Meeting the past in Northern Ireland

For the most part, day to day life in Northern Ireland is peaceful these days. That not so distant time when things were not at peace touches day to day life still, though, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Newry is not far from where I stay when I am in Ireland. a bustling center of transport and trade, a growing city and a long time crossroads of geography, history, and politics

When I trade the euros for sterling in my pocket — Newry lies just a short distance from the border between the north and the republic — and head out to stock up on groceries, I might also plan to hang out at the local branch of Waterstone’s book store, maybe see what’s new at the museum at Bagnell’s Castle or do some window shopping in shopping malls of Buttercrane and The Quays and a few steps away in the city center along Hill Street. I usually spend time in the Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman, as well.

The cathedral is imposing, and as you walk up to it the grey stone and heavy wooden doors continue the impressive presence. Once you step through those doors, though, that presence is one of welcome. I am not quite sure why that is. Perhaps it is the warm wood of the pews, the light turning red and gold through the stained glass windows, or the nearly two centuries of prayers offered in the place. Whatever the reason, it is a quiet place to kneel and pray, to sit and think, to share a smile with friend or stranger.

In common with houses of worship of just about every faith around the globe, the cathedral in Newry has a couple of bulletin boards in the back of the church. These hold posters telling about pilgrimages to Lourdes and Medujorge and Knock, inviting people to consider if they might have a vocation to the religious life or the priesthood, mass schedules for nearby parishes, notices of events at parish schools. In all the years I’ve been visiting, among its other notices the bulletin board over on the left has held a plain sheet of white paper with typescript on it.

It is headed The Disappeared. Below is a paragraph saying here is a list of names of people who went missing during the Troubles. Their families and friends would like to know what happened, where they are buried. If you can help, here’s how to give information in confidence

Then there are the names: a father of five, a man who was expecting his first child, a mother of ten. An asphalt layer, a painter, a teacher.

I was at the cathedral not long ago and as I was looking at the bulletin boards, I was startled to think, at first, that this page had been taken down. It hadn’t been. There was a large colorful poster about some other event in the diocese, a wide one, which had been pinned so that it covered the top of this page. You couldn’t see the heading or the explanation, but you could still see the names.

Had the person who pinned it there thought it was time to move on from remembering the troubled times when these people disappeared? Had they been careless? Had they been so exuberant about promoting their event that they had not noticed? I wondered about that, as I reached out to touch the names. I’m not going to know, just as I won’t know the stories of the people whose names I touched. I remembered a song Scottish musician Emily Smith wrote after a visit to an old graveyard near her home. It is called Audience of Souls. In it she thinks about what sorts of conversations we’d have with those who’ve gone on, what they’d make of us and what we’d tell them.

I thought about all that, as I walked out into the busy day to day life of Hill Street.

you may also want to
read further thoughts about traveling in Northern Ireland
learn about healing and hope in Northern Ireland through the music of Tommy Sands

Kerry Dexter is one of five writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including An Evening in Belfast and teaching Irish music tradition.

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