Irish Roman Catholicism: Year 101

 A look on how the current generation deals with their heavy heritage after the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising.

By Reem Fatthelbab

‘My personal experience growing up in a Roman Catholic family in Belfast emphasised a certain lifestyle that is rather different than the typical Western culture,’ said English and Irish historian Natalie Ali.
‘The Roman Catholic religious culture in Belfast is very strict when it comes to practices; I don’t recall ever getting drunk when I was a practicing Christian, and that strictness finds its way to how people deal with their case when it comes to the political-religious divide in the country,” added Ali.

Ali recognizing some of the locations and people from a  book documenting the troubles. By Reem Fatthelbab

Recalling some of her experiences as a child through the troubles, Ali couldn’t hold her tears trying to explain how much she relates to the children that currently suffer the atrocities of wars all over the world.

” Sometimes I feel that I need to tell them that I know exactly how this feels,” she says.

Ali mentioned Palestinian children when speaking of the atrocities she relates to. It’s not just her who strongly relates to the country. On a short walk in the Falls Road, the side of town where most of the Catholics are based, there’s a number of graffiti pieces that put the Irish flag beside the Palestinian, relating both conflicts to each other.

Asking ordinary people about the reasons, they generally reply ‘We support Palestine’. Yet it is something they might not understand on an individual level; suggesting that the Catholics relating to the Palestinian issue might be a symptom that reflects their self-perception as fighting/bearing up with an occupation.

Those who are capable of remembrance are capable of liberation’

In his research “The Sociology of War, Walls, and Revolution”, Political Sociologist Aly El Raggal

A Republican Wall. By Reem Fatthelbab
A Republican Wall. By Reem Fatthelbab

suggests the idea of memory sites in relation to central authorities. He then expands into the fact that one of the general symptoms of people aspiring for independence from central authorities that they view as invalid, tend to get attached to the sites where they, or their elder generations, fought against this authority. This concept is one of the founding principles of graffiti; preserving the scene in the memory site.

The idea Raggal suggested  could get any closer to what it is in relation to the religious divide in Belfast. You can see that through the graffiti in the Falls Road,  the celebrations in churches and above all, the way the centenary of the Easter Rising is celebrated.

Northern Ireland is officially part of the United Kingdom, but it did not stop the massive celebrations of the Easter Rising in Belfast. Ironically, Easter Rising is mainly about celebrating the Irish fighting back the British occupation and declaring their independence.

A two-hour bus ride from Dublin to Belfast on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising takes you to what looks like Cairo’s Tahrir Square. A few thousand people gathered around the Memorial Garden in which President Michael Higgins, along with a number of political figures, gathered with the families of the soldiers lost in the Easter Rising in a symbolic memorial. The national anthem is repetitively sang by everyone inside and around the memorial garden. Security gates are placed at the end of the old town alleys that opened up to the square of the memorial.

After the centenary celebration in the memorial garden. By Reem Fatthelbab

“My Great Grandpa was a great hero” shouted a 4-year old whilst her Grandpa is being interviewed. The awareness of Irish children of the conflict that has supposedly came to an end at least three decades ago was spotted on different occasions.

Faith in the time of conflict

A wide range of religious practice in Catholic culture emphasizes the idea of the memory. On the morning of Good Friday, dozens gathered at the Opera House to walk in pairs through the small alleys parallel to the biggest shopping street in town, in what seems to an outsider like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

The Passion Walk is an event organised on Good Friday where people were invited to walk the path of what is believed to be Jesus’ Easter journey in the streets of Belfast. Walking a route across the centre of the city with an audio guide that explains, and pausing at certain key locations that illustrate, the events of  what is believed to be Jesus’ final hours.

Tanya pointing to the direction of the following key location in the passion walk. By Reem Fatthelbab
Tanya pointing to the direction of the following key location in the passion walk. By Reem Fatthelbab

Tanya, a participant in the Passion Walk says that she enjoys this kind of religious event. It works well with her Catholic background that cherishes the idea of celebrating memorial sites. She also explained the memory of the troubles that she experienced as a child, ” I was visiting Cairo once and they initiated a riot, I immediately knew I shouldn’t be there,” said Tanya.

Susan Mansfield, the founder and coordinator of the Passion Walk explained that they were particularly cautious about making it clear that the event is open to all religious sects, not only for Catholics.

Attachment to memory is a foundational element in the Catholic identity in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This comes along with the ongoing aspiration of a United Ireland, yet unstable politics in the region opens up many questions about whether the inactive tension would come to the front in the near future.