It all started with one woman’s inability to produce a son. In those days, and particularly if you needed a male heir to the British throne, this “flaw” was a really big deal – big enough for a husband to want a divorce from his wife. However, England, like most of Europe, was catholic and Catholics don’t do divorce. What to do in a dilemma like this? You create a new religion (the protestant Anglican Church), appoint yourself as the head of the Church and then divorce your wife.
The move was pretty clever on part of King Henry VIII. He divorced his wife Catherine of Aragon in 1533, married his mistress Anne Boleyn and caused with his actions a conflict that is still simmering today – almost 500 years later.
Under Henry VIII, all of the England became protestant, which was a thorn in eyes of the Catholic Church. It was unacceptable to the Pope that more and more parts of Europe no longer wanted to be part of his flock. After all, this was also the time when the Protestant Reformation swept through Northern and Western Europe. So, in 1588 and with the pope’s blessing, the Spanish tried to invade the UK and overthrow the very protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Famously, the Spanish Armada fleet was defeated in a humiliating naval battle that left 20,000 Spanish sailors dead and 35 of their war ships at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean along the Irish coast. God must have been on the side of the protestant English.
Elizabeth I was jubilant. However, one weakness in the British defense strategy was laid bare as a result of the Armada attack: catholic Ireland. To be able to protect the kingdom and have unrestricted access to the North Atlantic, England must be in control of Irish ports. Under her rule and the orders by subsequent kings (James I and Charles I), a large scale re-settlement of protestant farmers and workers (called the “Plantation”) took place from England, Wales and Scotland to catholic Ireland. The newcomers drove the Irishmen from their homes, took over their land, chased them into the hills and became (despite being a minority) the ruling class in Ireland.
In many ways the Plantation of settlers in Ireland was a political and strategic move. It had little to do with religion. However, as time passed, the struggle turned into a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics.
Londonderry in Northern Ireland is the epicenter of this conflict. For thirty years and much of my teenage and young adult life, I remember watching nightly news reports of bombings by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), stone throwing youths in city streets and the incarcerations of members of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.
A visit to Londonderry is both unsettling and fascinating. The town, despite decade-long attempts to promote peace between the two factions, is still a divided city. A turbulent history that is marked by violence, injustice, oppression and discrimination, is not easily overcome. Even today, 93% of school children in Northern Ireland attend schools that are segregated by religion. In my opinion, the healing starts with the next generation. I don’t understand the strategy.
At the entrance to Londonderry near the Craigavon Bridge, there is a monument called “Hands Across the Divide” (see picture). The bronze statues, created by the Northern Irish sculptor Maurice Harron, show two men reaching towards each other. The original artwork was meant for the two men to be holding hands. However, peace has not yet been achieved. In recognition of that fact, a gap has been left between the hands of the two statues. The monument was unveiled in 1992, 20 years after “Bloody Sunday”, when 13 unarmed catholic demonstrators (many of them 17 years old) were killed by British troops in the streets of Londonderry.
Londonderry is a beautiful, highly visitable(?) old town. Still, reminders of fierce conflict can be found everywhere and the deep divisions in the population are palpable. Much more time has to pass before the two bronze statues at the town’s edge can be moved closer and finally touch.