On Sunday, I slipped next door to the Celtic Knot, bought a beer, and headed towards the mythical room known as The Snug at the back of the pub next to the kitchen.
I’d been promising myself for months that I’d take advantage of the “Storytelling in the Snug” series, but wasn’t sure what to expect when I stepped into the small, windowless room filled with chairs and a handful of people. Megan Well, a world-class storyteller in her own right, introduced the speaker in a semi-breathless tone, gesturing generously. I was easily the youngest in the room.
When asked how long his story would take, the speaker replied: “Ohhh, a while.”
Then he began.
A common joke in Northern Ireland relates to the divide between the Catholics and Protestants. It goes something like this. A stranger walking down the street is approached by a man who asks him whether he is Catholic or Protestant.
“I’m a Buddhist,” the stranger replies.
“Yes, but are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?”
Thus began Jim Stowell’s story, which alternated between the hilarious and the tragic, the banal and the exaggerated.
Stowell is, most simply, a storyteller. He has traveled to a variety of unusual locales, including rural Mexico and the Amazon rainforest. The setting of this story was Belfast in Northern Ireland, where a civil war between Republicans and Loyalists has raged for over 200 years.
Stowell explains the dichotomy in such a way that, for the first time in my life, I’m able to understand “the troubles.” Republicans (who tend to be Catholic) are in favor of Northern Ireland becoming a republic. The most avid of them founded the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Meanwhile, Loyalists (who tend to be Protestant) want Northern Ireland to stay a part of England. They are loyal to England. The most passionate among the Loyalists are represented by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
When Stowell first arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he was fairly confused. His friend Joseph called him up and asked if he’d like to attend a reception. Joseph was careful to point out that the reception was to be held in a Catholic church. Stowell said sure.
The next day, Joseph phoned again. “‘Hey, how’d you like to come stay at my place, save yourself some money instead of paying that B&B?’” Stowell readily agreed.
At this point, Stowell says, he knew he had passed a test. Though he hadn’t known it at the time, agreeing to step foot in a Catholic church had identified him as sympathetic to the Republican cause. Or at least not opposed.
For the rest of his trip, Stowell was to be alternately confused, angered, chagrined, and inspired by the divide between the Protestants and the Catholics.
Joseph lived in the Ardoyne, an extremely Catholic enclave in a sea of Protestant neighborhoods in the northern section of Belfast. The first day he stepped outside, Stowell was shocked to see a helicopter hovering over the neighborhood from dawn til dusk and police brigades patrolling the streets.
Joseph’s relatives—including his brother’s fiancé who was notorious for having attempted to bomb a bus—were also vehemently Catholic. Stowell was treated like an old buddy and introduced to all of Joseph’s friends.
One evening, Stowell chose to take advantage of his obvious status as a tourist and wandered into a Protestant section of town. He then wandered into a bar and into a conversation with a passionate Protestant, who proceeded to explain how he was diametrically opposed to the Catholics.
In the midst of that conversation, Stowell realized something crucial. Growing up in south Texas, Stowell was constantly bombarded by, and utilized, racial slurs. It wasn’t until he moved away and joined the Air Force that he realized how narrowly he had been thinking for the first 20 years of his life.
“In that moment, when this older Protestant man was yelling and cursing at the Catholics, I suddenly remembered how when my father had a few drinks and got angry, he’d describe Mexicans and blacks in similarly terrible terms. All of a sudden I couldn’t be angry anymore.”
Yet the end of Stowell’s story isn’t hopeless. Stowell skillfully interweaves the story of his own childhood growing up in a bigoted world with that of the situation in Northern Ireland. In so doing, he reveals the common tendency humans have to degrade each other. There are walls, both literal and figurative, dividing us into different groups. But it is possible, Stowell argues, to bring these walls down.
Stowell is out with Joseph, who has taken him to view the infamous Peace Wall that divides Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic ones. Joseph tells the story of his sister’s death.
“‘My sister worked in a sweet shop. One day her boss was out, so she was filling in for him. An old lady had come into the store, looking to buy some sweets. Two soldiers from the Ulster Volunteer Force came in asking about the boss, who they knew was involved with the IRA. When they couldn’t find him, they were frustrated. They shot the old woman, and they shot my sister.”
Though he reeled with horror, Stowell realized something important. Despite his sister’s unjust death, Joseph had never resorted to violence. He had never sought out revenge or encouraged the conflict to continue. Though clearly a Catholic, he wasn’t militant by any means.
For Stowell, Joseph represented hope. If Stowell could discard the racist language he had used as a child, and if Joseph could remain relatively peaceful despite the death of his sister, then so, too, could other walls come down.
I learned it had been a mistake to dismiss the man with the handlebar mustache and plan to return to the Snug the first chance I get for more incredible storytelling.
This version of the story, of course, lacks the wonderful performative elements of Stowell’s live rendition. Curious about Jim Stowell? His website is fairly bare, but here’s an informative interview: