Survival skills in Ireland’s violent frontier

Growing up in Northern Ireland, in the midst of so much natural beauty, I took great solace in nature and the outdoors. My playful and adventurous feet covered much ground. I wandered up and over rolling hills, and through endless green fields. Woods, apple orchards, streams, lakes and rivers captured my youthful imagination. When my mind was festering with trouble or my heart was torn, I found solace and healing among the silence of hills, mountains and fields. I was born in east Belfast but my childhood began in Craigavon, a planned settlement that was named after James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon,  who was Northern Ireland’s first prime minister. The town was planned to link Lurgan and Portadown and it was close to Lough Neagh Nature Reserve.

The dynamics of terror, however, were bubbling beneath the surface of all that beauty. A ruthless campaign by the Irish Republican Army, aimed at establishing a united Ireland free of British rule, was underway in my immediate community, as it was in all six counties of Northern Ireland and in England itself.

The long-term armed struggle, pitting the most lethal and resilient insurgency in the world against the Northern Irish and British Security Forces, created a chilling, brutal and unpredictable atmosphere. By the 1980s the IRA was a very professional outfit, adept at logistical operations, training and fundraising. On the ground my province was exposed to mortars, rocket launchers, improvised explosives and indiscriminate bombings. Various tactics were employed for either military or political reasons: execution-style murders, undercover assassination units, torture, h-blocks, hunger strikes, disappearances, vague legal guidelines, punishment beatings and the butchering of bodies.

I attended the first religiously integrated primary school in the province. I was also the daughter of a religiously integrated marriage. However, trust in the province between the Catholic and Protestant communities completely broke down as the violence escalated and murder spilled out onto the streets. Trust between the civilian population and the government and its security forces broke down as well. The British army didn’t trust the police. The police didn’t trust the British army. For many years and decades there was a state of anarchy.

As you can imagine I was scarred by the violence and still run into problems today, emotionally and psychologically. From sheer necessity I developed coping skills to overcome the challenges I faced. After years of recovery meetings and counseling I now characterize these coping skills as survival skills. They served me well while I was growing up in this harsh environment. But today in North America they can work against me and stop me from thriving in life.

One “skill” I developed was an instinctive mistrust of others. If trust was given at all it was hard earned over the long haul. It’s common in a deeply sectarian and suspicious environment like Northern Ireland to share as little information about oneself as possible, especially when answering questions. Wrong answers can lead to a beating or prison or worse. This say-nothing approach to life and relationships served me well in Northern Ireland.

However the walls it erected inside my head kept me isolated in the prison of my past. In a freer and more open sharing society like North America these walls kept others out. Sharing freely about your life may be commonplace here but it went against the cultural grain for me.

Over time I’ve slowly learned that I’m responsible for my own healing. It’s my responsibility to knock down the walls. So today, using the principle of Let Go and Let God, I don’t try to force relationships into the small boxes and safety lines that I was forced to live within. Trusting others is a gift. It can be given freely. People don’t have to earn it. Today I choose to trust others.

Another survival skill, developed to counteract the negativity of my environment, was perfectionism. There was a lot of blaming, criticism and counter accusations that ultimately led nowhere. So I became a perfectionist, always on the lookout for inconsistencies in other people’s communication, or in my surroundings. It was paralyzing. I finally learned to break it down and let it go by accepting my own imperfections.

I embraced the biblical truth that perfect love casts out fear. The tyranny of perfectionism doesn’t cast out fear; love does. Love is the best healing balm for anyone coming out of an environment where the enemy has had a field day creating hatred, suspicion, discrimination and deep sectarianism. I choose to love myself and love others. I applied the spiritual truth, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as YOURSELF.

Establishing overly rigid boundaries is another defense mechanism, a survival skill if you will. It was necessary in Northern Ireland, where boundaries, both physical and emotional, were heavily exploited. The border areas of Northern Ireland were a strategic godsend to the IRA. They could commit terrorist acts in any of the six counties up north and easily escape into the safety of the 26 counties of the Irish Republic. These actual boundaries created the emotional ones in my mind.

A rich source of healing for me, aside from nature, is music. One song in particular that speaks to my own rigidity is “Oceans,” by Hillsong. They describe in song a trusting relationship between God and man as a “trust without borders.” This concept challenged me a lot. Spiritually I know that healthy, not overly rigid boundaries brings true freedom. Now, when I feel myself putting up fences against other people as a result of the fear and lack of trust in my past, I cry out to Jesus to lead me to a place where my trust is without borders.

It takes courage to refine my heart and mind. Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities which guarantees all others.”  The root word for courage, from the Latin, cor means heart. Real power has nothing to do with force, control, status or money. Real power is the persistent courage to be at ease with the unsolved and the unfinished. There are many unresolved issues from the troubles in Northern Ireland today that still need to be challenged. There are more questions than answers in many areas. May I approach those unresolved issues of political conflict with the same kindness and courage I’m applying to the most broken parts of myself. May I have the courage to surrender the most broken parts of myself with open hands to the living God who restores and redeems everything and place in his perfect timing.

 

Published by Jeanette Dean

I'm a life long learner. I've been on a voyage of discovery since childhood so ask why a lot. I'm Irish and a bit American. I write because its freeing and healing. I love photography, theology, the natural beauty of Ireland and swimming in the sea year round. I see the world through the lens of Celtic Christianity but can try on other perspectives. The business of everyday spirituality has always fascinated me. I hope this blog challenges, inspires and encourages you. Perhaps you'd like to work with me. Please reach out to me if that's the case. I'd love to hear from YOU so please comment and let me know you are out there!

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