By Becca Bednarz '15
Irish author Tony Macaulay is no stranger to conflict.
As a boy growing up in Northern Ireland’s Belfast in the 1970s, Macaulay had a heightened degree of exposure to a period of intense civil conflict often referred to as “the Troubles,” he said during a visit to Lehigh’s campus on Friday afternoon. It was Macaulay’s second visit to the university.
Macaulay has spent the past 25 years working to build peace and reconciliation at home and abroad. His visit was sponsored by the Global Union and Arts Lehigh.
According to the BBC, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was at the core of the conflict. The goal of its unionist and overwhelmingly Protestant majority was to remain part of the United Kingdom, while the goal of its nationalist and republican, almost exclusively Catholic, minority was to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
“There were parts of Belfast that were mixed—where Protestants and Catholics lived together on the same streets—and what basically happened was that the two sides burnt each other out and people had to very quickly leave their homes,” Macaulay said.
“These were two communities on the verge of civil war, and […] when the British army came in, they erected what they called ‘temporary barriers’ to protect the two sides from one another,” he said. “I have worked very hard with communities in those areas to try to come up with a process that [will] make it safe enough to start to begin to take those walls down.”
The Troubles were characterized by a great deal of violence, and Macaulay has recounted many of his experiences with growing up in such an environment through two memoirs, Paperboy and Breadboy.
Both books are written from the perspective of his childhood and adolescent selves, and through them, he chronicles coming to terms with both growing up in general and doing so in the context of conflict.
An important element of both memoirs is his increasing tendency to question the world around him, he said.
“In one sense, they are the stories of an ordinary child, only growing up during extraordinary times and under extraordinary circumstances,” he said. Macaulay read an excerpt from Breadboy that detailed an occasion where the victim of a terror attack on his own neighborhood died in his mother’s arms.
“My experience [with] violent conflict really has driven me for the rest of my life to work in peacebuilding because I experienced firsthand the impact of division and sectarianism,” he said.
Many consider the Troubles to have ended with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but Macaulay said that assumptions of concrete tranquility in Northern Ireland are often exaggerated.
“We are [technically] a post-conflict society; now we have stable political institutions in place, we have peace, and my children have grown up in a peaceful society,” he said. “However, there are more peace wars in Ireland today than there were when the peace agreement was signed,” he said.
“The work that I’m involved in now is community-based, and it’s about trying to break down community divisions, because if the divisions perpetuate, the potential for violent conflict to reemerge is there,” he said.
In honor of both the author’s heritage and St. Patrick’s Day, a lunch of shepherd’s pie and cupcakes iced in green was provided for all attendees.