On “Reimaging” Northern Ireland

A study, written by one of Fr. Schall’s former students, of the public art and urban spaces in northern Ireland reveals how secular philosophy and globalization have supplanted tradition and religion

the big fish, a printed ceramic mosaic sculpture, constructed in 1999 in donegall quay in belfast. (photo: us.fotolia.com | vanderwolf images)

I.

A university professor rarely knows what happens to former students who pass on out of the university to their own lives. Once in a while, a former student will write. He will tell you what he is now doing, whether married with children, often recalling some incident from one’s class with him or pointing to a book or article that he thought you might like to see. I once had a very articulate and talented student from Waterbury, Connecticut who knew several languages. One summer, he went to Rome to study in the office of the pope’s Latinist. The next thing I knew, he was at the University of Edinburgh where he was pursuing a doctoral program in Gaelic studies. Finally, he ended up at the University of Cork, in Ireland. This position was logical enough as I do not suppose there are many places in the world where Gaelic is part of the academic curricula.

Another student, Bree Hocking, was from Eugene, Oregon; she seems to be working in New York or Washington right now. Several years ago, I learned that she was pursuing higher studies at Queens University in Belfast in Northern Ireland. After her doctoral degree, she published a book called The Great Reimaging: Public Art, Urban Space and the Symbolic Landscapes of a ‘New’ Northern Ireland (New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2015). This is Volume 4 of a series called “Material Mediations: People and Things in a World of Movement”, under the direction of Brigit Meyer of Utrecht University and Maruska Svasek at Queens University. I cite all of this bibliographical information of this multi-disciplinary endeavor simply because it is, to me, an introduction to another world. So I received the book with some interest. I have been to the Republic of Ireland a couple of times, but never to Northern Ireland.

Most people know something of the complex history of Northern Ireland. It goes back at least to the conflict over the British Throne in the time of James II and William of Orange, the defeat of the Catholic armies, and the imposition of English rule. The stormy relation between the English and Irish lasted for the next three hundred years. After World War I, the Republic of Ireland gained its independence, but the six northern counties about Belfast remained British in affiliation. Many of these Northern Irish citizens were of Scot origin who immigrated probably to secure a British base in Ireland. Today’s massive immigration often has the same political purpose.

In any case, eventually the majority in the North, except in the county of Derry, were Protestants. As in more recent times, the percentage of Catholics in the south and west of Northern Ireland increased, articulate claims of discrimination came from the Catholic side, often met with force often from the Protestant side. The British Government, which had legal control in Northern Ireland, was left to stand between the two sides, though there is bitter debate about its objectivity.

The immediate background of Hocking’s book, however, is the period after the “Troubles”. In 1968, the Irish Republican Army actively sought with violence to overturn the system of rule it thought to be unjust. Catholics and Protestants fought and killed each other. How much of it was religious and how much of it political and economic are widely debated issues. Whatever the case, the conflict turned Northern Ireland into a wasteland. After relative exhaustion on both sides, together with the presence of units of the British Army standing in between them, an agreement was finally reached on Good Friday, 1998, to cease hostilities.

As British and Irish leaders in Northern Ireland saw it, a “new” Northern Ireland had to be devised. Religion had basically discredited as a mediator. Local citizens had too much experience of violence to trust anyone, including the British. The solution reached is what this book is about. In one sense, it is a recapitulation of the problematic thesis of Hobbes during the earlier English Civil Wars in the 17th century. That is, a top-side down imposition of a new ethos had to replace religious motivations that were seen as the cause of war. Any kind of show of partisan force had to be outlawed and enforced by superior power of the state.

But this refashioning of the public order could only take place if the minds of the people were refashioned away from the causes of the controversies. As the whole infrastructure of industry in Belfast had changed from shipbuilding and such enterprises, something that has happened in other parts of the world, it was imperative to find a new approach.

Hobbes himself had proposed the suppression by the state of religious and philosophic controversy. This action, it was maintained, would leave the citizens with nothing else to do but work. They would devote their lives to enterprise and wealth creation; the religious causes of war had to be replaced. Hocking notes that similar issues were found throughout the world—in the Balkans, in Eastern Europe, post-communist Russia, South Korea, South Africa, Singapore, and to some extent in the American Civil War era.

II.

This book is primarily about civic space, monuments, and places where the strife that ruined cities and country-sides were eliminated. It was clear that no one would invest or visit Northern Ireland as long as these “Troubles” continued. It was not safe. What had to happen, then, was what Hocking called a “reimaging” of the public space—a filling it with something else.

Karl Marx, in one of his earlier writings, had said that “wherever one looked” he should see not God but man. This meant that, logically, the removal of churches and buildings that indicated something other than human founding. The idea in Northern Ireland was to de-emphasize those places and structures that were mindful of the Troubles.

Yet, if one takes a look at classical Europe, to which Ireland itself belonged, public space was filled with churches, by buildings designed in the tradition of the Greeks or Romans, or German or Norse gods, as well as national ideals. On top of this are the so-called modern commercial buildings, emporia of business and commerce.

If we observe the Islamic world, which conquered all the south and east around Europe and is increasingly present in all European states, it usually insists in reshaping any public space in conformity with its theology. In recent years, we have seen how true Islamic believers are involved in tearing down any sign of Christian, Buddhist, even ancient Egyptian or Assyrian monuments within Islamic lands. The external world must conform to the inner world.

The problem in Northern Ireland was unique. The religious or nationalist signs in the public space were seen as causes of the problems, not the solutions. So they had to be replaced. In a long series of initiatives, which Hocking carefully chronicles, it was decided to build a series of new monuments, usually very modern sculptures, designs, walls, graphics, modules, and spheres, that presumably were arresting but neutral. They were to be accompanied with abstract words such as “peace”, “dignity”, “rights”, “cooperation”, and “respect”.

Skyline of Belfast, 2008 (Wikipedia)

If any older monuments were retained from either religion or military history, they were to be redesigned into the new mode. All of this, as conceived, was a largely top-down effort. It was presumably made necessary by the ingrained habits of the local peoples involved in the Troubles. Hocking does well to note the irony of this approach, but it is, in practice, straight out of Hobbes. It is a kind of social engineering before an admittedly huge problem.

III.

Henry Adams’s Mt. St. Michele and Chartres along with Pericles’ Funeral Oration were not cited in this book. Both of these famous sources refer to public space and the monuments that identify them. Hannah Arendt spoke of this function of public monuments as records of a country’s history and reminder of its ideals. We have in these Northern Irish proposals, in effect, an indirect reference to Adams’ thesis of the Virgin and the Dynamo. It was the Virgin that caused the dynamo, not vice versa. Only here, we want a new “Virgin” to generate movement. It turns out to be, not the Virgin, but the flow of international capital, tourism, and consumerism. Globalization is what takes the place of the Virgin. This endeavor is why these renewal efforts are closer to Hobbes than to Pericles or Adams.

Northern Ireland has, in this view, to join the world of international cities. It must overcome the localism that had caused the “Troubles”. No one will visit an armed camp. Thus, the renewal proposes to accomplish this transformation by creating a climate for international business and commercial enterprise to deal with the high unemployment rates in Northern Ireland and foster civic peace. Strife and unemployment are seen to be in large part the cause of the initial problems.

The historic churches of Northern Ireland—Protestant or Catholic—do not come into these considerations in any significant degree. In a certain sense, religion has proved unwelcome. What replaces it is an internationalism in which everyone from everywhere is welcome. The flow of international capital and business must feel at home also in Northern Ireland. It must have the feel of other world cities. New peoples come in, not just Irish from the bogs and farms. The transcendence embedded symbolically in the very architecture of Mt. St. Michele or Chartres cannot be used. The new “transcendence” is inner-worldly globalism, with its entire agenda.

It is interesting that Pope Francis has frequently expressed his opposition to this international flow of capital and business as somehow being out of control. When it does not work in one country, it picks up and goes to the next. The hypothesis of the planners of the new Northern Ireland, however, in light of the bitter experience both with local nationalism and religion, saw as their way out a basically Hobbesian thesis as a solution for increased well-being to eliminate the strife caused by thought and religion. It had to be imposed from the outside and then embodied in new ways and figures.

The world of art, public space, and monuments, of consumerism, science, business, and tourism that is being built in Northern Ireland, as described in this book, however, has the danger, as Hocking sometimes implies, of being sterile. It seems soulless. Why would anyone want to come to Northern Ireland if its local culture is minimized and its public face looks just like shopping malls all over the known world from Doha, Singapore, Kansas City, Dortmund, to Glasgow? Ireland was always a place to visit because it was not like any place else.

And yet one cannot help but have sympathy with the planners who analyzed the problem in such a way as to avoid past troubles. They sought to join what they took to be the wave of the future. Catholics who look at both parts of Ireland see that religious observance is way down. I read that only 18% of Catholics in Belfast go to Mass regularly. Clergy scandals and religious factionalism are significant factors in this drainage. They have prevented religion from being a major force in this effort to regenerate the country. The ecumenical failure of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland—however we assess the blame—has had monumental consequences for all of them.

The greatest loss, I think, is, in practice, the loss of that part of public “space” that points not to the nation or to the globe, but to transcendence. Notre Dame in Paris could never be built in the newly envisioned city. This lack of true transcendence has been what really determined the face of the public order. Nothing visible prevents it from being enclosed on itself. The replacement of a neighborhood or a nation by the globe is not really a solution. The abstract monuments so carefully described by Hocking seem unlikely to move souls let alone interest tourists.

Several decades ago, I wrote an essay entitled “On Building Cathedrals and Tearing Them Down” (found in The Praise of ‘Sons of Bitches’: On the Worship of God by Fallen Men, to be reissued shortly by St. Augustine’s Press). It was about the building of the then new San Francisco Cathedral, a beautiful building. There was the usual “it would have been better to give the money to the poor” refrain as there was in Belfast about these efforts, as Hocking notes.

My own view was that the poor need beauty as much as, if not more, than bread. The great Cathedrals of Europe belonged to the poor as well as everyone else. The Belfast planners probably would not disagree with that principle. My remarks were made in the light of Samuel Johnson’s 1773 visit to St. Andrew’s in Scotland, the origin of many Northern Irish. There, as Johnson noted, he saw the ruins of the great iconoclastic destruction of great Cathedrals during the Reformation. These ruins, now become more like monuments, can still be seen.

In Mosul in Iraq, the ancient Christian churches and buildings are destroyed so they will no longer be even seen. The churches in Northern Ireland are left in silence by the new wave of public space with its malls, shops, tourists, commerce, and art. Art points back to itself, not to any real transcendence

In my Roman days, I was always struck by the fact that Rome was a center of world-wide tourism because its churches and buildings were more than just places to be seen. I wonder if there is not a lesson here for the diligent planners of Northern Ireland who think that globalism is the answer to the turmoils that rend the hearts of men. As I have always said, one’s students have much to teach old professors.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.