Christmas in N. Ireland: the spirit of resilience

On a cold, wintry day in late November, more than 5,000 Ulster Loyalists gathered outside Belfast's statuesque city hall to hear their leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, hurl defiance at the British government for its failure to stop the outlawed Irish Republican Army's killings. They shouted against the setting up of a government council to help deal with cross-border problems arising from the Northern Ireland crisis. At the city hall rally the loyalists seemed to be embarking on a course that could lead to open confrontation with the forces of law and order.

Yet only three days late, thousands of Protestants and Roman Catholics gathered together on the same spot at the city hall to witness the switching on of the lights on a huge Christmas tree and to share in prayers and carols. These two scenes within the same week illustrate vividly the two sides of Ulster -- the potential for war and the desire for peace.

The history of Ulster's war is already well known. For 12 years the story has been broadcast around the world by journalists working for national and international newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Since 1969 nearly 2, 200 people have been killed. There have been more than 7,200 explosions. The British government has paid out around $800 million in compensation for damaged property, plus another $136 million for personal injury. Last year the figures were worse -- at 98 dead.

Yet there is a side to life in Ulster which rarely makes the national or international headlines. Despite the violence, the gloom and political stalemate , Protestants and Roman Catholics in this province continue, as far as they can, with the business of ordinary living. There is the continued back-drop of violence this Christmas, as there has been for 12 long years but life goes on.

heaters and cinemas are open, stores have geared up for the Christmas rush, and colored lights pierce the darkness in Belfast and in towns and villages across the province. Bravely, indeed miraculously, a large banner across the capital city's main shopping street proclaims "Happy Christmas, Belfast." It is a cry that goes out to the 1.5 million people throughout Northern Ireland.

Over at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Michael Barnes, the artistic director, reports "most encouraging" bookings for the annual pantomime "Jack and the Beanstalk." Last year there was a near-capacity audience in the 1,000-seat auditorium for the pantomime. This year the reservations for the seven-week run should be as good, despite the poor shape of the economy.

The Grand Opera House itself is a symbol of the people's resilience. Earlier in the troubles the Opera House was devastated by an IRA bomb and for several years lay empty and forlorn. But it was refurbished at a cost of nearly $5 million and is widely regarded today as one of the very best and most elegant of its kind in the British Isles and farther afield. Originally built in 1895, it embodies the best of Victorian music-hall atmosphere and architecture. Since its reopening on Sept. 15, 1980, it has regularly attracted capacity audiences for every kind of entertainment from puppetry to drama to variety and, naturally, full-scale opera.

Despite the troubles, cultural life in Ulster is flourishing, though this is not well-known outside Northern Ireland. This year the 19th Belfast Festival at Queens University attracted such performers as violinist Yehudi Menuhin and New York jazz musician Zoot Simms. The Court Dance Theater of Okinawa, after a highly successful tour of the United States, began its European season at the Belfast Festival.

For this year's festival, which ran for 17 days, 189 performances of 100 different events were staged at a cost of about $400,000. Bookings ran at roughly 60 percent as compared with 80 percent for the previous year. But this was partly due to the recession.

Mr. Barnes, who combines the job of festival director with his duties in the Grand opera House, is an Englishman who first came to Belfast in the early '60s as a university lecturer. His attitude to living in Northern Ireland is that "If things seem to be improving, one never becomes too optimistic. Similarly, if the situation looks worse, one is not too pessimistic. People try to get on with their lives as best they can."

The same can be said of the business community. This year there are more Christmas lights in Belfast, there will be daily carol services and concerts by children from Roman Catholic and Protestant schools, and a massive fireworks display is planned. Women dressed in Victorian bonnets and bustles will distribute gifts among the shippers. The lord mayor of Belfast, Councillor Grace Bannister, summed up the mood: "At Christmas I believe that we can show the world the good and positive side of our much-maligned city."

Local traders are quietly optimistic, despite a year that has known the disruption of many hunger-strike demonstrations and more recent Loyalist rallies in the city center. Ken Lunn, chairman of the Large Stores Association, said: "The stores, small and large, seem to have a good atmosphere. They seem in themselves to be a refuge from the troubles. In business terms it has not been an easy year, due to the recession and other factors, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are looking forward to a "good" Christmas."

Another man looking forward to a "good" Christmas, albeit in a different way, is the Anglican dean of Belfast, the Very Rev. Samuel Crooks. Dean Crooks is a folksy, larger-than-life figure who has undertaken a collection for charity each Christmas for the past six years. During the week before Christmas he stands outside his church, St. Anne's Cathedral, accepting donations from passers-by for a wide range of charities. Each time he has surpassed his goal, and this year he is confident that he will be given more than $30,000 -- a sizable sum in Ulster, where there is 19 percent unemployment.

"One of the most encouraging things is that the money comes from Roman Catholics and Protestants," Dean Crooks says. "We go across the divides. This year I took part in the switching-on ceremony at the city hall Christmas tree. I stood there and looked at the thousands of people singing carols in the rain, and I said to myself, 'Look at these people, and all they've come through, and still they are singing carols.' That's what the spirit of resilience is all about."

One person well qualified to observe this spirit of resilience is Mary Peters , who won a gold medal for Britain in the women's pentathlon in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Miss Peters originally came from Liverpool, but she has lived in Northern Ireland for 20 years and has no intention of leaving. She now runs a health studio near Belfast, and she is the manager of the British women's athletic team for the Los Angeles Olympics.

Earlier this year, at the height of the crisis during the Bobby Sands hunger strike, Miss Peters made a nationwide television appeal in Britain to encourage leading athletes to attend a scheduled amateur athletics championship in Antrim, about 14 miles north of Belfast. The appeal was successful and the championships were deemed a success. Mary Peters won a special award from the tourist board for her efforts to encourage people to come to Northern Ireland.

She said: "I am well placed to encourage people to come, because I was originally an outsider. My family no longer lives in Northern Ireland and I could literally go anywhere in the world. But I have chosen to stay here deliberately. I like the people and their warmth and sense of humor, and the countryside is absolutely beautiful."

Despite worldwide publicity of the hunger strikes, street demonstrations, and violence, there were 710,000 visitors to Northern Ireland last year, and the Tourist Board anticipates only a 4 percent drop in tourism for 1981. This year, for example, the Society of American Travel Writers held its annual 10-day convention in Northern Ireland.

"The irony is that when people actually do come here, they have a good time," said Shane Belford, chief executive of the Tourist Board.

It would be misleading to suggest that the much-publicized troubles are merely a veneer of unrest and that the people of Northern Ireland are moving toward peace and reconciliation. The divisions are wide, real, and tragic. But it would be equally wrong to suggest that there is no hope and that there aren't any signs of reconciliation, long-term peace, and understanding.

The Rev. John Morrow, leader of the Corrymeela Community, a Christian-based organization, has been working throughout the strife to build bridges between the two communities and to point out the hard-headed realities of peacemaking. This Christmas, as in previous years, some 60 young Roman Catholics and Protestants will meet at Corrymeela to study and ponder "the nature of Christian commitment and human need."

John Morrow is a realist who points to the depth of the crisis now facing Northern Ireland, with the possibility of Loyalist armies confronting the security forces, already hard-pressed combating the Provisional IRA. Mr. Morrow, however, also notes the growth of small groups of Roman Catholics and Protestants who are meeting regularly to pray and to share, and to begin to live out what he calls "the alternative society."

"I have been surprised by the numbers who are forging ahead quietly and who are working for peace and reconciliation," he said. "Many of them do not want a high profile, but are anxious to go on with what they are doing. In the alternative society, people are beginning to recognize that they share much in common, despite the differences between them, and these differences are very real. As the crisis deepens, more people are being forced to work out for themselves exactly where they stand. Small groups are beginning to actually live out this alternative society, though the majority may not be ready for it. . .One of my problems is not to find members for Corrymeela, but on the contrary, that I have too many applications from those who want to join. For all sorts of reasons we do not want the community to become too large."

The Belfast Chirstmas tree, with its shared carols and prayers, is a symbol of what might be, just as the vociferous Loyalist marches and earlier Republican hunger-strike demonstrations were evidence of a less encouraging and grim reality. The message of Christmas is hope, and hope really does abide even in the worst moments for Northern Ireland.

Seamus Close, a Belfast accontant, is chairman of the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party, which is still very much in existence despite the political extremism evident elsewhere. Recently Mr. Close, who is a Roman Catholic, visited California with last year's Alliance chairman, Alex Boyd, who is a Protestant.

"People in California could hardly believe that they were listening to a Roman Catholic and a Protestant from Northern Ireland who were saying the same things," Mr. Close said. "It is not easy to get across this picture of the other face of Northern Ireland, but it does exist. Deep down the majority of people do want peace but they gather around a Christmas tree to share the spirit of goodwill and peace, the symbolism is very real. It is a picture of what might be , what could be -- and hopefully -- what will be, some day.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.