In the first of a two part series about Global Exchange’s history in Ireland, our co-founder, Kevin Danaher shares the inspiration behind our delegations during an interview with Reality Tours intern Kathleen Reynolds.
Kathleen: What inspired the Reality Tours delegation to Ireland?
Kevin: My father was born and raised in South West Ireland, county Limerick, so I had a very personal interest in getting trips to Ireland started. We focused on Northern Ireland because of the politics at the time. When people see a little town in Northern Ireland where the British military base is constructed in such a way that it breaks the architectural unity of the town square… They built the military base purposely so that the corner of the base intrudes and breaks the architectural unity of the town square. When you’re walking on the sidewalk you have to step out in the street to get around the corner of the military base. It was a way of saying structurally, we’re in your house you can’t do anything about it and we’re going to be here forever, look how permanent this structure is. Well, as a matter of fact that military base is gone now and the British are leaving Northern Ireland. That’s the end of an eight hundred year process. The first Norman Invasion from England was 1169. The Irish put up a good fight. They kept out the Roman armies, which is an amazing achievement because they were such crazy fighters but the British subdued them.
If you look at populations, the only country I know of that has half the population today that it had 150 years ago is Ireland. Most people when asked that question respond- Ethiopia, Rwanda whatever, no it’s Ireland! So many people died or were chased away, like my father at the age of 21. He was the only one (in my family) who had the opportunity. An aunt offered to take him to the US and he jumped at the opportunity, but he cried every day of his adult life. He was homesick for Ireland. He didn’t really want to leave which is true of most immigrants. People don’t leave out of desire to go see the bright lights of LA. It’s family necessity. It’s to try to earn an income and send money back. In the 1930’s my father was making 30 dollars a week and he sent 5 dollars of that back to Ireland. It really made the difference for that family. It helped the children to survive. I had a real personal empathy for what had gone on in Ireland. Ireland is a country with people who took English, the colonizers language and made it into an articulate tool of resistance. Some of the greatest writers in English happen to be Irish. Very fun loving people, it’s easy to make friends. Another thing too, there’s a very deep sense of history. Everything else was taken away from them but they held onto their history. There’s a quote from someone… after one of the rebellions in the 1800s he said “you fools you’ve left us our Fenian dead but as long as we hold these graves Ireland un-free will never be at rest.” That sense of standing on the shoulders of those who gave up their lives in the struggle. After 800 years the British are leaving and Ireland will eventually be unified.
Kathleen: Bobby Sands died in the Maze prison of Northern Ireland some 31 years ago. Can you explain the significance of Bobby Sands’ legacy?
Kevin: They used to call it going on the blanket. Political prisoners took off their clothes stopped eating and just wrapped themselves up in a blanket. People were willing to give up their lives consciously by starving themselves to death and it would draw these massive support movements to support people like Bobby Sands. People like Bobby Sands understood that it’s the mass mobilizations, mass movements that make revolutions, it’s not individual leaders or genius, it’s large numbers of people. In order to get them motivated sometimes leaders have to take arrows in their back.
Since 1997 Global Exchange has offered departures to Northern Ireland. Many of our delegations were set up to examine the history of colonialism, peace and conflict resolution, economic development and coincided with the West Belfast Arts Festival. They continue today. If you are interested in an alternative journey to Ireland, check out a past participant’s story To Belfast and Back with Global Exchange.
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