Living Columns & Blogs

For a Sun City couple, a visit to Ireland revealed a land of both smiles and tears

Ireland is a land of fairy tale castles and sweeping vistas.
Ireland is a land of fairy tale castles and sweeping vistas. Special to The Island Packet/ The Beaufort Gazette

Editor’s note: Sun City residents Joe and Marti Skarupa recently returned from a visit to Ireland. Here is a look at the smiles and the tears they found there.

I had been forewarned: “Your romantic views may clash with reality. Your smiles may turn to tears. Sorrow may follow laughter.”

After all, I was traveling to Ireland, the Emerald Isle. Its people authored the Irish blessings that speak of “golden happy hours,” “luck and laughter,” and “the sun shining warm upon our faces.”

First came the smiles.

Soon after I arrived, just as I romantically hoped, the “rains did fall gently” upon the brilliant green pastures dotted with grazing sheep and white washed cottages on hilltops. Proudly perched upon jagged cliffs were fairy tale medieval castles.

And the tears?

The first came as I toured the interactive Titanic exhibition in Belfast. I marveled at the elegance of the world’s most famous ocean liner —the elite passengers were treated to fresh flowers, the finest French produce, eleven course dinners, and heated salt water pools. But I was misty-eyed, too. I could not erase the image of the liner’s loss when it hit an iceberg, and over fifteen hundred passengers died in the frigid North Atlantic waters.

I was also aware of the harsh conditions of the workers who made such luxury possible. Construction workers labored 11.5 hours, five days a week and half days on Saturday for almost twenty-six months to build the ship. Many of them were only 14 years old. Employers were unforgiving. If a worker was late or damaged or broke a tool, his pay was docked. As costs went up, management’s answer was, “Pay the workers less and make them work more.”

My emotional seesaw continued.

The smiles returned when I watched high stepping young girls sporting long, curly locks and bright glittered costumes dance to the Celtic music of their ancestors. Standing tall and regal with rigid arms at their side, they executed stunningly quick steps.

My eyes welled with tears upon hearing of the Irish Court’s stinging indictment against Catholic priests, nuns, and Christian brothers for “beating, starving, and raping children.” The depth of my sorrow came when our guide presented a history of the potato famine of 1846-47, when over a million people died of starvation and the resulting typhus and dysentery. I was not aware that the famine occurred when Ireland was Britain’s breadbasket. Food was produced. Shamefully, it just was not available to the Irish peasant. it was shipped to Britain.

Many Irish, desperate and destitute, went to workhouses where families were often separated forever. Others chose to emigrate in what historians labeled “coffin ships,” where they endured unimaginable horrors from forty days to three months, depending on ocean currents and the season they sailed. Passengers were crammed into overcrowded ships that carried two to three times their capacity.

On board, the captain only provided two pints of water a day per person. No food was provided. Each passenger had to survive on what they brought on board. Eventually, over 20,000 Irish men, women, and children would die at sea. “Flying from one form of death to another,” is how one Irish immigrant described his voyage.

There are many famine memorials across Ireland, but the most famous is “The Famine Statues” in Dublin. The life-size bronze statues, dressed in torn rags, depict seven adults. Of the seven, one is carrying a wrapped baby; another is carrying a child across his shoulders.

Modern history brought more tears.

Today it is known as The Troubles, a conflict between Catholics or Republicans, who wanted an independent and undivided Ireland, and Protestants or Loyalists, who wanted to remain connected to Britain.

Much of the violence was centered in Northern Ireland and the conflict spanned the years from 1969-1990s. Belfast was considered one of the world’s most dangerous cities in the 1970s and 1980s. Rival paramilitary groups engaged in assassinations, bombings, and street violence on a daily basis. It was an era when even children as young as 11 assigned the responsibility of making Molotov cocktails. At least 3,600 people died during The Troubles. Peace finally came in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, but not before 99 barrier walls, driven by hate, had been built in Belfast to separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

Over twenty years later, most are still standing. The longest is the Cupar Way Peace Wall. It is four meters of concrete, three meters of metal sheeting, six meters of mesh fence rising to a height of thirteen meters or forty-plus feet. On its walls is bright graffiti painted by local artists. In addition, thousands of tourists and world dignitaries, including Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama, have left messages of peace and hope. Following the tradition, I left my message: “Amor Para Todos.” (Love for All).

Nearby is the International Wall of Art where murals depict solidarity with world leaders throughout time including Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Mohandas Gandhi of India. Others proclaim the messages of John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. Some depict the need for a response to climate change and the struggles for social justice and freedom for oppressed women. Though beautiful and inspirational, I smiled when I learned these walls are, at least partially, scheduled to be removed by the year 2023.

Near the end of our journey, my husband and I walked into a crowded pub, and a group of four men invited us to sit with them.

The conversation came around to The Troubles, a time all four men had lived through as children and teenagers. I asked them what the Peace Agreement meant to them.

There was a pause as the men looked at each other. I was about to apologize for asking the question, when one said, “We can cross a seamless border, no check points. We can work and shop in the Republic of Ireland and live in Northern Ireland and vice versa.”

The second said, “There is economic prosperity.”

The third said, “We can take a cab without fear that if we are Catholic, a Protestant cabbie won’t assault us or vice versa.

Suddenly, the most serious of the group smiled broadly and said, “I like to think that the sun is finally warming us; that the ‘rains are truly gently falling on our fields’; and ‘that the wind is finally blowing against our backs.’”

The men at the table raised their Guinness and broadly smiled as they exclaimed, “Hear, hear!”

I raised my Guinness and said, “And may your Emerald Isle never again know the tears of past injustices, and may it only know the smiles that come with social justice and peace.”