Destination: Northern Ireland
Book Review: Northern Ireland: An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast (2010) by Caroline Oceana Ryan
A GUEST POST by Kerry Dexter, Music editor at Wandering Educators.com
Caroline Oceana Ryan is an American poet, playwright and travel writer who in 2000 left her life in Los Angeles to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland for six months.
She expected Belfast to be a burned out shell after decades of armed conflict. And though there were still political murals to be seen in many neighborhoods, that presence paled compared to the vibrant people of the North, who were at turns joyful, tragic, creative and stuck in their ways. Over the next six years Ryan returned for further six-month stays, learning about the North and its people.
An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast , is the result of Ryan’s time in Belfast. The first half of the book focuses on Ryan’s initial impressions of the Northern people and their working lives, their creative brilliance and their beliefs. The second half has more to do with the political side of things, informed by Ryan’s on the ground experiences living in Northern Ireland, and her access to those involved in the day to day politics of the north.
As I’ve spent a good bit of time in the North of Ireland and in the border counties in the Republic, WanderingEducators’s publisher Dr Jessica Voigts asked me to speak with Ryan about her book, and about life in Northern Ireland.
Kerry Dexter for Wandering Educators: if you were to describe your book, An Old Castle Standing on a Ford: One Yank’s Life in an Almost Peaceful Belfast, what would you say?
Caroline Oceana Ryan: It’s an honest account of life in Belfast during the past decade – it’s both a personal journey and a cultural one. Belfast is so worth knowing. It was then, as it is now, full of raw energy, creative innovation, a great nightlife, new business, modern architecture, an optimism you wouldn’t expect.
I describe the Northern people – their humor, their conversations and personalities, and local events—some groundbreaking, some tragic. The tragicomic view of life that the Irish have had for centuries is still very much in evidence.
WE: Why did you decide to write the book at this time?
COR: When I first traveled to Northern Ireland in 2000, the Good Friday Agreement, which introduced peace to the North after 30 years of civil war, was only a couple of years old. I wanted to see how peace was taking root there in its first few years.
I’ve always loved Ireland – the land, the music, its powerful myth and symbols. The Good Friday Agreement was a hard-won miracle on all sides. It came about because (Irish nationalist) Social Democratic Labour Party leader John Hume sat down with (pro-British) Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble to create a blueprint for peace. They were the architects, and what they built is still standing, and growing stronger, despite setbacks.
They shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts – well deserved. Hume spent years during the 1980s and 90s, talking to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA, to get him to start seeing that the democratic method would be far more helpful to establishing an independent North than any amount of bullets and bombs.
WE: You cover quite a span of time in the book — how did you choose your focus?
COR: The main idea was to expose the reader to Northern poetry, humor and theater, in a natural everyday sort of way. I kept returning to that, despite the political and military information and interviews, because poetry, music, humor and myth are at the center of Northern life. And it keeps you sane, in the writing process, to have large parts of the story that are joyful to write about!
Please read the rest of this interview by Kerry Dexter at Wandering Educators.
Thanks to Kerry, and to Wandering Educators for letting us introduce this book about Northern Ireland.