Hope, Memory, and my Final Experiences in Ulster

     The days are ticking down!  I leave for the United States tomorrow morning, and I couldn’t be doing so with a lighter, happier heart.  My time in Northern Ireland has not only been intellectually stimulating, but socially and culturally stimulating as well.  I couldn’t recommend this wonderful little province more.  After over a month’s stay, I’m ready to go back home and enjoy the comforts I have there, but I’m  certain I’ll miss this place almost as soon as I leave…

     Following my weeks of research, I feel comfortable enough to start organizing my notes into something coherent.  I’m not ready to call this an outline, per se, since I have a lot more deep-thinking to do.  Still, it’s something.  The first roadblock to overcome is sorting through the mass of information I’ve collected.  I roughly organized my quotes and paraphrases into the three potential chapter subjects which my advisor and I proposed I use, before summer.  Lots could change, but it’s always good to start getting ideas to percolate.  Besides tidying things up, I will also read Terence O’Neill’s 1972 autobiography.  It’s a very curious document, written without any pretense towards impartiality, or—given that it was published only three years after O’Neill resigned from office—much of an angle of repose.  Still, those facts might make the book more pertinent for my research.  I hope that the work will give me an honest snapshot into O’Neill’s view of the social collapse that haunted Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

0 - 1969 election

Fig. 1 – A pro-O’Neill poster for the 1969 Northern Irish Parliamentary Election (Ulster Museum)

     It seems that O’Neill’s political philosophy was riddled with contradictions.  He would at one time celebrate the demographic diversity of Northern Ireland, while also urging its people to share a single value system and embrace “harmony.”  Or, while at one event he might praise the initiative of private business, he would later present himself as an economic populist who championed the plight of poor labor.  Some might say that this tactic is typical for politicians, but after digesting a voluminous amount of O’Neill’s speeches and private correspondence, it seems that he truly felt his “big-tent” approach was a feasible model for Northern Irish society.  He wanted to unite every segment of the population through higher living standards and a greater access to social and material amenities.  If all Ulstermen had similar, high standards of living, and voluntarily abandoned sectarianism to focus on economic productivity, the line of thought went, then Northern Ireland could become an internationally famed industrial powerhouse.  This point seems to be the crux of O’Neill’s political ambitions.  He wanted Northern Ireland to become a known and important figure on the world stage.  While he conceded that it could never be a great power on its own, he recognized that bolstering both its domestic productivity and its economic connection to Great Britain might enhance Ulster’s global sway.

     I’m still trying to appreciate the niche aspects of O’Neill’s agenda, as well as his intricate balance of central planning and laissez-faire economics.  Some of his policies, by my reckoning, seemed to clash with one another, so I’d like to examine them more.  I won’t rush this part of my research.  As of now, I think it might form the center of my thesis.  Nothing is set in stone, however, and I won’t make too many conclusions at this point of the research process.

     A lot has happened outside of research in the past two weeks!  Last Monday, I took a day trip along the Antrim Coast, where I crossed Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, hiked across a cliffside path to reach Giant’s Causeway, and even stumbled upon a secluded spot where the company that filmed Game of Thrones was filming something new—in secret!  (Sadly, security around the area was tight, and my party had to turn back before we saw anything besides porta potties, company vehicles, and security guards.)  I later went on a self-guided tour of some renowned Belfast neighborhoods, including the Falls Road, the New Lodge, Short Strand, and the Shankill, which still retain the ethno-religious identities they developed by or before the Troubles.  These neighborhoods seemed to me to be the epicenters of lingering social tension in Northern Ireland.  Ethno-sectarian propaganda, whether in murals, graffiti, or posters, is strongest here.  Most of Belfast has moved on from such bitter sentiments, but in these historic working-class areas, local identity remains at its firmest.  This doesn’t mean I would recommend avoiding these areas.  Quite the opposite, in fact!  While Irish and British identities are loudest in these neighborhoods, the spots themselves are colorful, fascinating places, with some of the kindest people I’ve met on my trip.

3 - Falls Road Mural

Fig. 2 – A clear message found in the New Lodge area, Belfast


Fig. 3 – The ruins of Dunseverick Castle, whose fortifications have stood since at least the fifth century CE.  (Not-so-fun fact, the castle is surrounded by stinging nettles!  You can see a huge patch on the left side of the picture.)

     Finally, I went on a day trip to Derry, in the West of the province, this past Saturday.  My tour group visited the headquarters of an historical Protestant organization (the Apprentice Boys of Derry), walked along the inner-city’s aged walls, toured the Catholic Bogside neighborhood, and met two siblings of victims whom the British Army murdered on Bloody Sunday, a 1972 shooting of Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry.  Altogether, it was a humbling trip.  But while the sights I saw and perspectives I heard echoed the memory of violence that permeates Northern Ireland, Derry, today, is a model for how the two communities may yet reconcile their differences, and coexist without fear or anger.  It’s a lesson we would all do well in taking to heart.


Fig. 4 – A mural dedicated to civil rights marchers, found in the Bogside, Derry


  1. achiggins says:

    Hiya Yutong,

    Thank you so much for your kind words! I do think it’s been beneficial to have a vague organization to my notes right now, but I also have a few ideas in mind for organizing them differently. In fact, up to now, being open to changing how I order my notes has been more helping getting ideas rolling around my head than anything else.

    That is an excellent question, and I really appreciate your asking it. Belfast has a long history of murals, which celebrate or condemn certain elements of the Protestant/Catholic communities. I might be wrong, but I think one of the first murals in the city sprung up around the 1900s. However, as the sectarian divide grew especially violent in the late 1960s–the centerpiece of my research–the provenance of murals grew too. Especially as the Troubles emerged in full force during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, murals became a nonviolent expression of the rage and alternative historical memories that filled Northern Ireland. With hunger strikes, terrorist violence, discriminatory police brutality, and economic hardship came lots of murals in response to these events, often on both sides. Many murals made after the 1960s, however–such as the Civil Rights mural I included in this post–tend to commemorate events during the 60s, because that period has such an impact on public and private life in the decades that have followed. So while many of Northern Ireland’s sectarian/historical murals emerged after the 1960s, these creations are still inextricably intertwined with processes that began, if not occurred, during that period.
    Beyond that, the human geography of Northern Ireland changed a lot during the 1960s! In a very tragic process, and something I haven’t really discussed in my posts yet, sectarian intimidation grew in force by the late 60s. As paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (Protestant) began killing members of the other religious community, efforts to move religious minorities out of a given neighborhood grew as well. So the 1960s witnessed an explosion in ethno-religious segregation. This process is part of the reason why some neighborhoods, such as the New Lodge or the Shankill, are comprised of almost entirely one religious group. You can make out if a given neighborhood is heavily Irish/Catholic or British/Protestant with the flags that community members raise in those areas (Irish tricolours and Palestinian flags on the one hand, and Union Flags, Northern Irish “Red Hand” flags, and occasionally Israeli flags, respectively).

    I really appreciate your interest and well wishes! I missed one of my flights due to an aviation delay, but I got back home the day I hoped to, thankfully. Wishing you loads of good vibes and great discoveries as you keep on with your research!

    Best, Aaron

  2. Yutong Zhan says:

    Hi Aaron,

    Your trip sounds productive and interesting! It is truly impressive that you have already had a pretty clear idea of the structure of your final product. I like the pictures in your post very much. Are there any special features of the physical space in Northern Ireland that might have been influenced by the political sentiment of the 1960s? It seemed that there are many street paintings that reflected people’s political sentiment and I’m curious whether there is any connection with your project.

    Hope you have a great trip back home! Good luck with the rest of your project!