios.

I do Irish in school because all my family did it and I feel it will be a valuable piece of my country to be a part of, but I don’t think that’s why all these other kids do it in Belfast. After going to a Gaeltacht with other schools I’ve come to the conclusion that people do it because they want to prove a point that they hate England and that they refuse to acknowledge them as people. Not all kids were like this, but the fact that there were people who are and that they’re only young, well I just don’t think that’s right! Parents are putting these impressions upon their kids.

Sometimes it isn’t even the parents doing this. It’s the surroundings that the kids grow up in. It’s hard to tell, really, but the fact that the prejudice is there is bad enough.

Also, a lot of people at the Gaeltacht supported Celtic. It was like a religion to them. Well, when it comes to football most people are like that, but the fact that I didn’t know who they were was shocking to them. I mean, come on, they’re Scottish. Everyone sang anti-Rangers songs. It would have been fine but they made such a big deal of it. The amount of hatred towards Rangers was almost scary. Can I just point out, there are Northern Irish football teams, and you don’t have to go searching out for other teams. What have Rangers and Celtic to do with Protestant and Catholics? Again, they are Scottish.

I hope that anything that I’ve written so far can give an impression as to what it’s like as a kid with all this. It’s barely even the half of it. It’s the fact that I can’t go out trick or treating at Halloween, the fact that there’s a bomb scare almost every month and the fact that on one day every July it’s not a nice day to be in Belfast. It’s things like how schools make children go to mass with the school: it’s not optional.

I’d never say this normally, but I just zone out at church. I just don’t believe in it: but I can’t really go about saying that.

I was born a while after the Good Friday agreement. Me being me, I could barely tell you what it’s about. One thing I know about it was that it was needed and that afterwards it has gotten a bit better.

A lot of people think it’s weird that the IRA confuses me. Apparently there are two. The real one and a fake one doing things in their name or something. I don’t know what the original one did; I only know the bad things that the fake one did.

I think some of the people in that group need a good shaking. Don’t they see that they’re harming us more, bringing us back a couple of decades ago? And almost everyone knows the song ‘Ooh Aah up the Raa?’ I think that’s just awful. It’s a song in support of the IRA and what they do. Kids know it! They shouldn’t be worried and thinking about this sort of thing, they should be worried about stupid things like acne, exams and that guy they fancy. Nothing at all like this or even close to this.

And when the Queen visited Belfast I was so afraid that there would be violence. People rioting and bomb alerts everywhere. That ‘Erin is our Queen’ was probably the smallest possible act against the Queen. It wasn’t anything too bad; it was just people saying that she just wasn’t their Queen, nothing like ‘Get out of our country’. Some people really seem to hate the English monarchy. Other than the fact that I find their lives filling up our TV annoying, I’m fine with them.

So I remember that first day I was in Belfast. Driving through the streets and looking

at the old homes, I never thought that there would be so much hatred and resentment towards the throne lying within them or the hatred against one another. Who would suspect that something so big could derive from something so old?

I know I didn’t. At first.



Forcing myself to be part of it all

by Fionnuala McGill

As I begin to write this, I think to myself : ‘How do I write this unbiased, without coming off the wrong way?’ But I can’t and I suppose that is a characteristic of someone being brought up in Northern Ireland after the Troubles. Everything I do – the way I speak, places I go and the way I think are traced back to a biased upbringing within this biased society that I belong to.

Being raised in a Roman Catholic household in an area of west Belfast, I see signs of my background every day; masked gunmen painted in memoriam, scenes from the Easter Rising and faces of hunger strikers. Symbols of republicanism, of nationalism: but does it have any relevance to people my age today? I think not, but I think a portion of us, including myself, almost force it to be a part of our daily lives.

By force I mean I realise the importance of remembering the past. I don’t think the murals should be painted over, I don’t think people’s sacrifices should be forgotten. Those stories should continue to be told and I recognise that we as young people from the area have a role to play in that. To me I will always be an Irish citizen in my own right, I imagine myself telling my children what I was told, about the Troubles, about the sacrifices people made – the hunger strikes, the protests. I would want to continue learning the Irish language, something that I didn’t get the chance to learn when I was younger – as I think language is a very important part of any national identity, especially to me at least.

To ‘let go’ of all I’ve been raised in, to throw away the idea of nationalism and disregard all that happened in the Troubles would seem nearly disrespectful, almost like betrayal, because I see it as a bond with my community and friends alike. It’s like it’s my sense of identity and pride and without these traditions and ideas I wouldn’t be who I was, and am. So in forcing myself to be a part of it all I feel as if I have a reason to be an Irish Catholic. And actually a lot of the time it isn’t forced: it’s there, it’s chiselled into your mind. But at the same time I’m not sure how much of this is healthy or good for me and my generation and other generations to come. Half of the time some of my generation don’t understand it; they feel as if burning flags and starting riots must be a way to display their Irish pride.

Here I sit, as I write this, staring out upon Belfast and even I can spot the areas I would dub as ‘safe’, which would be other Catholic areas. Even though there may be more crime in certain areas populated by Catholic communities and therefore deemed much less safe than nearby Protestant areas, to me and other members of my generation they still are the ‘safe’ parts.

I remember a time when my sister, who was going away on a holiday bought a scarf. She remarked continuously how lovely it was, then I took it and opened it up – lo and behold, it was decorated as a Union Jack. Suddenly the loveliness was taken away. But if worn a certain way it would be fine, as long as it wasn’t exposed. If that doesn’t say something about how my culture is, then I don’t know what will.

I feel comfort in the Irish tricolour. When I was younger and driving through Protestant and Unionist areas I was overwhelmed by the number of Union Jack flags, a sign of British pride. It was as if you knew right off the bat you were no longer ‘in your side’ of Belfast.

I was astonished when I visited England when I was 10 and the place was void mostly of any Union Jacks at all. Alas, no person could say my name either, but I figured that also was because they were British. To me, Union Jacks seemed to become less germane to Belfast areas. I thought if people in England didn’t hang them in their areas, why did we? Or should I say they? Because back then I was much more separated from the Protestant community. However I must remark on how different it felt seeing that flag in England compared to any other part of Belfast. It just didn’t feel as threatening. Even after the visit the Union flag in Northern Ireland still felt rather ominous.

Being brought up to a father born and raised in Donegal and a mother born and raised in Belfast, I was nothing short of an ‘Irish’ upbringing. I remember fondly watching RTE as a child, saying Ireland when asked where I was from and hearing old Irish folklore stories. It wasn’t until later in my life I noticed just how different each ‘side’ (being Catholic and Protestant) was. I wasn’t aware until not so long ago that many people also born in Belfast didn’t have any idea what hurling or camogie or even Gaelic football was, or couldn’t in fact pronounce my Irish name.

Growing up I was astounded by how few people could pronounce my name, or even try to. I didn’t understand how people just didn’t know.

When looking at murals and symbols of Nationalism and the Troubles I feel at home, but also pity when I see derogatory slogans about Catholics and Protestants. In a humorous sense you also know what type of area you are in if you see nationalist paramilitary or Irish murals in other areas you’ve never been in. I think it’s important for anyone of any community in Northern Ireland to know if they’re in a Catholic or Protestant area. I think it’s just a weird precaution and that one must know who they’re around – well, just because. I know I do it myself, glancing at murals and flags and people’s schools uniforms and their names to get a sense of where they come from. Maybe everyone from Northern Ireland does it at some point. There’s a fear here that I think will always be here no matter how long the peace process goes on, and I hope the peace process does carry on.

I’m not sure what comes next for Northern Ireland, I just hope the future is bright. I remember hearing a story of a relative’s friend, who said she would date a Protestant but not marry one; I think there is still discomfort here from both sides of the pond. And as new generations come about, it won’t stop, because when my generation become parents they’ll tell their children the same they were told and it will continue on. Ignorant people breed more ignorance. A friend of mine wasn’t aware Protestants celebrated Easter. I wasn’t aware the 12th of July was an actual celebration that went for days with parties for children and the like.

In the short time I have lived, I have one close Protestant friend, living in a Catholic area and attending a Catholic school. It is no surprise to me. However, every time my friends and I (all being Catholic) come to stay over at my Protestant friend’s house we all go over the same routine of sometimes changing your name, depending on the time of year and how to pronounce the letter, ‘H’.

Although there is little to no threat, there is still a fear that maybe something might happen and I might have to pronounce the letter ‘H’ in a different way. I’m still not sure why that is.

I think bringing both communities together is the only way to solve our problems, but trying to do that is a problem in itself. I’m positive in the changes I see happening around me, albeit not some. I don’t think trying to mix already standing Catholic schools with Protestant schools is a good idea, nor knocking down the peace wall or painting over murals from the Troubles. Changing our mindset is the first and foremost thing and even now the notion of knocking down the peace wall is a touchy subject. Although, from my point of view anyway, I don’t see a great change being made in the actual communities, as I don’t think many people in Belfast are ready for drastic changes just yet. Many people who lived through the Troubles still feel the pain and I’m not completely sure how Northern Ireland will achieve complete peace, and I’m not sure we ever will. But if we keep moving forward positively and successfully working together, it can’t be anything but a bright future.


Taking a leaf out of Japan’s book

by Tarah Graham

People are the way they are. Everyone is brought up in certain ways and since we are young, subliminally we can end up believing or having the opinions of the people that surround us, no matter how much willpower we have.

I don’t know much about history and I don’t particularly want to, although I do know things that are forgotten can easily be repeated.

History doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. I think that events like the Troubles should be remembered, not in a bad way but in a good way. We can all easily say many people were hurt and injured and that there is still a great divide, but if we look at it in an optimistic way we can celebrate the fact of how far our country has come since then. We have the Good Friday Agreement, also schools, workplaces and youth groups both with Catholics and Protestants working and playing together. It’s all positive progress.

I was brought up as a Protestant and I am proud to be who I am. I do want to stay part of Great Britain and not part of Ireland, for the sheer fact that Ireland isn’t exactly in good shape. And if I was asked where I was from I would say Great Britain, though when I hear people saying they want to be part of the Republic of Ireland, I just feel like saying sometimes, ‘move’. If they want to be part of it, they know what they can do.

I do think the Queen is pretty cool, still working at her age. But, no, I do not know every single word to the national anthem. I would never hold back who I am because I think it could offend someone. Like when the Queen came to visit for her diamond jubilee I was really quite excited and I actually really wanted to go to Stormont, the day she was here, to see her. But that was the day of my technical drawing GCSE, so I couldn’t. Also my family didn’t have a party for the jubilee. I don’t think it meant all that much to them: but we did watch a lot if not all of the celebrations on TV because it was a very historical moment in time, and I did really enjoy it.

It angered me so much when I saw that people had put the tricolour flag and the words, ‘Ériu is our Queen’ on Black mountain when the Queen was here, because I thought it was just so disrespectful.

I had friends from catholic/republican/nationalist areas texting me about how horrible it was that the people that had organised and were protecting the flag had got hurt by people from Ballysillan but in my head I thought they should have just not done it in the first place. I didn’t care that they got hurt and if that makes me close-minded then I don’t care.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know if I could call myself a Protestant, because I don’t go to church and I don’t know what religion I have or if I even believe in a religion? But these thoughts obviously pass through every single person’s mind and it’s probably just a part of growing up.

In my head, religion is the start of many problems for people because I can see that some people are so embraced by their religion or culture that they are too close- minded to think that people can have other views or opinions. I think that this is the basis for many problems that exist today. You must accept people don’t have to believe what you think. That’s why I think there should be more things like culture-days where different religions can understand one another.

Last year I was lucky enough to be chosen to travel to Tokyo as part of a cultural exchange programme run by youth media organisation, Headliners. In Japan there are two religions which I was introduced to. They were Buddhism and Shintoism. Shinto or Shintoism is the native religion of Japan. They believe there are many kami translated as gods or nature spirits. Some kami are just spirits of certain places, and some are the overall kami. And Buddhism teaches people how to reduce their suffering by understanding themselves better. Often, people do bad things, and they get evil responses. Buddha discovered a way to end this, and taught it. Some see it as a religion: other people think it is a philosophy; and for others, Buddhism is a way of finding reality. But with these two religions both being very very diverse and not like each other at all, the people that live in Japan can both get on with their day to day life living in harmony with both of these religions and I really like the fact a country can do that and that maybe we should take a leaf out of Japan’s book. I’m not saying that the country is perfect because nowhere is perfect but it’s maybe food for thought.

I think one problem is that young people aren’t taught about both sides enough and can be completely ignorant about Catholics and Protestants until they are of an older age.

I remember doing an integration project with a Catholic school when I went to primary school. Its aim was to try and bring two different schools together to show us there was no difference between us, without teaching us about history. They used team-building activities and trips between our schools. I remember the first time we met, we went to their school and were led through to their assembly hall. When we walked in, all the kids were at one side of the hall and us at the other. We had name tags on; also the other kids did. But at that age this didn’t help me much because most of them had Irish names that I wouldn’t have even understood how to read or pronounce. We played a few games with them and we did the same when they came to our school a few months later.

But I really think none of these things work, because we were just told they smelt weird and that we shouldn’t talk to them by other kids. As I was little and didn’t know any better, I didn’t really talk to them. Also our teachers didn’t really encourage us to talk to them. We were just told to be on our best behaviour. Most of the kids on the trip with me didn’t really have a view on it. They just thought it was a waste of time and that they didn’t like the other kids. Also that it was boring, but they were just glad to get out of doing actual work in school. We probably found the bus ride there and back more enjoyable, and it was probably the same for the kids from the Catholic school.

I know children can go to mixed schools and I do go to a mixed school, but it is obviously a touchy subject as it can get students talking a lot - because there could be a lot of debates. So I do think teachers try and skip it. So there is still kind of a grey area for many people even in their late teens.

Though I do know that if I hadn’t got into the school I did or if I hadn’t started Headliners, there would be a very slim chance that I would have actually met Catholics, and I still probably would be very close-minded.

I have been asked many stupid questions. Only a few weeks ago a Catholic asked me if Protestants celebrated Easter? I was just completely baffled as to how she could not know we celebrated Easter. But I understand how if people aren’t taught they would obviously just not know.

As I attend a youth group in Belfast city centre, I have many Catholic friends and sometimes I can find it hard to get my point across without feeling like I’ve upset someone. For a long time I just wouldn’t say anything if someone said a point of view, because I was scared of my friends respecting me less or being horrible to me or something. But over the last few years I have realised to be and stand up for who I am and if someone doesn’t like it, then it’s their loss.

Nowadays there are obvious things my friends make fun of me for, like the way I say the letter ‘H’. But I just take it as a joke because I know my friends are only messing around. Though I do get very annoyed when they come to stay, because those with very Irish names are always telling me to call them a different name until they get into my house. There aren’t going to be people patrolling the area, listening or looking out for people that aren’t Protestant.

Sometimes I find it very hard with my friends, because it feels like I’m more open-minded than them. Because when I’m staying in their houses, I don’t even think twice. The only way I’d be scared or afraid is if I got lost somewhere. I don’t know, but obviously I could never say this because it would just make things between everyone very awkward.

It can be harder from about the 10th to the 13th of July as some of my friends aren’t allowed to visit my area by their parents. And this really annoys me, because it’s not like I’m going to throw them onto a bonfire. But obviously I can see why their parents would have concerns. And probably that is the way it is going to be for a long time, because, like I said, opinions are passed down through families. Things should be forgiven, not forgotten.


These three articles were first published in October 2012, in the fourth volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler. She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series.


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