There’s a lot of talk about the violence that affects urban America: drive-by shootings, carjackings, and other crime that continue to affect the fabric of this country. But very little of that violence has the sectarian underpinnings of the time known as “The Troubles,” which plagued the Northern Ireland city of Belfast for three decades starting in 1969.
Writer Tony Macaulay was born Protestant in West Belfast in 1963, and The Troubles began when he was a small child. His previous book, Bread Boy looks back on his childhood there. But his latest book jumps forward in time to when the 23-year-old Macaulay set out to stop the violence between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast. The book is called Little House on the Peace Line: Living and Working as a Pacifist on Belfast's Murder Mile.
"People said to me, at the time, it was a crazy thing to do," Macaulay admits. "When I look back now I think it was a risky thing to do, it was an idealistic thing to do, and maybe a little bit naive in some ways."
He continues, "But it's something that I don't regret doing because very few people in Northern Ireland have had the experience of, you know, walking in the other person's moccasins. It's not an experience that very many people here have had."
At the time when Macauley moved to the Catholic side of Belfast, tensions were particularly high. "We’d been through a lot of trauma, as a community, in the preceding decades and it just seemed to be getting worse and not getting any better. It seemed like we were going to be stuck in this conflict forever, so it was a dark time," he says.
Macaulay grew up in a Protestant neighborhood, attended a segregated school, and only socialized with other Protestants like himself. It wasn't until he started working as a peacebuilder that he truly started to hear stories from the perspective of Belfast's Catholic community.
"The interesting thing that I discovered when I crossed that divide and went to experience what it was like living on the other side, I noticed that both sides had myths about each other," he says. "And we learnt all the prejudices about the other side from our own side, and it was being passed down the generations."
Macaulay points to perceptions of the police and the British Army in Belfast. On the Protestant side, they saw the British Army and police as protecting their community from the IRA (Irish Republican Army). Catholics viewed them as an "oppressive force" which continued to harass Catholics based on their Irish ethnicity.
Macauley still lives in Belfast and while much has changed since he started his work in the mid-'90s, he says there's still a lot left to do in Northern Ireland to build lasting trust among the different communities.
"We're still more divided than I'm comfortable with... I'd love most of our kids to be at integrated schools, I would love Catholics and Protestants to be living on the same streets again, I would love all of those peace walls to be torn down forever," he says. "It feels at the moment that we're living alongside each other peacefully, rather than really living together happily."
Macaulay will be at Milwaukee's Irish Fest on Saturday, August 19 for the U.S. launch of his memoir, Little House on the Peace Line.