Growing up in St. Louis, I remember hearing about the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. From the reports, it seemed like a constant war zone - bombings, etc. I carried this childhood impression with me to Portadown, where I was staying and into Belfast.
I arrived into Portadown in the afternoon and the Sisters couldn't have been kinder. They welcomed me into their home where we had tea and they showed me around the house. I went out for a little walk, and found a lovely riverwalk that had been the tow-path for the river traffic. It's now a 20 mile walking and biking path by the river Ban.
The next day, one of the sisters drove me to Belfast on her way to work. She brought me by her office. The Flax Trust is a nonprofit organization that is working for peace and reconciliation through economic development. It was so interesting and powerful to see that they have been working to get people meaningful employment as a way out of the poverty and frustration that is part of the tension there. There are signs of the troubled past in the many murals on buildings and fences. The Peace Wall, built to keep the two communities apart, is now the place of many murals testifying to the path to peace.
I also saw lots of old buildings, forts and churches. Our guide read a list of the waves of people who had come in to pillage and plunder over the years. It strikes me that all these old structures are so common place here. You have a bakery, a cafe, then you round the corner and there is a castle. Mixed in you also have book-makers and pubs. It's all part of the mix. There are a lot fewer chain stores as well.
The next day I went to Armagh, with its two Cathedrals of St. Patrick. One RC and the other Church of Ireland. The CoI has the old site where St. Patrick built a church in his day - on the site of a pre-Christian King's house. There was a guy at the library who took lots of time to explain the place and its significance. And there was a library with books and manuscripts all out there to see. They said I could look at any of the books I wanted - just ask for white gloves to handle them. Wow!!! The library was founded beside the church - 'to nourish the soul.'
I'm headed down to the southern shore today - it will take most of the day to get there. Then my workshop starts on Sunday, then I return home. It has been really great to be here. And it will be awesome to get home again as well.