I’m the child of an immigrant, which means a big part of me comes from elsewhere. More specifically, my mother was born and raised in Northern Ireland. Maybe at this point you’re thinking about shamrocks and pints of Guinness. Maybe you’re thinking about foot-stomping fiddle music and wearing o’ the green. That’s fine. Goodness knows the Irish stereotype has wormed its way deep into the fabric of our nation, and as immigrant groups go, being Irish is considered pretty cool. It wasn’t always this way though. Just ask the huddled masses who stepped off their ships in Boston or New York in the 1840s looking for work. Shopkeepers put out signs that said No Irish Need Apply. It wasn’t that long ago the Irish were reviled in America; we were hated with a pure intensity.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
No, I want to talk about what happened in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. Maybe you’ve heard of the Troubles. Maybe you’re vaguely aware that Catholics and Protestants spent decades hurting each other in horrifying and creative ways. Maybe you’ve seen footage of car bombs going off. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of masked IRA men holding machine guns or of the RUC kicking in doors. For the better part of three decades in Northern Ireland, bullets were chambered. Coffins were lowered.
There’s much I could say about my ancestral homeland but I’ll start with this: when I was in my twenties, I wanted to understand the place better, so I moved to Belfast. While there, I witnessed political violence, I got caught in riots, bomb scares, and I saw the aftermath of a murder. As I walked to the grocery store, it was common to be placed against a wall and frisked by British soldiers. Military helicopters thumped the night—they turned off their running lights so you couldn’t see them—and whenever I went to bed, my window rattled from the endless thrumming of their rotors. Even now, whenever I hear a helicopter, I’m pulled back in Belfast.
So why am I telling you this when I really want to talk about what I see happening in the United States right now?
Well, America, I’m worried. It’s not just that I believe Donald Trump is a blight upon decency, the truth, clemency and much else, it’s also what I see spreading across our country. As Northern Ireland smoldered with hatred during the Troubles, the world came to understand it as a fight between Catholics and Protestants. And yet, it wasn’t a religious war, nor was it some strange holdover from the Reformation. While the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” were used to describe the differing communities, it was really politics that fueled the Troubles. Republicans and Unionists fought over national identity, civil rights, voting regulations, housing, economic justice, and power. Catholic and Protestant. Republican and Unionist. Such labels mattered. At one point in time, such labels made you dead.
While I was living in the same city that built the Titanic, it didn’t take long for me to suss out if someone was Catholic or Protestant. There were little hints you picked up on: name, place of birth, neighborhood, educational background, which football team someone liked, and even how the letter H is pronounced (Catholics tend to say “haitch” while Protestants say “aitch”). Seamus Heaney, that extraordinary poet from Northern Ireland, wrote about this silent form of profiling in his poem, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing”:
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule.
For the first time in years, I find myself doing this kind of thing again. Whenever I meet someone new, I speculate about their politics. And as we skirt around niceties and talk about the weather, I find myself wondering: Republican or Democrat? Red or Blue? These labels come easily, but I have seen what labels can bring.
Some of the bravest people I met in Northern Ireland were those who didn’t lift a gun or turn to violence. They lifted their voices instead. They spoke up, and crossed political borders. As America gets more and more divided, I can’t help but think of Belfast. On this particular St. Patrick’s Day, I’m not focusing on pints or shamrocks or foot-stomping music—I’m thinking about the dead, and what made them that way.
Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Collector of Names, Adoptable, and This London—he also wrote the critically and popularly acclaimed, The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, The PBS NewsHour, and American Life in Poetry. A dual-citizen of Ireland and America, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University as well as a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org