Hanging with the Dalai Lama after the bombs fall silent

A billboard in Belfast, Ireland, circa 2000.| Photo by Douglas Imbrogno

This article originally appeared in 2006 in my old Hundred Mountain web journal


BELFAST, Ireland  | A bomb hasn’t gone off in downtown Belfast for years now. That’s good news if you’re sitting downtown in a Dunkin’ Donuts on Great Victoria Street in Autumn  2000 as the sun comes up, enjoying a caramel cappuccino and chocolate croissant.

This is the life, you think. To be traveling abroad to a peace conference featuring His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with seven more days of travel around Ireland to follow.

Why, even the American franchise shop in which you sit has been civilized by its arrival in Europe.

“Will ye’ be sittin’ in?” says the doughnut shop clerk, in a barely understandable Belfast brogue, as she prepares to make my genuine cappuccino at a genuine espresso machine. (Coffee-wise, the Dunkin’ Donuts back home in West Virginia is still in the Stone Age, offering godawful ersatz cappuccinos that taste like coffee-flavored Kool-Aid.)

What’s civilized and what’s not, is all relative. The rising sun paints the flanks of the downtown buildings salmon pink. You peer out the doughnut shop window and see the Grand Opera House across the street– bombed scores of times by the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Nearby, stands the Europa Hotel, which the “Let’s Go” travel guide beside your coffee cup describes as “Europe’s most bombed hotel.” The guide put the tally at 32 bombs, noting that after the hotel installed shatterproof windows in 1993, the bombings tailed off.

And you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.

“Belfast possessed in Churchill’s phrase ‘an underworld… with dark forces of its own.” Brian Barton from “A Pocket History of Ulster”

The Way of Peace

My traveling companion Michael and I finish our breakfast and head out the doughnut shop. We catch up with a stream of folks headed across town to the glass-wrapped, copper-domed Waterfront Hall, sitting pretty on a plaza beside the River Lagan.

Our group is headed to the first day of a three-day peace conference held in October 2000 in Belfast by the Worldwide Community for Christian Meditation. The conference is the third and final leg of a “Way of Peace” dialogue between Christian monk Father Lawrence Freeman, head of the WCCM, and his Buddhist monk friend and fellow traveler, H.H. the Dalai Lama.

There is much more on tap besides their tete-a-tete. The conference includes weighty-sounding workshops on inter-religious dialogue in Northern Ireland. Plus, more cerebral ones like “Poetry and Peace: The Power of Words” and “Soil, Soul and Society: A New Paradigm for Peace.” There will also be a meeting with victims and perpetrators of the 30-year long bloodletting in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, an almost casual sounding name for a battle royale between Catholics and Protestants which has killed more than 3,600 people in all sorts of terrible ways.

A peace process known as the Good Friday Agreement, inked in 1998 and overwhelmingly ratified by Irish voters North and South, has stilled the worst of Northern Ireland’s bomb-happy heyday (most every major pub in downtown Belfast, for instance, has been bombed out and rebuilt, bombed out and rebuilt).

Walking the Belfast streets this morning, we newly arrived peace tourists are unfamiliar with how solid this whole peacemaking process is — relatively solid, I will come to learn. Yet isn’t that what everyone thought about the Mideast peace process before it erupted recently into an acid bath of vitriol, body parts and triumphant upraised bloody palms?

So there is this frisson of alertness — bracing, in some ways — which a newcomer to Belfast feels, as you stroll past government buildings topped with twin rows of concertina wire, armored entryways lined with whirring surveillance cameras and rifle-cradling Royal Ulster Constabulary guards.

Olive-green, armored Landrovers occasionally whip down the streets, metal plates hanging to street level to prevent petrol bombs from being rolled beneath them.

As we near Waterfront Hall, a shaven-headed American man, wrapped in the rust-orange robes of a Therevadan Buddhist monk, stops at a street crossing.

Across the road, a billboard for Guinness Stout displays a huge closeup, maybe 40 feet wide and 15 feet high, of a woman’s shapely rear end clad in pink panties, a tattoo peeking out from underneath her panty line. “Commit” the billboard says, rather inscrutably. And below that: “Live life to the power of Guinness.” The picture would not be out of place in “Playboy” magazine.

The monk’s name is Santikaro Bhikku and I have signed up to attend his workshop: “Meditation as an Antidote to Consumerism.” As we walk on, I glance back at the titillating billboard. While the groundbreaking Good Friday Agreement is evidence of big changes afoot in Ireland, the panty billboard is evidence of other changes in a country once dominated — some would say hog-tied — by the strictures of religion.

Another Guinness billboard seen around town tries a different shock tactic. It presents another close-up, only this one shows the 15-foot high face of an old Irishman, his red-rimmed, rheumy eyes testimony to the drink he has downed in his day. He looks tired, worn out, ready to give up — or give in, at last. “Forgive,” says this billboard.

This, too, seems a sign of the times.

“To me, letting go is one of the key things we learn in meditation…. Meditation has confirmed for me the old saying that the best things in life are free.”Santikaro Bhikku, at his workshop

Let Go

We are immediately encouraged to let go of something at the conference. The nearly 300 attendees — mostly white and from Western European nations, as well as America, Canada and Australia, the nametags reveal– sit in an intimate, darkened auditorium inside Waterfront Hall. Orange lights illuminate a striking stage, surrounded by seats as in a theater-in-the-round.

The stage — about the size of a tennis court — has been covered to a depth of several inches with the actual soil of Belfast. An Oriental rug with two chairs on it covers a portion of the dark brown earth. This is where Father Freeman and the Dalai Lama will shortly undertake their dialogue. A live potted tree stands in one corner, a microphone and podium in another. A small ring of stones a few hand-widths across, is laid out in the soil in a third corner.

“Come and bring your part of the earth and put it on Belfast earth,” says one of the conference moderators. The circle of stones is a cairn, she says, a nod to the traveler’s cairns Tibetans, American Indians and others created as trail markers and spiritual rests stops, depositing a stone when passing by.

I mentally thump my forehead. We had been told in a pre-conference mailing to bring a stone from our hometown. People stream down to the stage and deposit their rocks and pebbles; the pile will grow significantly as the days unfold. I root around in my rucksack.

The best I can come up with, being a guitar player, is one of the grey plastic Dunlop guitar picks I always carry. That seems symbolic enough, so onto the cairn it goes.

The host says that in the same fashion as a Tibetan sand mandala, the cairn will be scattered to the elements after its aim is fulfilled. So at conference’s end, the stones of several hundred hometowns from across the Western Hemisphere will be poured into the nearby River Lagan which cuts through Belfast.

I smile, pleased with the thought that my guitar pick, light as a leaf, won’t sink but will float off into the wide world.

“We wanted to come to a place of conflict. When the word ‘Belfast’ came up, your eyes lit up and you said ‘This is where we should come!” — Father Freeman (on choosing Belfast for the next dialogue between himself and the Dalai Lama.)

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The Dalia Lama speaks in a pleasant, if often imperfect, pidgin English. So his dialogue with Father Freeman is actually a threesome, as the Tibetan spiritual leader’s personal translator sits at his elbow on stage, leaning into the conversation between the two monks.

The Dalai Lama will gamely give answers a go in English. But when needing to make a more subtle or elaborate point, he’ll tilt his head in thought, shift smoothly into Tibetan and have at it. Then his translator, a former Tibetan monk who now wears a suitcoat and tie, will explicate His Holiness’s remarks, speaking in a resonant voice with crisp British English diction that is a pleasure to hear.

So, if the reporters are not massaging the material, any quotes you read by the Dalai Lama from his public appearances — such as those in this article — should be a mixture of the monk’s often quite charming pidgin English and the more mellifluous, complex renderings of his thought served up by his translator.

The other thing to be said about the Dalai Lama’s public “affect” is his own voice. It ranges from a deep-chested and throaty sound when speaking in his native tongue, to an almost squeaky, upper register (dare I say almost “girlish”?) quality that often dissolves into chuckles and giggles.

He also likes to move and look around, shading his eyes to peer into the audience, twisting in his seat to look at someone, leaning forward to post his hands like pillars on his knees.

And, of course, he smiles and laughs a lot. A lot. He is one of the great spiritual leaders of our day and — either despite it or in the service of it — he is also one savvy communicator, in his own fashion. He is, quite honestly, fun to watch.

Even if you didn’t understand a word he said — and you might not, when he mangles some English locution or veers off into Tibetan to make some esoteric, complex point — his body, his demeanor, his laughter and his face often communicate all you may really need to know at that moment.

“I always believe non-violence is an expression of compassion, of caring.”The Dalai Lama, at the conference.

A Pilgrimage of Peace

The Dalai Lama (with his interpreter at his side) engages in a dialogue with Father Lawrence Freeman, in 2000 on a plot of Belfast soil.

This is how it looks: The Dalai Lama in one chair, hands posted on knees, Father Freeman facing him in another chair, a few feet away. The Buddhist monk wears orange-red robes, Father Freeman wears the white robes of the Benedictine order. Between the two of them, there is not enough hair on both their close-shaved heads to fill a shot glass.

Father Freeman begins by citing his fellow monk’s “endless pilgrimage of peace.”

“You point out everywhere you go there is common ground among us all,” he says to him. “But it’s a very difficult message for people to remember, so it needs constant repetition.”

Never more so than in a place like Northern Ireland, one thinks, where Catholics and Protestants have had such an affinity for tossing petrol bombs at one another that someone once coined the merry phrase sprayed on walls as political graffiti: “Throw well — throw Shell.”

Father Freeman lobs the Dalai Lama a big one: what is the root of intolerance and division among people? The Dalai Lama swings his index finger into the air and jabs at his chest. “I,” he says. And for just a moment an onlooker’s brain goes, “Huh? The Dalai Lama is the root of intolerance?!”

But you catch up as he goes on.

“I,” he says. “That’s the center of the whole universe. In Mexico. China. India. The United States. That’s the center of the world.” This “I” is so blinded by its self-interest and preoccupation with its wants and beliefs that it cannot see beyond itself. It cannot see that its own fate is inextricably bound up with all the other “I’s” out there.

So, from these roots intolerance arises and “the inability to recognize one’s interest is very much linked with the interest of others, especially in modern times,” says the Tibetan monk.

“This is one way to promote the sense of caring, of respect. Recognizing just as you wish to be happy, others wish to be happy… If we look very closely, the concept of ‘we’ and ‘they’” — he pauses, slipping in this most subtle and difficult of Buddhist teachings — “no longer there!”

“Like it or not,” he goes on, “you have to live side by side. Not only in one area, but the whole world. Heavily interdependent. So destruction of your neighbor is destruction of yourself!”

Mary, Richard, and Alistair

The following morning, the conference shifts to Ulster City Hall in downtown Belfast. With hundreds of people listening attentively, three natives of Northern Ireland talk not about the current situation in their land, but of the past. They tell tales of how their lives were directly, painfully and forever changed by The Troubles. Their names are Mary, Richard and Alistair.
One cool October evening in 1975, a Belfast teenager named Mary walked along a downtown city street. At her side strolled a date, a local boy. They chatted about the movie they had just seen, “Godfather II.” A car pulled up beside them and slowed down. The window wound down, guns poked out at them.

“I thought, ‘My God, they’re going to shoot us!’” Mary says.

There was a huge explosion and Mary and the boy fell to the sidewalk. As they lay there, her date exhorted her: “Lie down and pretend you’re dead!” She worried that this was one date that would end especially badly. “This was the first time I’d ever been out with this guy and I thought, ‘Oh, my, he’s going to be dead!”

But it was she who had been hit. The car sped away. Sirens of ambulances and police cars pierced the night as help arrived.

“I tried to get up and couldn’t,” she said. “The ambulance man tried to lift me and it was sheer agony.” It was the last day of her life that she would walk upright.

Months later, first at Royal Victoria Hospital and later at rehabilitation centers, she would wrestle with her now useless legs and her new life in a wheelchair. She was not pleasant to be around, she admits.

“I was very horrible.” In the eyes of some, neither was she merely a random victim of IRA violence worthy of compassion. How could she be?

“Everyone assumed I was in a paramilitary organization. Innocent people didn’t get shot.”

But this one had.

The Troubles

The date was May 4, 1972, in the Northern Ireland city of Derry, which along with Belfast has been the other chief urban flashpoint of The Troubles.

Richard Moore, a boy who lived in Cragan Estates, was out on the streets as British troops roamed about, trying to squelch any protests by Derry’s restive Catholic population. A British soldier fired off a volley of rubber bullets.

“I was hit on the bridge of my nose. I lost my right eye, I was blinded in the left,” says Richard.

When he regained consciousness, he lay stretched upon the canteen table in his local school cafeteria. His teacher sought to cut his schoolbag and bloodied shirt off him. “The teacher didn’t recognize me because my face was so disfigured.”

Richard’s father arrived at the school first, then his mother. His father wouldn’t let his mother into the room to see Richard like this. The Troubles had already darkened this family’s door five months earlier in Derry. “She had her brother shot dead in January 1972, in Bloody Sunday,” Richard recalled.

Later, after her now blind son returned home from the hospital, Richard’s mother took over his treatment in her own fashion. She spent much time in prayer, seeking heaven’s help in the return of Richard’s eyesight.

She sought out blessed holy water from Ireland’s many holy wells, which she then rubbed upon his sightless eyes. She scoured Masses and church services for holy medals. “I had about 30 holy medals pinned on my chest like I served in World War II,” Richard said.

Yet despite his mother’s herculean efforts, heaven wouldn’t budge.

Signing Up for Revenge

At the tender age of 14, Alistair joined the Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. The father of one of his friends had been killed by the IRA and he was ready to sign on for revenge.

He must have been good at the snipings, the bombings and mayhem caused by these secretive, self-anointed soldiers fighting for the Protestant cause and Loyalist Ulster, because by age 17 he was sentenced to prison for 13 years.

Of the violence he committed, he says: “I felt I had done something for the cause. I also believed because I was a Protestant — and God was a Protestant — I would be OK. But in the back of my mind I felt I had done something wrong.”

In prison, he was constantly afflicted with guilt, especially “at the pain and hurt I had caused my family, and my parents who had aged 10 years in a couple of years.”

Alistair was behind bars in Northern Ireland’s infamous Maze prison in 1981, when Bobby Sands and nine other IRA prisoners undertook a hunger strike. It was part of a campaign by Irish Nationalist inmates to have their status as political prisoners returned to them after it had been revoked.

Sands would continue the strike for 66 days until his death. He became a martyr and brought worldwide attention to The Troubles.

“I heard three prison officers laughing at Bobby Sands’ death. And saying they couldn’t wait until they ALL died,” Alistair says.

He scolded the officers for their remarks. Then, he wondered why. “Why was I was defending Bobby Sands? I despised everything he stood for. If I’d had the chance, I’d have killed him and he’d have killed me.” Yet he had seen in Sands “a certain courage,” Alistair says. “I realized I was seeing him as a human being for the first time.”

‘I Blame the Dalai Lama …’

Fast forward to the year 2000, in downtown Belfast on the October morning of all this tale telling. More than 400 people fill the ornate Ulster City Hall this Saturday as sunlight slants through tall windows ornamented with stained glass gold crowns and greenery.

Mary, Richard, Alistair and others sit in chairs on a small stage in front of the windows. The program had blandly listed the event as “Testimonials from Victims of Sectarian Violence.” But this hardly prepares the conference members and other visitors for the heart-tugging tears and — surprisingly — belly laughs the session produces.

Father Freeman and the Dalai Lama quietly share the stage with the Irish speakers, the Tibetan monk’s ears cocked toward his translator as the stories unfold.

In her wheelchair, Mary pauses in her tale-telling, stymied by tears. “I blame this emotion on the Dalai Lama, because normally I’m not like this,” she says.

“I don’t like to be called ‘disabled,’” she continues after gathering herself, “because I’m not. I just can’t walk. I do have a problem with the built environment. It’s absolutely torture.”

The one upside was that young guys would help lift her wheelchair in and out of places “so that was good fun.”

Mary later left Belfast to work in London and Switzerland, married and had a child — she points out her husband videotaping her from the audience — and just last year she earned a Phd.

Irish folk are some tough cookies, an observer may think, hearing her tale. Yet some days she doesn’t feel so tough, Mary says. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy getting old, dealing with the wheelchair. But that’s just the way it is.”

Yet it’s not the way it should be for one single other person in Northern Ireland, Mary goes on. No other family should have to suffer as she and her family did from The Troubles, and from the fallout of the many failed attempts to bring them to a close.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable, that would be my greatest gripe. I blame the politicians. I don’t think they take the responsibility seriously enough. Northern Ireland is a very inflammatory situation. And we need decent, hardworking people to help us get peace.”

She pauses.

“I don’t want my daughter to go through what I had to go through, or any family. And that’s what I have to say.”

Without Rancor

Richard, the blind man from Derry, is the hit of the morning. Half of it is that after all that he has suffered and lost he remains light-hearted and witty, in the wry, self-deprecating fashion of an Irish bar mate. The other half is that he is totally, totally without rancor.

“I know you’re thinking to yourself that’s horrible,” Richard tells the audience, after recounting the bloody details of the day he became a blind man. “But for me, it was very easy to accept. I cried once about being blind that night — because I wasn’t going to see my daddy or mummy’s face again.”

But resoluteness followed. “Nobody was going to treat me as one of those handicapped people. Nor was I going to be seen mixing in those circles,” he adds smiling, as the audience breaks up into laughter.

He soon returned to his normal schooling and later graduated from university. He then plowed government compensation he received for being blind into the purchase of two hometown pubs.

“So I’m probably partly responsible for the alcohol problem in Derry,” Richard says.

These days, he is married and has two children. He has traveled to Africa and elsewhere as part of a program called Children in Crossfire, which it might be noted once accurately described him.

He is quite clear about what aided him best in getting on with his life: “The one big thing that helped me most was the fact I had no bitterness. In fact, I would be quite intrigued to meet the soldier that shot me.”

Of course, there have been deep, painful losses, he says. He was there at the birth of his children, “but I couldn’t see them,” Richard says. “There is a price to pay and always will be. But I don’t allow that to dominate the rest of my life. My daddy always said: ‘Never let one cloud ruin a sunny day.’”

It is an astonishing remark, equating being shot and blinded with a mere cloud passing overhead. After the session, the Dalai Lama rises, cross the stage and hugs each of the tale tellers.

But it is not the first time Richard and the Dalai Lama had touched. Before the Ulster Hall session, someone had asked Richar: did he have any idea what the Dalai Lama looked like? The Dalai Lama came over and invited Richard to touch his face. The Derry man then ran his fingers over the monk’s bare scalp, down his high cheekbones, across his lips.

It could be said, though, that Richard, even before he ever laid hands on the Dalai Lama, already knew the contours and thrust of the Buddhist leader’s teachings by heart.

The Catalyst

Alistair, a former paramilitary in the Troubles in Ireland, who was jailed for his activities, greets the Dalai Lama in Belfast City Hall as part of a peace dialogue. | Photo by Douglas Imbrogno

Alistair, the former paramilitary, often looks down at the floor as he speaks in a flat monotone to the audience. Seated in his chair, he wraps his arms around himself, knots his legs.

He is talking about how easy it is to hurt other people.

“It’s easy to commit acts of violence against people you have demonized,” he says.

But the encounter with the Maze guards over Bobby Sands’ death was the beginning of something, he says. “That was a catalyst for me in moving away from violence — realizing that the pain and loss was the same for me as it was for him.”

All of us in the audience wonder what exactly Alistair’s crimes were, of course. But he doesn’t offer up the details of who and how he killed. (The details are, one conference member remarks later, “the elephant in the room.”)

Yet if Alistair’s body language didn’t reveal his continued self-loathing for the acts of his youth, he confirms it with his words. “There’s no sense in having redeemed myself. I’m unable to find that inner peace,” he says. “I think that’s the price you pay for being involved with violence.”

He spent “torturous years” in prison questioning the culture that led him to becoming a paramilitary and “realizing you have been lied to, used as a pawn in someone’s bigger game,” Alistair says. “But you have to take responsibility for your own actions, for the hurt and pain you cause.”

The crowded room falls into a still, pained silence. Many, many others, including myself, are quietly weeping at this point in his testimony.

It’s true what he’s saying — what of the families whose sons and daughters died or were hurt due to the bombs and bullets he and his cohorts conspired to launch? What of their stories?

Yet it’s also true that this is a lost soul trying to find itself, and still wandering in deep darkness.

Alistair quotes a long, moving passage from some Zen monk’s ancient treatise on the cost of beastly behavior waged against other living beings. I need to track it down because it has much to say.

But my eyes are blurred with tears as Alistair rings the curtain down on his story with the monk’s dire words about the cost to one’s own self of violence: “The stakes are not merely one’s life,” Alistair says, “but one’s very humanity.”

He pauses.

“Thank you.”

He, too, gets an embrace from the Dalai Lama, and a few words whispered into his ear. I cannot imagine what they are. But Alistair smiles back at the monk, the only time all morning his face brightens.

Later, an acquaintance from the conference — a heart-on-her-sleeve, sweet-souled American woman named Bethany — tells me she tracked Alistair down in the hallway afterward. She told him this: “If you can’t forgive yourself, how can we forgive ourselves? Because we created the world you were living in.”

Whatever the merits of such a view — and it may not be as overly well meaning as it appears at first glance — Alistair sounded as if the word “forgiveness,” at least as applied to himself, was from a foreign language he did not know and could not learn. “He’s holding the weight of the world,” Bethany says to me. “It just took such guts to be here.”

“Your Holiness, I hope you will see a people ready to settle old differences.”Northern Ireland’s First Minister David Trimble, in welcoming the Dalai Lama to the conference.

Tit for Tat

These are old differences indeed. I don’t profess to have any great understanding of the complexities of The Troubles as they unfolded in the six counties of Northern Ireland, which are more commonly known as Ulster.

Shootings and other violence have long bubbled across Northern Ireland, but the onslaught of the worst years began about 1969. The violence prominently claimed the world’s attention in 1972, the year of “Bloody Sunday” in Derry. That was when British troops fired into a crowd of non-violent Catholic protesters, killing 14 of them.

Three days later, the British embassy in Dublin was burned down. Then the IRA bombed a British barracks. The bombs, riots, assassinations, internments, house ransackings and yet more tit-for-tat bombs and shootings would soon cascade out of control.

At its worst, an average of 275 people fell dead each year from The Troubles, in both Ireland and England, as the IRA took the battle over the Irish Sea to what it saw as the source of the problem.

You could pick and choose among the statistics for the one most grim. Would it be July 21, 1972, known as “Bloody Friday,” when no less than 22 bombs exploded in Belfast in one day, killing nine people? Or maybe just the totals for the high water mark year of 1972, when 467 people died, with 10,500 shooting incidents and 1,380 explosions?

Back in my country, we scratch our heads at what seems like a befuddling habit of hatred. After all, the only Catholics and Protestants who kill each other in America are the ones who accidentally drive their cars into each other on the highway.

Yet just as in the Middle East there is more going on here than just differences over how to worship God.

This fight has as much to do with the deep-seated fears that Northern Ireland’s dominant powerbrokers — the Protestants — have of losing their power and becoming a minority if predominantly Catholic Ireland were ever to reunite all its 32 counties under a single Irish flag. (Ever seen the bumper sticker showing a silhouette of Ireland and the numbers “26 + 6 = 32”? That’s an Irish nationalist sympathizer at the wheel.)

This fight also has to do with Northern Ireland’s viciously subjugated Catholic minority and its own vicious response to that long political, social and cultural suffocation — a.k.a. the IRA.

A Tribal Conflict

But to get to the deepest roots of this “tribal conflict,” as Northern Ireland history expert Brian Barton calls it, would mean looking far back into the history of colonial tension between the Britisht and Irish.

The “core event” in Ireland’s long struggle between Catholics and Protestants was the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, writes Thomas Keneally in his book “The Great Shame: And the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World” (Random House, 1998).

In that year, King William of Orange led his Protestant army in vanquishing the deposed King of England James II and his Irish Catholic allies at Ireland’s Boyne River. The hammer soon came down on native Irish Catholics as the British overlords consolidated their rule:

“To prevent any further Catholic uprising a series of Penal Laws were passed in the years following aimed at keeping the Irish powerless, poor and stupid,” Keneally writes.

“The Catholic Irish were barred from serving as officers in the army or navy, or from practicing as lawyers… They could hold no civic post or office at all under the Crown. At the death of a Catholic landowner his land was to be divided amongst all his sons unless the eldest became a Protestant, in which case he could inherit the whole.”

A Catholic was also prohibited from owning a horse worth more than five English pounds, could not live within five miles of an incorporated town, and was proscribed from attending or keeping school, Keneally writes.

He quotes 18th century orator and House of Commons member Edmund Burke, fulminating against the Penal Code as “a machine as well fitted for the oppression and impoverishment and degradation of the people, and the debasement of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

But it would be just as wrong to say that pig-headed relations between Catholics and Protestants have always been the norm in Northern Ireland. There is a whole other history of well-intentioned, earnest attempts by Catholic and Protestant leaders, Irish and British, to try to build bridges between the communities and to create a more inclusive, balanced society in the six counties.

Yet the failure of all such attempts to fundamentally alter the reigning social order cleared the way for the worst demons on both sides to take over once push really came to shove. And they did.

Given this past history, that is why the Good Friday Agreement (sheperded in no small way by American diplomacy led by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, Bill Clinton and others) was so groundbreaking and hopeful.

The peace process has inched forward for several years now — fitfully and painfully, it is true, and sometimes held together only by spit and long-suffering patience, it has seemed.

And there are those who would like to see the agreement derailed. These include the splinter group called the “Real IRA,” responsible for the horrific 1998 Omagh car bombing that killed 29 people, along with die-hard Protestant Unionists and other hard cases and old guard doubters on both sides.

But Ireland need only look to the weekly body counts coming out of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip to know the cost of returning to old familiar habits of hatred.

“I hope the wavering men of Ulster Unionism are watching the agony in the Middle East… Look long and hard because it might stop you making the biggest mistake of the peace process.” –Fergal Keane in an October, 2000 issue of The Independent, on political maneuvering in Northern Ireland.

Walking the Peace Line

The Dalai Lama and Father Freeman disappear for long stretches from the Way of Peace conference. They flit between Derry and Belfast to meet political and religious leaders, they visit some of the many unsung peacemakers who have worked quietly for years on the front lines of The Troubles, helping to lay the groundwork for the current detente.

And — at the Dalai Lama’s request that he meet average folk — he and Father Freeman walk the so called “Peace Line” in West Belfast, the divided neighborhood which is ground zero for The Troubles in the city.

Those of us at the conference can chart the swath the dynamic duo of monks cuts across Northern Ireland by scanning headlines of Irish and English newspapers in Belfast shops:

“You Have to Live Side by Side,” shouts one headline from the Belfast Telegraph, quoting the Tibetan leader.

“Bosom Buddies,” says a headline in The Irish Times, atop a photograph of the Dalai Lama with Gerry Adams, the famous Irish nationalist leader and head of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA.

Ulster Is Urged to Heed Way of Dalai Lama,” says The Times of London.

Dalai Lama Rises Above the Doubters,” says the Irish Times.

This last headline refers to the fact that not all in Ulster welcomed the smiling man of Tibet.

“My feeling is that this visit will be treated with a considerable degree of cynicism as yet another attempt by a foreigner to meddle in our affairs, which does not have any real chance of success,” newspapers quoted Belfast’s Lord Mayor, Sammy Wilson, as saying.

Wilson, whose pro-British party lambasted the Good Friday pact as a sell-out to Catholic Irish Republicans, managed to be away on “civic duties” when the Dalai Lama came to Ulster City Hall for the session with Mary, Richard and Alistair. The High Sheriff of Belfast and lesser dignitaries instead greeted the arrival of the monk’s entourage at the front door to City Hall that morning.

The Irish, a self-aware folk, seemed well aware of the possibility that Wilson might be right in his dour view of the visit’s impact, given how enthusiastically Catholics and Protestants cling to tribal identities and hatreds.

In West Belfast, the Dalai Lama planted a symbolic sapling along the Peace Line, a sort of mini-Berlin Wall separating the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The following day, a cartoon on the Belfast Telegraph editorial page showed a beatific Dalai Lama beside the sapling, his hands steepled in a namaste of blessing as three glowering Irish thugs face him down. The lead thug thrusts an accusatory finger in the monk’s face and shouts: “Yeah, but are you a Protestant Buddhist or a Catholic Buddhist?”

“When human emotions come out of control, then the best part of the brain in which we make judgments cannot function properly.”-The Dalai Lama, in remarks while planting a “peace tree” in West Belfast

Battle Cries

Peace flags, string in a no-man’s zone between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, Ireland. string from barbed wire a day after the Dalai Lama’s visit with Father Lawrence Freeman. | Photo by Douglas Imbrogno

My friend Michael and I set out early Sunday morning to walk the Peace Line ourselves. To get there from downtown, you can shell out six or seven pounds for a tour of these sectarian neighborhoods via one of the city’s “Black Cabs” (so-called because they are black not because of the city’s funereal history although it could work either way).

We decide to stroll there on foot. This makes for a more personal encounter with the colorful, surreal and often disturbing murals and markings of West Belfast.

Like dogs or wolves marking territory, Catholics and Protestants mark theirs in various ways. A curb or a pole daubed with orange, green and white (colors of the Irish flag) means you’re on Irish Republican turf.

If the pole or curb bears blue, red and white splashes (British flag colors) you’re in Loyalist territory. (Belfast newspapers had reported the prior month that some Catholic homes had been the target of “paint bomb” sacks, full of blue, red and white paint.)

Angry political graffiti and signs abound: “Disband the RUC child killers,” says a Catholic wall sign, referring to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force.

But it is the murals painted on entire walls that shout out the battle cries and deep losses, the fury and dark divisions between Catholics and Protestants.

The most hallucinogenic one is found on the side of the Sinn Fein office building on Falls Road in Catholic West Belfast. In Technicolor glory, a mural perhaps 75 feet high and 50 feet across depicts a smiling, long-haired Bobby Sands looking much like a rock star.

“Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular role to play,” it reads to the left of his boyish grin. And on the right: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

Sands’ body is buried right up the road in Milltown Cemetery.

A Brilliant Visit

Three blocks over in Protestant West Belfast, several walls are populated by figures hoisting assault rifles, dressed head to toe in black Ninja outfits, with only spooky eye and mouthholes visible. These murals glorify the alphabet soup of Protestant Ulster’s paramilitary outfits like the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) or the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters). “Lamh Dearg Abu,” cries one, in Gaelic: “Ulster to Victory.”

The Peace Line itself is anything but peaceable. It is actually a high brick and sometimes metal wall, topped by corrugated sheets of rusted metal and matted tangles of barbed wire.

On either side of this tangible manifestation of The Troubles lie depressing, rubble-strewn lots, graffiti-splashed walls and yet more barbed wire, a shared dead zone that keeps Catholic and Protestant residents out of each other’s spaces and faces.

When the Dalai Lama and Father Freeman had come this way the day before our visit, they accomplished a rare feat. Locked gates which lead from Protestant quarters onto the Catholic Springfield Road near the Peace Line were thrown open — the gates are unlocked rarely during the year — and Catholics and Protestants came out to mingle at the tree-planting ceremony.

Brilliant” is what the Irish say when they want to remark on how great something is. “To see Catholics and Protestants standing together, it was brilliant,” one Catholic woman was quoted in the papers about the event.

Yet the day after the monks’ visit, grey clouds thickly coated the sky. The day was cold and not brilliant at all. The Peace Line was a gloomy place.

But our eyes catch a spot of color. It’s a vivid row of green, yellow, white, red and blue prayer flags still hung over the road. They twist in the wind or tangled up in places on clumps of barbed wire atop the walls.

Area school children from both sides of the wall had made the flags for the Dalai Lama’s visit, decorating them with Buddhist and Christian images. They waved them in greeting when he arrived.

(And if you think Buddhist monks are always models of equilibrium, note one Belfast reporter’s description of that moment: “The cheers from the local schoolchildren waving prayer flags appeared to overwhelm the Buddhist leader…”)

A string of the flags decorated with Buddha heads and lotus flowers now dragged upon the pavement. Michael took out a pen knife. We each cut off one of the flags, which were about the size of a face cloth.

Mine was shamrock-green with a Buddha face stenciled on in red paint the color of the Dalai Lama’s robes. I stashed it in my rucksack, a battle zone souvenir.

I intend to frame it and hang it above my meditation altar back home, to mark at least a cameo appearance by the Buddha in West Belfast.

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