A Sense of History

Recently, I listened to a former professor of an Irish university speak on James Joyce’s famous (or infamous, depending on how one feels about literature) novel Ulysses. After his lecture, two things stuck out to me. One was the absolute reverence that the Irish people have for literature and its authors; the lecturer was so passionate about Ulysses. His readings of and explanations of the novel made the literature come alive in a way I have never experienced before. The other thing that remained in my head was the deep sense of history that the Irish possess.

The lecturer told us a story about the first time he tried to purchase a copy of the novel Ulysses. Ulysses was banned upon its publication in several countries, including America, for being ‘indecent.’ It was never formally banned in Ireland, but was taboo to purchase. Our lecturer tried to purchase it one day as a college student in the early 1960’s. The bookstore he went to happened to be the only one in Ireland that carried the book, and their policy was to keep one copy on the shelf way in the back of the store. Very rarely was this book bought in Ireland. This bookstore kept their stock up from one box of copies of Ulysses for years. When he tried to purchase the book, our lecturer was 18. In Ireland at the time, that was still a minor. He was told that he would need a letter of permission from his parents, his parish priest, or both in order to purchase the book. He came up with an Irish solution to an Irish problem, as he put it: he went to one of his much older friends, gave him the money, and had his friend buy the book in his place. While it ended well for him and he got the book, his story made me realize just how longstanding some ideals are in this country.

Nowhere was the presence of longstanding ideals more evident than in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Some of the class took a trip there to get a handle on the history, and it was quite the experience. Conflict is still very much alive between the Catholics and the Protestants. While bombed out buildings have been largely repaired, one can feel the tension in the area. The Protestants have their streets, and the Catholics have theirs. They are still separated by a giant wall known as “The Peace Wall.” There are gates on this wall that are only open at certain times of day. The two sides absolutely do not mix with one another, and each holds on to and fights for their set of ideals. One of the most eerie things I witnessed to this effect was two children on the Protestant side (which supports Britain) standing in front of their house waving British flags and chanting “UDA! UDA!” In the Troubles and other Northern Irish conflicts, the UDA is the Protestant militant branch, equivalent to the IRA. Seeing these children, who could not have been more than six years old, chant in support of a militant group they surely did not understand really drove home how deep these beliefs are. What side one is on is something children learn from birth. Like the past belief that Ulysses was indecent, the ideals of the Protestants and Catholics endure through generations. Unfortunately, unlike the belief about Ulysses, these ideals remain and perpetuate a long conflict. Seeing the state of Belfast after so many years of conflict made me wonder where the ideals stopped and the humans began.

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