We recently returned from a week in Northern Ireland. We went almost on a whim. Our son, Aaron Jonah Lewis, was in the midst of a four-month tour of the Ireland, the UK and Europe with his bluegrass band, the Corn Potato String Band. My husband said, “Let’s go to Belfast and surprise Aaron at his gig.” So we did. (It was a great show, and he was surprised!)
Joe has been a little leery of doing anything Irish. As an Englishman by birth, he’s afraid of enmity-by-association. Of course in Protestant-majority Northern Ireland, which joins Great Britain to make up the United Kingdom, being associated with Mother England isn’t such a drawback.
As outsiders to the Catholic-Protestant divide, we’ve always wondered how they could tell each other apart. It’s a cliché, but they all look the same to me! We didn’t get an answer to that question, but I suspect it has a lot to do with one’s name–first and last–where one lives and maybe even where one works. Neighborhoods and schools are still extremely sectarian.
Laughter is the best medicine
But there’s none of the violence long associated with Northern Ireland, and residents are now able to laugh at themselves and at the great divide between the factions. One evening we went to a play, Can’t Forget About You, at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. It was a raunchy comedy about a young Protestant Belfast resident, dumped by his girlfriend, who takes up with an older woman and the reactions of his prim and proper mother and politically active older sister, full of lines poking fun at Protestants and Catholics alike.
Another night we went to a comedy show, where the emcee and the guests all cracked jokes about Protestants and Catholics and their historic hatred for each other as the audience howled with laughter.
We took a day trip to Derry. Even the name is contentious. When English and Scots were brought to Northern Ireland in the early 1600s in what’s called the “plantation,” they renamed what was then the small village of Doire (pronounced “Derry”) Londonderry. Irish Republicans (mainly Catholics who want to unite with the Republic of Ireland) still call it by its original name. Now on train and bus schedules you’ll see Derry/Londonderry, an effort to please everyone. We took a walking tour of Derry, a lovely town with an intact 17th-century city wall.
Our guide gave us a brief history of the sectarian violence known as The Troubles: how the Protestants (of English and Scots ancestry) held all the political power; how the Catholics (of Irish ancestry), tired of poor housing and poor jobs, held demonstrations for civil rights in the late 1960s based on the model developed by Martin Luther King; how sectarian strife led to rioting in 1969, which led the overwhelmed Royal Ulster Constabulary to ask for assistance from the British army–which came and stayed for more than 30 years. The British army was originally welcomed by both sides as a force for keeping the peace. Then came Bloody Sunday in 1972, when the British soldiers fired on a peaceful demonstration, killing 13 innocent people and wounding 13 more. Membership in the Irish Republican Army grew exponentially, and the bloodshed continued.
Few old buildings
Why are there so few old buildings in Derry? The IRA had bombed many of them, said our guide, causing irreparable damage. It took until 2010 for the British government to admit the army was at fault in Bloody Sunday and to apologize to the families of the victims. The barbed wire barricades, checkpoints and British army barracks are long gone. But The Troubles are remembered in the famous Bogside Murals, in the Catholic Bogside area. One of the earliest, The Death of Innocence, memorializes 14-year-old schoolgirl Annette McGavigan, killed by British soldiers in 1971 when she was caught in crossfire. Another, the Peace Mural, combines images suggested by Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren.
Everyone–Catholic and Protestant–was relieved when peace was brokered in the Good Friday agreement that was signed in 1998, our guide told us. The IRA agreed to disarm. The British government agreed to structural changes that would provide more civil and cultural rights for the Catholic community. The British army left.
A reason to hope
Walking through peaceful Derry gave us hope that the Israelis and Palestinians will one day be able to resolve their differences as well.
We didn’t eat much traditional Irish food, but we did enjoy some fantastic fish and chips, that quintessential British fast food, from a dumpy little shop in the small town of Coleraine, where we had an hour and a half to wait between trains. And, today, I am going to share with you a good recipe for fish and chips.
The secret to crispy chips (French fries) is to cook them twice. Cook the first time until they’re barely starting to brown, then remove them and drain on brown paper. Just before serving, put them back in the oil for a few minutes to brown, then drain again.
For the true British experience, sprinkle the fish and chips with salt and malt vinegar. For an even more British experience, serve with “mushy peas,” which are exactly what they sound like: mushed up canned peas. (That’s a little too British for me!)
You’ll note that this recipe calls for a lot of oil for frying. Know that you can keep the oil and reuse it for deep frying—just add a little fresh oil each time. When we lived in London way back in our carefree eating days, we had a wonderful non-electric deep-fryer pot with a basket to hold and drain the food. We enjoyed fresh chips with almost every dinner!