Reflection on Northern Ireland at 100 years
How did we get here?
The creation of Northern Ireland looks, to me, as cynical and short-sighted as Brexit. But the ensuing problems served only to protect those who could protect themselves. By “offshoring” the question of cultural identity to this corner of the Island, GB and Ireland were freed from the responsibility of complex identities, at least in part. Northern Ireland, like a biblical scapegoat, was left to wander in the desert carrying the burden of everyone’s sins. And no one really knows how to integrate and pacify this population.
I should explain. I am a Presbyterian minister. I was only born here. I am a ‘blow-in’- none of my relatives, other than by marriage, were on this island 100 years ago. Mum is English, and met Dad at her Baptist church in Devon. Dad sounded Irish, although he was the youngest son of Scottish immigrants. His parents came “to the Irish Free State” in 1933, when Ireland’s identity was far from settled. “Burn everything British but coal” was daubed on the walls, and my grandfather’s presence was resented by his colleagues, because he was ‘not from here’. What did it mean to be non-Catholic (and not Protestant!) in ‘Catholic Ireland’?
Dad’s parents’ youngest son was born in Dublin on 12th July and named… “Victor”…. I suppose, in honour of William of Orange’s victory celebrated on that day – a victory to maintain the Protestant character of the British monarchy. Throughout my childhood in the North, though, hearing Ulster’s drums and flutes, Dad never enjoyed the festivities on his birthday! He had grown up with good Catholic friends and neighbours. Why would Christians, called to ‘Love our neighbours” celebrate our neighbour’s defeat?
Lecturing in Belfast Bible College drew my parents north in 1966. The Troubles were brewing. Born in 1969, I knew something of fear; learned to pray every day that no one would be killed, having absorbed language like “men of violence”. I never resonated with the cultural practices or political outlook of the evangelical world of Northern Ireland Protestantism. What was this Twelfth of July, with its pagan-esque 11th night bonfires, the burning of effigies, the rousing, aggressive drums, the hell-fire preaching with condemnation and fear of alternative perspectives? I could not be comfortable with much of Irish nationalism either. I could see both sides, and agreed with neither. But faith – Christ-centred, neighbour loving – gave me a kind of belonging, alongside the strange sense of disconnection.
I have been a native of this part of this island for just over half a century. I lived five of those years (1991-96) in France, where I accepted that I was “la petite anglaise” (wee English girl) and, at a stretch, “irlandaise”, (Irish woman), but I never succeeded in training the French to call me “nord-irlandaise” (Northern-Irish).
Therefore, belonging has been an issue! In France, I learned that being a foreigner changed how I read the Gospels. Until you have been treated as stupid or unimportant, you probably have not understood the Gospel because Jesus interacted in surprising ways with people ‘biblically’ excluded from community because of their ethnicity, religion, physical illness, disability, size and gender. His Truth was himself, embodied, in relationship. I love how Jesus brought together a messy band of disciples from opposing ideologies and backgrounds, and how the book of Acts reinforces this diversity in the Body of Christ.
When I would come back to Northern Ireland for visits, people were very concerned: “Where is home for you?” A good question, but not one I was asking! Home was wherever I was going next. Going home to my parents; going home to Belfast; going home to France. I did not talk about BEING at home in the places I was in. I just did that by loving the people I was with.
Where was home? In God-both here and not- yet- here. By the time I came back from France in 1996, my parents had moved to England. I loved the freedom to think and ask questions, to bring the outsider’s perspectives, and always having other places to call home…. and possibly to run away to, if necessary. However, it has never come to that… yet!
But I still feel like an outsider. John Dunlop’s book “A Precarious Belonging” well describes my current home in the Presbyterian Church.
Back to 1921.
What did 1921 mean to my forebears? Did they support Home Rule for Ireland? Did the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 signify threat to them, or protection for Protestants? Or pass unnoticed? Or was it a symbol of patriotism, loyalty to the British Empire, and associated with upholding the faith, bringing of the Bible and ‘civilisation’ to the ‘heathens’ of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean?
Neither family left diaries of their thoughts and beliefs for us to ponder. Their legacy is love for neighbour, and a commitment to treating people kindly and with decency.
For roots, and sources of hope for the next 100 years, I look farther back to ancient near eastern peoples migrating, enslaved, immigrating, invading, invaded, exiled, settling and moving again… and the invitation to a home in relationship with Creator and Creation. Theology is biblical when it holds -as the Bible does- different versions of complex stories, rather than monochrome systematic ideologies. The emphasis in the Bible seems relational, interactive, and concerned for justice for the least powerful. Individuals and institutions have roles, having shared histories, experiences, and accumulated wisdom, rather than shutting down conversations and thought, for fear of where they might lead.
Back to the Future?
I rejoice with refreshing bloodlines and storylines through intermarriage and immigration. The challenges of the EU and Brexit, of power-sharing and shifting demographics need not destroy us. Being Irish and Northern Irish and British is/are both a privilege and a responsibility.
On this land, our rainfall gifts us with glorious greens and fruitfulness, while sea and the cold keep snakes, poisonous insects and nasty spiders at bay! And for now, the Gulf Stream warms us! Though the climate is changing, our future may hold more conflict, through climate-change-induced migration, volatile weather patterns, food insecurity. We need to reach deep into pre-colonial history and pre-reformation Celtic spirituality, and the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts to affirm a unity with nature and a wholeness of the Body of Christ which offers us a New Humanity as well as an offer of intimacy with the Divine, giving hope for all who live here to be neighbours of all colours and convictions, thriving in “Shalom”.
Peace imported from another enslaved culture set free.
Thank God for a foreign Messiah!
Cheryl Meban (Rev.) serves as Presbyterian Chaplain at Ulster University. She is a member of the Corrymeela Community and former Board Member of ECONI and Chair of Contemporary Christianity.