Murals, Ireland, and the Post I Can't Write

After having it on my life list for many years, I finally got to visit Northern Ireland. I waited for a lull between bombings. Nothing's exploded for a while, hey? Time to go!

It was as amazing as I'd hoped it would be...and far more tense than I ever expected. I mean really, really tense. If I happened to say "Derry" instead of "Londonderry," the British Loyalists would say, "So...they've gotten to you, have they? They've taught you to call it that?" If said "Londonderry," the Irish Nationalists would take me aside and tell me to rip the "London" right out of it. And that was the least of the hostilities. I dare not write what else I heard. Wherever I went, it always felt like half of the population was looking away from the other half. A powder keg about to blow.

Indeed, a bomb did go off just a week or two after I left, but since I was still travelling I didn't hear about it until much later.

I originally planned to write a post about all the various murals I saw throughout the country, ones honoring fallen heroes on both sides, ones that inspired, ones that terrified. But then I realized I couldn't write a single letter without bias, because what information I learned on my short fling through the country is hardly worthwhile repeating. I left with nothing but impressions. Impressions of men who frightened me, no matter their politics, with stories about their roles in violence and murder. Impressions of the dead castles, the green hillsides, the waves crashing steadily against the mathematical rocks of the Giant's Causeway, that pay no heed to whose feet stand or whose blood flows. I came and went as a tourist in the purest sense of the word, unable to contribute anything useful to the argument. Unable to articulate anything, really, except a great sense of loss and frustration, even though I have nothing personally at stake.

I can't write this post, you see, because I can't possibly tell an accurate version of what is happening, what has happened, in Northern Ireland. It's too complex, and I'm bound to get something terribly wrong, or oversimplify, or just plain insult. It's over my head.

What I can give you, however, before I slip down any further into my own deep morass of rumination, is


Zing! Here it is. You can, I don't know, stare at it for a while.

This was a mural in the Shankill area of Belfast. In comparison to some of the others in the area, you might consider this particular mural "lighthearted." A sign on the side reads, "There are many legends telling the origins of the Red Hand of Ulster. This mural depicts only one of these."

I think this mural depicts the "race" version of the legend. According to Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898:

"In an ancient expedition to Ireland, it was given out that whoever first touched the shore should possess the territory which he touched; O’Neill, seeing another boat likely to outstrip his own, cut off his left hand and threw it on the coast. From this O’Neill the princes of Ulster were descended, and the motto of the O’Neills is to this day 'Lamh dearg Eirin' (red hand of Erin)."

I love how in the mural O'Neill is saying, "Yay I won!" while waving around his one remaining hand.

Also he doesn't seem to be wearing any pants. Couldn't he have, I don't know, just cut off a finger? You've got to hand it to him - he was determined. I guess he handled it the best he could. It's a good thing there wasn't a seagull nearby, or he might have been caught by it red-handed. Hand to mouth, you might say. It's okay that the other guy lost, though. He wouldn't have wanted the land anyway. It was a hand-me-down.

Okay, I'm done.

The Red Hand has been used as a symbol by both Loyalists and Nationalists. So there. I'm safely apolitical. This post has been entirely evenhanded.


The Election Word of 2012

Every presidential election season generates its own special buzzword. It's a word that comes out of nowhere, maybe by the pen of some unknown reporter who, working late through the night, sees it fluttering mothlike in the light of his lamp among countless lesser phrases and makes a snatch for it, stabbing it on his pen tip, as the perfect expression of his thoughts. So perfect, this phrase, in describing the political atmosphere, the field, the best of a candidate, the worst, or whatever the particular flavor of that particular race, that soon it's repeated in other articles, on cable news networks and talk radio, by the candidates has become THE WORD.

It's a word common enough for most people to immediately understand in context, more or less, but unusual enough that no one had ever before used it on a regular basis. It begins to leap out each time it appears, a florescent marker flagging the extent of political punditry's shared consciousness.

In 2004, the year of Bush’s stand against Kerry, it was gravitas. As in, “Kerry has gravitas, but no charisma,” or “John Edwards needs to show more gravitas,” or “Bush has no gravitas whatsoever.”

Remember? It’s when we as a nation were craving seriousness and respectability in a leader. Somehow it seems like we were a lot more mature back then.

In 2008, the year of Obama's extended fight with Hillary and (seemingly) dozens of GOP candidates' fight with each other, it was throw under a bus. I suppose it shows what a catty tooth-and-nail campaign it was for both parties that THE WORD...or well, I suppose in this case a phrase...was one that represented blind ambition.

Thankfully, I can no longer quote an actual quote containing "throw under a bus." I was so sick of hearing that phrase, I think my brain purged all memories of it. I DO remember saying, "Stop saying that! There is no bus! There never WAS a bus! LEAVE THE BUSES OUT OF IT!"

Ladies and gentleman, for this election season, the campaign for President of the United States in the Year of Our Lord 2012, I am pleased to announce that the official WORD has finally made itself known.


Every candidate has been called this at least once, often by another candidate. It has now appeared in the mediums of newsprint, magazine, and television. "Feckless" it is. As words go, it's not nearly as irritating as "throw under a bus" or "gravitas," but it's still a little disturbing that it's neither a course of action nor a virtue. Yes, the word of the year is an insult, and one meaning "lack of vitality" at that.

Is it a reflection of our feeling about our nation as a whole? Do we cringe away from the very weaknesses that we fear to find in ourselves? Does it reflect four years of losing footing on the global economic stage, the loss of faith in our military focus, our inability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? How much significance should we attach to a word that rises from our collective subconscious, a word reoccurring, like a mantra, in our popular dialogue?

Personally I was hoping for "widdershins," but I guess there's always the next election.