Moral Dilemma: An Irish Story

by Diana Rankin

While on a trip to the north of Ireland, I was faced with a moral dilemma. Such is often the case in the course in our daily lives—two choices with diverging paths, each choice bringing about a different outcome as it plays out in our lives.

               One choice may seem the easier, but with reflection, we may begin to see it as less moral. So we choose the more difficult, but upright path, knowing that somewhere in our life we will be rewarded for our choice, if only to look at ourselves in the mirror and know we did what we thought was right. At other times, the easier choice is the right path, so the choice becomes clear. Yet there are those times when the right decision is less clear, the choices muddled in the righteousness of both sides. Such was my dilemma in Northern Ireland when I met an IRA man.
               The IRA, the Irish Republic Army, the likes of which I had not heard about for years, not since the late 1990s when the troubles, as they are known in Ireland, were folded into a peace alliance among Northern Ireland and the governments of Great Britain and Ireland. This Good Friday Accord called for a cease fire from the IRA, a paramilitary group known for guerrilla warfare against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. It was the other side of the story I heard from this man. I say the other side of the story because as an American I had only heard what terrorists, murders, and thugs they were, those young people who made up the Irish Republican Army.
               The sun was out the day we met in Belfast. My traveling companions and I hailed a taxi for a tour of the city. Little did I know the tour would open me to new vistas of understanding and add a depth of knowledge about the troubles and history of Northern Ireland—the home of my ancestors. It was in 1669 that my ancestor Alexander Rankin brought his family from the north of Ireland to America. He came after the 1688 siege of Derry where he and his Scotch-Irish comrades held off the army of King James II of England for 105 days before the English claimed victory and the city. And now I listened to a young Irishman who knew the perils of British occupation in his lifetime, and I knew at some deep level I must listen carefully for we were on different sides this young man and I. He was Catholic. My ancestors were Protestant, and in the north of Ireland that makes all the difference in the world.
               The wall that surrounds Derry, which is also known as Londonderry, was a wall built to save a city and its inhabitants from invasion. Now, like the wall in Belfast, it divides a city and its residents. On one side live the Protestants, on the other the Catholics. In both cities, there is a sensitive peace that some pray hold, others do not pray so. Times are better certainly than they were, yet there is a feeling that the world should not forget the uprisings of a country’s youth for in the forgetting we lose our humanity and continue to repeat ourselves—whatever the name of the country—Ireland, Egypt, Syria, America.
               In listening, I learned the troubles grew out of a history of oppression where “No Catholics Need Apply” signs frequented store windows beneath “Job Opening” signs. Separated by education, religious and political beliefs, as well as a physical wall, Catholics were forced mainly into entry-level jobs, if they had jobs at all. At one point, unemployment among Catholics reached as high as 30 percent. And there seemed little they could do about changing the situation. To be a registered voter, your name had to be on the lease, but land owners were those with the better paying jobs—the Protestants. Even the government and police force were predominantly Protestant.
               I thought about my ancestor Alexander Rankin who left religious persecution in Scotland for freedom in Ireland. If he had stayed in Derry, would I be on the other side of the wall of this young man before me who spoke so passionately about the people who lost their lives during the troubles? There may be no rewriting of history, but there is the learning from it, which is what I was able to do as I was invited into a store, the likes of which caused me a moral dilemma.
               We were buzzed into the store, one filled with gifts and books. In the store, three men dressed in Irish black, talked together. Perhaps artists with wares in the store, but in my imagination, I pictured them in a clandestine meeting in dank, drafty rooms, not in a well-lit store full of Irish mugs and faeries. Behind the counter were two women of a generation who perhaps knew the inside of Armagh Prison, a replica of a cell of which we saw while walking through the IRA museum, a museum full of torture and screams.
               Woman that I am, I was ready to shop, but what would my shopping money support? Was I helping to support peace and adding to the economy of the shopkeepers and their families? Or was I supporting the buying of illegal guns and helping to fund criminal operations? I had no way of knowing. A moral dilemma. It was the book that made my decision for me—Bobby Sands’ Writings from Prison.
               I knew the name, remembered it from my younger years when I read American newspapers about the young IRA men who went on a hunger strike to protest the British classifying them as criminal prisoners instead of political prisoners, the latter of which they believed they were. We weren’t so far apart in age, these young men and I, and I spent many a sleepless night wondering why someone with their whole life ahead of them would choose to stop eating and die and why Margaret Thatcher’s British government allowed the men to die. In all ten men, including Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death in 1981. Bobby Sands was 27 years old and had gained international attention for his cause—the right to be treated as a human being. Bobby Sands had been jailed without trail for nine years before his death. While a prisoner of the British, he was beaten, starved, and forced to live under inhumane conditions that speak more of ancient times than of those within my lifetime.
               I settled my moral dilemma, not because I thought the IRA was right (I do not think guns and killing others are ever the answer), but because I was able to see the other side. I was able to feel the pain of hopelessness and the suffering of not being able to feed your family. I was able to understand the fear of living on the other side of the wall where bottle bombs flew both directions, and I was able to acknowledge that both sides are wrong—and both sides are right—and it is only through human interaction and intense and intentional dialogue that we are able to see—and to hear—one another.
               I bought the book by Bobby Sands.  He wrote it on toilet tissue using the insert of a cheap ballpoint pen.  His writings were smuggled out of H-Blocks of Long Kesh Prison. And I bought two blank journals—one for a writer friend and one for myself. I don’t know what my friend will write in her journal; she remarked it had to be something special because she could feel the intensity of the journal. In mine, I will write my deepest thoughts and feelings of my heart as I have done with more than 100 blank journals, and in the writing on those pages, perhaps I will better come to understand another who lives on the other side of the walls within me.
 
© Diana Rankin 2012
             
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