A Hope for Peace in Ireland.
Claire Gallagher still has what she calls "bad days." They come most often on Saturday, she says, the day of a terrible bomb blast in Omagh, Northern Ireland, that left her blind.
Much good has happened in the 17 months since then, she is quick to point out. Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have stopped their centuries of warring, and in December, began' forming a government together. And next month, with luck, the longtime enemies will begin to disarm.
Still, for Gallagher, a 16-year-old pianist, music student, and one of five children, that afternoon in August 1998 remains as vivid as ever. She had gone into town to shop, like many other Catholic teens looking to buy new school uniforms for the coming term. By mid-afternoon, hundreds of people had crowded into the town square when suddenly a car bomb exploded, collapsing buildings and covering the street in smoke, rubble, and severed human limbs. Not even car alarms set off by the explosion could smother the awful sound of victims' screams and children crying out for their parents. In all, 29 people were killed, including six teenagers, and hundreds were injured, making it the deadliest guerrilla action in a war that had killed more than 3,500 people in the last 30 years.
A LIFE CHANGED
Gallagher, struck in the face by flying metal, was rushed to nearby County Tyrone Hospital, where, ironically, her mother, an X-ray technician, had already been summoned to treat the injured. Flown by helicopter to Belfast, she underwent three operations on her damaged right eye, but it was eventually removed. A month later, after six more hours of surgery on her left eye, she learned she would never see again. The bomb set by an extremist Catholic faction opposed to the peace talks then going on, "changed everything," Gallagher says.
"I used to be very independent, and I was always on the go," she told an interviewer recently. "Now I depend on people's help for so many things. Everybody--my friends, my family, even my younger sister Karen, who is only 6--bends over backwards to help me."
GRATEFUL, NOT BITTER
Although no one was ever arrested for the blast, Protestants and Catholics united in angrily condemning it. Gallagher, for her part, expresses no bitterness, only thanks that her music skills remained intact. Still a pianist, who now learns new material by ear, she hopes to become a music teacher one day, or even a professional performer. "If I had lost a hand, or fingers, I couldn't play," she says simply.
While hospitalized, she was visited both by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and by President Clinton, who had come to Ireland after the bombing to help keep the peace negotiations on track. Seven weeks after the Omagh blast, she returned to school, and in March, she went to America to perform for the Clintons at a White House Saint Patrick's Day party.
To many in Northern Ireland, Gallagher and other young people represent the best hope for the future. "They are the best ones to look forward, rather than backward. They are more forgiving and more successful at rebuilding their shattered lives," says Joe Byrne, one of the 108 members in the newly formed Northern Ireland Assembly who are trying to end the country's 800-year struggle.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The Troubles, as the sporadic war has been called, began in the 12th century, when an Irish chieftain invited an Englishman, Strongbow, to help him kill rebellious Irish tribes. The English never left, and eventually colonized most of Ireland. In 1922, after a successful military campaign, most of Ireland won independence from Britain, but six counties in the North remained under British control. Guerrillas, calling themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA), carried on the fight, however, hoping to force a reunification of the Protestant North and Catholic South into one country. Protestant guerrillas, and British troops sent in to quell the IRA bombings and killings responded-with violence of their own. (See Timeline, opposite page.)
Finally, in April 1998, the two Irish factions agreed to a peace deal negotiated with the help of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Their so-called Good Friday Agreement provided for a new Northern Ireland Assembly, in which both Protestants and Catholics would take part, and for the eventual disarming of both sides. The deal remains a fragile one, however. Next month, the parties have agreed to begin turning in their weapons. If the IRA does not disarm, Protestant support for the plan could easily collapse.
Gallagher hopes for the best. Meanwhile, she has gone on with her life, learning to use Braille, a talking computer, and even performing on an Irish Christmas CD. Offered a music scholarship to an American university, she may even decide to spend time in the U.S. If her doggedness--and lack of bitterness--have made her an inspiration to all those seeking peace, that's fine. After all, she says, "that's what 99 percent of the people of Northern Ireland want."
TAKING THE WAR TO ART
Irish artists have long protested against the religious war in Northern Ireland, but rock band U2 did more than that. At a concert in Belfast, the band helped take the peace process off life support and boost momentum for December's agreement.
The concert in the spring of 1998 came just as peace talks were beginning to unravel. During a break, U2's Bono managed to get two old enemies, Catholic political leader, John Hume and his Protestant foe, David Trimble, onstage together. Before the screaming rock fans, Bono held the two men's hands aloft in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation that many say energized both sides to continue the struggle for peace.
The conflict has so permeated the work of Irish pop artists that it has become familiar to Americans as a result. Sinead O'Connor's angry anthem "This IS a Rebel Song" ("Be truthful--Englishman.... How come you never say you're sorry"), and The Cranberries' "Zombie" ("Another mother's breakin'/heart is taking over ... /It's the same old theme since 1916/In your head/In your head they're still fightin'") set the nation's pain and anger to music, as did U2's hit "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."
Irish filmmakers like Jim Sheridan (in the Name of the Father), and Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, The Crying Game) have gotten into the act too, making movies that forced audiences to examine Ireland's painful history.
And just because peace has broken out doesn't mean Irish artists' fascination with politics will end. In fact, they may gain more freedom to reexamine their history without taking sides. Irish superstar writer Roddy Doyle, for instance, has just penned a new novel that pokes holes in Irish myths about the conflict. Look for more powerful work coming soon to theaters and record stores near you.
The roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland go back centuries, but the violence peaked in the last 30 years. Here are the key events:
1916: After centuries of efforts by Catholic Ireland to throw off the rule of Protestant Britain, Irish rebels form the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and revolt on Easter, 1916, beginning years of bloodshed and guerrilla warfare.
1922: Britain agrees to divide Ireland into North and South. The predominantly Catholic South eventually becomes a free nation, but Northern Ireland, where a Protestant majority has lived for centuries, remains British.
1968-1971: Catholic civil rights protests begin in Northern Ireland. The British army, fearful of violence, responds by jailing protesters without trial.
1972: 14 Catholic protesters are shot and killed by British troops during a march in Londonderry on January 30, which becomes known as Bloody Sunday. The newly rejuvenated IRA demands freedom from Britain and representation for Catholics in the Northern Ireland government. Protestants fear that Catholics in the government will force a break with Britain, and turn them into a minority In a united Ireland. In July, 22 IRA bombs explode in Belfast, killing nine.
1974-1979: Peace initiatives fail, and 80 people die in IRA and Protestant bombings and attacks, Including Lord Mountbatten, uncle of Britain's Prince Charles, when an IRA bomb explodes on his boat.
1981: Bobby Sands becomes the first of 10 IRA prisoners in Belfast to die from starvation during hunger strikes.
1987-1993: Dozens die in bombings, including a British Parliament member, as the IRA begins attacks on English soil.
1995-1998: President Clinton visits Ireland. Peace talks are punctuated with violence, culminating in the 1998 bombing of a crowded market in Omagh, Northern Ireland, that kills 29.
1999: Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) negotiates with warring factions to produce an accord. On December 2, Britain turns over power to a new Northern Ireland government with power divided between Protestants and Catholics.
JAMES CLARITY is a longtime foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who contributes articles from Ireland.
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|Author:||Clarity, James F.|
|Publication:||New York Times Upfront|
|Date:||Jan 17, 2000|
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