In 2008, I had the privilege of leading an Alumni Association travel group on a 13-day tour of Ireland, including three days in Northern Ireland. While I had been to Ireland on previous occasions, this was my first visit to the north, long known for sectarian strife between its Roman Catholic and Protestant populations.
We started by touring the political murals of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. The murals depict past political and religious divisions, particularly during the Troubles, a civil war that raged from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Seeing the haunting images and hearing the vivid descriptions of brutality and loss, I could feel how deep and raw the scars of conflict still were, even though relative peace has persisted for almost a decade.
Following Belfast we visited Derry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland and the place many consider the starting point of the Troubles. After a walking tour, we met with fellow Bronco Martha Suto ’70, who has lived in Derry since 1973. After presenting her with a Santa Clara sweatshirt (she hadn’t had a new one since college!), we sat down to hear her stories.
Martha first came to Northern Ireland after college, as part of a group of graduate students; half were Protestant, half Catholic. She became involved full-time with the Sinn Fein political party from 1975 to 1997. She spoke personally and passionately about the injustice she had experienced and the intensity of the fighting she had witnessed in Derry. She described the death of an 11-year-old boy who had been killed by a rubber bullet in a local riot, where she had been present. Her words were of heartbreak and a deep sense of loss—not only for the boy, but for all those who had lost their lives fighting for what they thought was right.
After the Good Friday Agreement, a landmark peace accord, was signed in 1998, Martha founded a community mental health organization and is currently involved with local disability groups. She is cautiously hopeful about the ongoing reconciliation efforts and says she will never leave Northern Ireland; the land and the people are a part of her now. When we left her on the curb of a Derry street corner, she was smiling broadly and proudly waving her Santa Clara sweatshirt!
Our last stop was Portadown, a segregated town with clear separations between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Here we gathered for lunch and conversation with a local Jesuit and four Catholic citizens of the Portadown community.
As members of the minority group in a Protestant town, our guests spoke in detail of ongoing cruelty, intimidation, oppression, and helplessness. The depth and honesty of their reflections was deeply moving—as was their courage and faith. They had every reason to feel angry and defeated, yet their strength and determination to overcome adversity was evident. The hurt felt by those we met seemed too deep to ever fully heal. Yet, I left hoping time and real reconciliation efforts might allow a new generation a fresh start.
I will always be grateful for those three days in Northern Ireland. I learned from those who have experienced war firsthand the ways in which it is destructive—to people, places, and things. I learned peace can be fragile and elusive. I learned profound feelings of injustice pass from generation to generation. I learned war is personal. And so is peace. I learned war makes things seem impossible. But hope makes peace possible.
Kathryn Kale ’86