Travel and Transformation Bronze Winner: The Troubles

by Suzanne LaFetra

A woman ponders irreconcilable differences on the emerald isle.

“A hole is more honorable than a patch”.

-Irish proverb

Tooling through the bucolic countryside of Northern Ireland, it’s tough for an outsider to imagine “The Troubles” that have shaken this part of the Emerald Isle until recently. Copper beech trees splay their dark purple leaves across rolling farmland dotted with black-faced sheep. The peaty, fiddle-filled pubs brim with friendly men in tweed caps and wide-bosomed women serving champ and foamy Guinness. This dichotomy is kind of like the way my marriage was going until recently.

From the outside, all was verdant and peaceful—tender enough. My husband and I hosted dinner parties at which we’d make jokes and smile at each other. We didn’t smash dishes or use four-letter words very often. We even had sex once in a while. But last summer, I strolled through Ireland without a wedding band and understood this contradiction. County Fermanagh seemed so pastoral, what with all the lace-making and pint-pouring and cow-milking. But what appears to be wholesome and serene is only a few calendar pages away from the days of car bombs and gun-running and Bloody Sundays.

My trip to Northern Ireland was a welcome relief from my American life, where I was right smack in the middle of a divorce. Most of my travel companions had been through it, and understood when I slunk off to brood.  And I could sink into the culture of another place—a place where divorce wasn’t even legal a few years ago, by the way—and get lost in a foreign world. Each night, I settled under the downy comforter in my small room tucked into the West Wing of Crom Castle, listening to the skeltering rain outside, and reading stories about The Long War, the Famine, Ulsters, the IRA, a history of conflict going back hundreds of years. “The Troubles,” as everyone in Ireland calls them, refers to a 30-year stretch of violence that ended only a short time ago with the signing of the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

A brief history: 400 years ago British settlers (mostly Protestants) confiscated land owned by native Catholics in Northern Ireland creating the Plantation of Ulster. The Brits banned the locals from owning land; they slashed political rights, and punished those who wouldn’t conform to the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, the Catholics didn’t care for the shoddy treatment, and over time a nationalist movement grew. The Protestants, a minority in Catholic-dominated Ireland, tended to support continuing rule from Britain. Although the situation becam much more complicated and tangled over time, those are the roots of the problem. Fundamental differences in power, in beliefs. Irreconcilable differences, you might call them.

Another brief history: My husband and I got married a decade ago. I had a couple of babies, gained forty pounds. He got depressed and played computer games late into the night. I watched my infant son poke Lincoln Logs into a slot in a box and I cried from sheer boredom. We stopped talking about much other than our children, we stopped enjoying sex. Everyone’s got issues, I thought. So I just numbed out to our troubles. Kind of like when your Honda is making weird revving noises and you fear the solution is a brand new tranny you can’t afford, so you just close the garage gently and pray it heals itself.

In Ireland in the late 1960’s, things heated up. What began as a strategy of nonviolence got corrupted in misunderstanding. Both sides mistrusted the other; hardline unionists didn’t like the soft, civil disobedience approach, and others thought the tactics were simply a front for the IRA. Protestant loyalists attacked civil rights demonstrators. Uprisings escalated, troops were sent in. And so it continued, each side throwing punches. The IRA sprouted an aggressive, militant wing known as the Provos. One Bloody Friday in 1972, twenty two bombs exploded in Belfast.

My husband and I were on vacation in Oregon with my in-laws. In bed one night, I badgered him with Big Questions: What would you do if you had six months left to live? Do you believe in an afterlife? Then, “On a scale of one to ten, where are you on the Marriage Happiness Scale?”

He paused. “I don’t want to play this game.”

I elbowed him. “C’mon. Ten means you’re madly in love with me and one means you’re ready to walk out the door.” I grinned in the darkness, waiting for the eight, or maybe nine.



He sighed. “Four.”


“You wanted to know.”

“But four!?!?”

“Okay, six.” He rolled over.

“My God!”

“It’s your game, Suzanne.”

“Yeah, but that’s what you say when you’re done with a marriage! You can’t just drop a bomb like that!!”

I huffed and puffed, and the next morning I blew out of my in-laws’ house and spent two solid hours sobbing and kicking at discarded sandcastles and staring out at the too-cold and not-at-all Pacific ocean. Four!

The British locked people up without trials. Prisoners died in hunger strikes. Ceasefires were called, then broken; paramilitaries on both sides imported arms. Bombs went off. Grenades were launched. More atrocities against civilians. Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA) predicted that the war would last another twenty years. Each new flare-up reinforced the old mistrust of both sides. Each new attempt to soothe and hammer out agreements was infiltrated with the remembrance of past hurts. More cease fires. More broken agreements.  More polarization, more antagonism. President Clinton intervened to get both sides together again and talks began anew.

My husband and I started to see a therapist. We practiced hugging. We used “I statements” to express our feelings. (Note to non-Californians—this means, instead of yelling, “You cretin—why didn’t you take out the recycling?” I was trained to say, “I feelfrustrated when you don’t do what we agreed.”) We made lists and charts of who would make the kids’ lunches and who would pick up groceries. We went out on “dates” without the kids. We did all the right things, and our marriage looked better from the outside. At Christmas, he gave me a groovy pair of white boots.  “He’s a keeper,” my mom told me. But when the party was over, I was seething with some unformed black cloud of anger, and resentful that once again, I had bought and wrapped all our children’s gifts, planned the menu, cooked all day, and entertained the kids for hours while he took a nap.

We continued therapy, but didn’t discuss the big stuff: sex, money, power. I was too scared to admit that my husband and I were deeply, fundamentally different. Kind of like we were coming from different religions.  We couldn’t enjoy each other’s company. Little hurts brought up the larger, unresolved issues. We became trapped behind huge walls of resentment.

Our sex-life was as evasive as a four-leaf clover. I started to dread weekends—what on earth would we talk about? I spent my birthday in Mexico without him. He started seeing a woman, “just a friend,” and doing things with her I’d begged him for years to do with me; the ballet, museums, skiing.

I fumed. Retaliated. Polarization deepened.

The night before he moved out, we sat at the kitchen table and I poured us two shot glasses of tequila. We drank and talked. “It’s time,” he said, “I’ve known for eight years we shouldn’t be married.” I swallowed and felt the burn.

With the signing of the Belfast Agreement (often called the Good Friday Agreement) The Troubles came to an end, politically speaking. But a few months later, a bomb went off in Omagh that killed twenty nine civilians; it was the single worst incident during The Troubles. “After that, people decided they just had had enough,” Maureen, a travel companion and Belfast native, tells me one night at Crom Castle. One of her best friends lost her legs in that explosion. It was a combination of the talks, the politics, and the cease fires, she told me, but ultimately, that inner shift had to take hold deep inside of people, so that they could move on and find a new way to get along. In Northern Ireland, the last decade has been relatively quiet. Mostly, people are on good behavior.

On the shortest night of the year in Fermanagh, I squatted in front of an enormous bonfire and sipped a stranger’s moonshine. Villagers clad in straw leaped across open flames, saying prayers of sacrifice and thanks. “It’s our way to give back,” the caller said into the blurry-sounding bullhorn. “To remember where we’ve come from.” I remembered. Remembered what my husband said on our wedding day, and how he looked in the middle of the night holding our babies over his freckled shoulder. I remembered how hard we’d fought and cried and tried. Perched on the loose rocks of the cairn, I watched people performing an ancient ritual: of sacrifice, giving thanks, drinking up, letting go.

My husband and I split up a year ago. We’re getting a divorce. People who know us say, “It’s so great the way you’re handling all this—both of you are being grown up about it.” And for the most part, they’re right. Our divorce is “amicable,” a term reserved, I’ve noticed, for notably unfriendly situations. These days, we both spend a lot of time and money on lawyers and divorce coaches and child specialists. We slog through parenting plans and house appraisals, and our high-priced helpers hold our hands as we wade through the swamp of emotional and financial issues, everything from deciding how “new people” will be introduced into our children’s lives to who will pay for summer camp.

Ireland’s troubles have reshaped its people. Underground ripples of violence, extortion, mistrust and fear still quake through the pastoral landscape from time to time. Not a single person I talked with in County Fermanagh is unscarred—all have stories to tell of uncles who’ve been maimed or a neighbor who lost their daughter or a school that was closed for two whole decades because keeping it open was simply inviting disaster.

None of the people I spoke with openly took sides. Everyone just shook their heads and called it a shame. One town elder I talked with at that bonfire on the shortest night of the year said, “Too bad such civilized people couldn’t find a way to work it out.”

It is too bad when nice people can’t work it out. And sometimes partition is the answer, even if it’s painful. In Ireland, for the moment, no one is getting their legs blown off. The Orangemen still hold their parades in July and it royally ticks off the Unionists. The IRA still throws a below-the-belt punch now and then and everyone holds their breath. But the school in Fermanagh has been reopened. You can drive back and forth across the border and scarcely know it. Ireland, for a while at least, had been the scene of an economic miracle: the green tiger, the Celtic tiger.

My soon-to-be ex-husband and I are trudging through a collaborative divorce, structuring Parenting Agreements, attempting to find a fair path through the jungle of finances. We are trying to move forward—without car bombs, without hunger strikes. I want to haul out a grenade launcher sometimes, like when he forgets to buy the kids a birthday present or allows them to watch Jaws while he naps. I don’t, though, because I know we have to peacefully coexist.

But when I sit around a table full of lawyers and we carve up our children’s schedule, pore over Excel spreadsheets crammed with proposed budgets, hammer out the specifics of who gets to be with the kids Christmas Eve 2014, it fills me with a deep despair.  Every slight, every unpleasantness unearths old hurts. Every document signed is an acknowledgement of pain and failure unresolved. These days, I understand why people say that a divorce is one of the hardest things you can go through.

No, it isn’t getting your legs blown off. It isn’t famine or torture. It isn’t a war, but it is a long, protracted battle with someone you once loved. These days I understand more about how that flammable combination of loss, pain, and failure can drive nice people to do things that seem barbaric from the outside.

My trip to Ireland is a pleasant, fuzzy memory now. Back home in Berkeley, I’m settling into my divorced life. My ex-husband comes over to take the kids to school some mornings. I mostly smile and hold my tongue, even when I don’t feel like it, because the cease fire is in effect. Our lawyers are on deck, the kids are watching. It’s an uneasy peace.  But even though we occasionally joke with each other, or laugh about a New Yorker cartoon, I’m different toward him, hardened. Like the buildings dotting County Fermanagh, so tricked out with steel walls and gun turrets they look like fortresses. “Do they still need those?” I asked Maureen on my last day in Northern Ireland, as we sped by a police station nearly buried in razor wire, concrete barriers, and steel. She didn’t say yes or no. She, like every single other person who talked with me about The Troubles, just shrugged in a sad way, having developed their own armor against the pain.

Suzanne LaFetra is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in many newspapers and literary journals, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, Brevity, on San Francisco’s NPR affiliate radio station, and in more than a dozen anthologies. Her work has garnered over a dozen literary awards, including a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her children.

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