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Social Work Students Learn About Transgenerational Impact of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

Posted Oct. 28, 2011
Reported by Emily Williams

Students in Professor Michelle Mohr Carney’s “Social Issues in Northern Ireland” class traveled to Northern Ireland over the 2011 Maymester to get firsthand exposure to the transgenerational impact of the violence from the four-decade long conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.” Economic injustice, oppression and discrimination are among the hallmarks of the divide between the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland.

“The students were great,” said Carney, who led the study abroad for the first time this year. “You just can’t wrap your mind around the conflict  until you get there.”

Because the conflict is political and religion-based, it is difficult to determine which group individuals identify with until you talk to them, Carney explained. She set up meetings with various factions who played a part in “The Troubles,” from those who were involved in the violence to some of the peacekeeping organizations striving to resolve conflicts that still arise over a decade after the “Good Friday” peace agreement. 

“Northern Ireland was a phenomenal area to see that the issues of social justice/injustice are not just color biased or race biased, but can be political and religiously motivated,” said MSW student Tejanae Caldwell.

“It was remarkable in some communities how they have to live so close together proximity-wise and how they even paint the street curbs to differentiate the red, white and blue versus the green, orange and white,” Carney added.

Nine social work students traveled around the country with Carney with stops in Belfast, Ballycastle and Londonderry. They toured cultural and historical sites and met with academics and individuals who were involved in “The Troubles.” Students had the opportunity to get perspectives of former Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries who had been imprisoned for violence and murder and later released as political prisoners. They also met with a social worker who explained the transgenerational effects of the violence, alluding to teenagers who are not old enough to remember the violence but have been engrained with division.

 “There was so much energy around the desire for peace, but you could also feel the tenseness in the conflict particularly in Belfast where they have huge walls, which they call ‘Peace Walls,’” she said.

The group also spent several days in Ballycastle, a village on the North Sea, at the Corrymeela retreat center, a non-denominational Christian community devoted to peace and reconciliation.

“Part of what was so astounding to me is you have  these two factions that can’t come together in probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life,” Carney said. “I was standing on a cliff surrounded by beautiful  green space feeling  more at peace  than I’ve ever felt and yet it is fraught with conflict.”

In Londonderry, the site of “Bloody Sunday”—the 1972 massacre that left 13 dead—the grouped toured the city with survivor John McCourt. “He walked us through the whole thing with pictures, so it was like reliving it and it was really painful,” Carney said. 

“It was incredible,” said Ann Gray, an MSW student. “One day we’re on a beach at Corrymeela overlooking a beautiful sunset and visiting castle ruins and the next we’re taking a walking tour in Derry with a survivor of ‘Bloody Sunday’ recounting the horrors he faced during ‘The Troubles.’ I learned so much about the politics and history of the country all the while awestruck by the beautifully quilted green countryside.”

 “Things are not always what they appear to be,” Carney asserted. “As social workers we have to look deeper and sometimes we have to look way far back.  We talked a lot about how you can’t look at a person separate from history, religion and politics. You really have to dig deeper whether it’s in Northern Ireland or in Albany.”