Reflection on Up Standing: Stories of Courage from Northern Ireland

imagineLast night I took part in an event, ‘The Past is a Moving Picture: Screening of the film Up Standing: Stories of Courage from Northern Ireland,’ in Imagine: the Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics.

I was asked for a short reflection on the film, which I’ve reproduced below.

While the most powerful part of the night was indeed the film, the event also featured questions and answers with producer/director Paul Hutchinson. Hutchinson explained that the film had been produced primarily for use in schools, and that copies had been distributed to every post-primary school in Northern Ireland.

The film is not a required part of the curriculum, and Hutchinson said responses have ranged from ‘showing it every week’ to ‘tossing it in the bin’ – although he did not reveal how many schools have confirmed that they’ve used the resource. (Teachers have the opportunity to be trained to present the material and facilitate discussion. Resources that accompany the film can be found on the website.)

The film has also been shown abroad and to some adult groups, and any interested parties can still order a free copy of the film for educational use.

Hutchinson is currently working on a sequel, ‘Challenging Choices’, which tells the stories of people who did not take action during the Troubles, exploring the reasons why they felt they couldn’t and how their decisions continue to affect them. Hutchinson acknowledged that the content of this film may be uncomfortable, but he sees it as part of telling a wide range of stories about what people did and didn’t do during the Troubles.

Reflection on Up Standing: Stories of Courage from Northern Ireland by Gladys Ganiel

I should start by saying that my words tonight will add very little – if anything at all – to the stories of the people we have just seen. We might all be better to sit in silence for the next 40 minutes, letting their words and their witness wash over us. After their examples work their way into the nooks and crannies of our consciousness, perhaps we will be reminded of ‘what we have done and what we have failed to do.’ Then, to borrow from a benediction written by the poet and leader of the Corrymeela community, Pádraig Ó Tuama, we will be better equipped to:

‘Go in pieces, to see and feel your world.’

But my brief was not to introduce you to 40 minutes of silence, however beneficial for our minds and spirits that might be. There is a time and place for silence. Not the silence of the ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ variety, for as these stories have shown us, there is a time to speak. So many people living on this island missed their time to speak by keeping their heads down and remaining silent.

In some of these stories, I couldn’t keep myself from judging those who did not speak. When ‘Gillian’ spoke about standing up to the sectarian bullies on the school bus, I wondered where was the bus driver, the adult responsible, who must have seen this behaviour go on for years? I admire the courage of this schoolgirl, but why did it take a schoolgirl to do the right thing? I’ve recently been reading a report by Lesley Emerson from the School of Education at Queen’s, evaluating the implementation of the ‘Prisons to Peace’ programme in schools, where former political prisoners are invited to take part in panel discussions with Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 pupils. The research found that the schoolchildren are often more likely than the adults in the schools and their communities to be ‘ready’ for this type of encounter, and to learn from it.

This film was produced primarily as an educational tool for schoolchildren. And I think it is an exciting resource for the schools. But perhaps adults need it even more. Get it in adult bible studies and church groups. Why not show it on the BBC and RTE?

We can all learn from the faith of Mary Healy and her voluntary silence. After receiving a letter threatening her life if she went ahead with a peace march, she speaks of the clergyman who told her this: ‘you know you don’t talk about this letter; you don’t spread fear; you have to hold onto this and go forward, without anybody around you knowing what may or may not happen.’

There were many people, without direct threats on their lives, who felt intimidated into inaction during the Troubles. And I don’t condemn them for that. When you live in a place where to put your head above the parapet means endangering your life and the lives of your family, I think it is a moral course of action to protect life. But Mary Healy had a judgement to make. It was a judgement informed by prayer. By remaining silent about the death threat she enabled the peace march to go on and in this way the march spoke truth to the power of those who would use violent means to achieve their goals. She made the right call.

There’s a written booklet that goes along with this film that the good people of Corrymeela provided me with prior to this evening. On the back cover it says of the film: ‘Perhaps, it also provides insight into why this society did not descend into total mayhem when, on occasions, it came close.’

As a social scientist who has been researching Northern Ireland for 15 years, I’ve heard similar statements more often than I can remember. Quite often they come from people of faith who think that the relatively high levels of church going and belief in God in Northern Ireland prevented more people from turning to violence. The tools of social science do not really allow you to make such claims – they are impossible to prove definitively. More than a few social scientists dismiss the actions of courageous individuals altogether. After all, where is the empirical evidence that what they did or said changed social or political structures; or convinced those who deployed the guns and bombs to finally give them up? In his introduction to the booklet, Duncan Morrow acknowledges this when he says: ‘… these were small acts by ordinary people. In the world of political power, they are quickly written off as “ineffective,” “marginal”, and “irrelevant.” But I think in our heart of hearts we all know differently. Part of the power of these stories, is their ability to make us humble about ourselves and the limits of our effectiveness. But for each of us, it is in these decisions that the rubber hits the road.’

And whether we like it or not, many more such decisions lie ahead for the people on this island. We are all to some extent trapped in a divided and sectarian society that we personally did not create. I don’t think that absolves us of our responsibility to change it. The stories in this film show us that there is a better way; they show us that even the relatively powerless can poke at the edges of this ghastly system and wound it.

Some may continue to tell themselves that it is not their responsibility to resist this sectarian system, let alone try to change it. These people also may haughtily claim that the violence of the Troubles was ‘not in my name,’ as if this absolves them. Everyone we saw in the film tonight could have easily muttered ‘not in my name.’ But to do this is to pass by on the proverbial other side of the street.

Finally, I want to take us back to the line from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s benediction: ‘Go in pieces, to see and feel your world.’

The film tonight has reminded me that those who ‘Go in pieces,’ those who seem relatively powerless, can help us see and feel the divisions and injustices that remain on our island, in our world. The film has reminded me that doing the so-called small things, day after day, really matters.

I am writing the biography of the recently deceased Redemptorist priest, Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard Monastery, whose work for peace on this island is now relatively celebrated and well-known. But for most of his life, this was not the case. Most of Fr Gerry’s hours were spent in relative obscurity, seeking God in prayer and seeking relationship with those from the so-called other side. Fr Gerry knew what it was like to ‘Go in pieces’. He and those he worked with lived this every day. Whether or not you share his faith in God, I think the stories tonight show us that we can share a commitment to standing up. I’ll finish with a quote from one of his homilies:

‘I live by conviction that the God of reconciliation is at work in history. … I try to identify what my responsibility to work with him means in practice. There is a right thing to do every day.’

2 thoughts on “Reflection on Up Standing: Stories of Courage from Northern Ireland”

Leave a Reply