Adolescent Experience in Today’s Northern Ireland: A Generation’s Long Accumulation of Shame

by Bronagh Starrs

Author’s note: This article is a brief extract from a paper which was originally written for the forthcoming collected volume: Evolution of Gestalt II: Relational Child, Relational Brain, edited by Robert G. Lee and Sarah Toman, GestaltPress/ The Analytic Press.

History as Context

In describing life experience for adolescents in present day Northern Ireland it is necessary to contextualize their experience. This context is a very old and very troubled one. Celts, Normans, Vikings and others arrived as they made their way westward through Europe.  Since British involvement in Ireland commenced hundreds of years ago, there has been a heavy price to pay for the Irish through loss of our identity. Anything of value had to be relinquished – the most obvious losses being land and language. The land was taken from the Irish speaking Catholics by the British Protestants. These wealthy landlords made up 10% of the population. Catholics, who made up 75% of the population, were not permitted to vote, stand for Parliament, be a member of a learned profession, teach in a school, carry a firearm, own a horse worth more than £5, manufacture or sell books or newspapers, to name just a few of the Penal Laws which were passed by the Protestant Parliament of Ireland. These laws ensured the limiting of political and economic power on the basis of religion. In 1641 Catholics had owned 60% of the land. Disenfranchisement of the majority of the population meant that by 1776 ownership of land by Irish Catholics was estimated at 5%.

Life for those who belonged to the dominant Protestant Ascendancy was luxurious. They lived on large estates, pursued professional careers in military, government, law or education and lived off the rents they demanded from the peasant Irish tenants who had previously owned the land. Life for the majority of dispossessed Irish Catholics consisted of living and working on rented land and as servants in the big houses, landlord’s estates. They lived their lives in abject poverty on a diet almost exclusively of potato.

Although these events were experienced many generations ago, their impact is still felt; and the Irish memory strong. Modern sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants has its origins in this time of history. Much of our cultural identity was relinquished, repressed and shamed through contact with the British. Ours was a fiercely strong oral tradition – folklore, culture and traditions were preserved and handed down the generations through the art of seanchas (storytelling). Children learned about their heritage, their family and community history and were taught the great Irish legends, the songs, dances and poetry of the people through their native tongue.  Sadly, as so much of our identity was held within the language, something immeasurable was lost when a language shift was imposed on the Irish people within one generation. In the 1800s children were educated through English and were forbidden to speak their own language in school. The children were made to wear tally sticks around their necks whilst in school. Each time a child spoke Irish a notch was carved in the stick. At the end of the school day, due punishment would be given, most often beatings, according to how many notches had been accumulated. Understanding that in order for their children to survive in an English dominated economy and achieve better quality of life, parents urged and encouraged their children to speak English. Mothers and fathers communicated minimally with their children as they did not want to encourage Irish – now seen as an inferior, redundant language. The Irish language, and with it, a people’s expression of identity which had been preciously preserved within the language, had all but vanished in most parts of Ireland.

The 1800’s saw a marked campaign by the Catholic majority to fight for national independence and overthrow British rule. During this century the Irish also experienced the Great Hunger. Two million people were lost through starvation and forced exile. The struggle continued and intensified for freedom and for Home Rule, culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence. The Irish Free State was established in December 1921. An Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and 26 counties gained independence. Six of the nine counties of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom, under British Rule. Northern Ireland came into being. One third of the population of Northern Ireland was Nationalist and these were a people diminished and demeaned in every way possible by the powerful Unionist majority. A campaign for social justice and an end to discrimination and lack of civil rights for the Catholic Nationalist population got under way in the sixties. Clashes between the police and protesters became a regular feature of marches. British soldiers were drafted in and internment was introduced in 1971 with adolescent boys and men being arrested, often tortured, and imprisoned without trial. The response from the outraged Nationalists was increased support for the IRA.

One of the protests arranged by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association took place in Derry on January 30th 1972. Thirteen unarmed demonstrators (six of whom were minors) were shot dead by British troops. That day became known as Bloody Sunday. It remains one of the most significant and controversial experiences of the last 40 years and is associated with the commencement of The Troubles. Since then there have been over 3600 deaths as a result of the conflict. 53% of those who lost their lives were young people under 30 years of age; 274 of them aged 17 and under (Smyth et al. 2004).

There has been an ongoing attempt to end the conflict which has, over time, involved all political parties from the north, paramilitary organisations, the Irish and British Governments, and international support and encouragement, notably from the United States. For the past ten years or so we have been moving cautiously into a time of peace. Ceasefires have been declared by the major paramilitary groups and are being upheld for the most part. Communication between what was thought to be two entirely disparate groups – the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist/British community and the Catholic/ Nationalist/Republican/Irish community continues and each side appears increasingly capable of tolerating the other for the sake of progress and of peace. People seem tired of the fight and hope is stirring.

Irish-Catholic Adolescence

At a cultural and political level, today’s young people are living with the legacy of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and are the transition generation as we move tentatively and with a good deal of skepticism into a post-war era. Our adolescents are being asked to trust the process, both politically and psychically. Many of today’s adolescents have not directly experienced the Troubles. Bombings and shootings are unusual occurrences now, Police Barracks and British Army bases are being demolished, military patrols and checkpoints are virtually a thing of the past, towns and cities have been rebuilt – there remains little evidence that these children were born into a war zone.

The Irish-Catholic teenage population here navigates and negotiates the core, universal tasks and experiences of adolescence – like teenagers the world over. However, these children were born into a war zone and that has had an often subtle, yet tremendously powerful impact on their developing sense of self and relationship to the surrounding world. It is so important to be mindful of the context of their experience.

The adolescent’s journey is a process of evolution from the child’s introjected sense of self and environment and the relationship skills of childhood, towards the emerging adult’s ability to relate to and engage with the world of other whilst having developed a relative degree of comfort and familiarity with who she is within herself. Her emerging capacity for contact moves in the direction of becoming increasingly differentiated and self-authored over time. Of course this is an intersubjective process. The experience of adolescence leaves a powerful legacy in her abilities and limitations for making contact in adult life: how solidly she stands in a reflective relationship of ownership to herself and the quality of contact she makes with her environment are directly contingent on how she has or has not been received by the people who have been close to her; and on how her environment has or has not supported her in experimenting to discover her own boundaries as she attempts to find her place in the world.

When generation after generation come to be so disempowered and dispirited, the expression of frustration, anger and despair is turned on the area that is safest, namely the family. The external struggle becomes internalised and ritualised, and the result can be so devastating. Fear and mistrust of authority has become deeply ingrained in our experience. Those in positions of authority and power have abused and betrayed those in their care: The British Government, Security Forces, Judicial System, Catholic Church and indeed families.

More than 800 years of humiliation and displacement has brought profound loss and engendered much shame in the experience of the Irish Catholic/Nationalist community of Northern Ireland. So much unspeakable and often unacknowledged hardship has been experienced through the centuries. The result is that trauma has become a condition of the field. All of the oppression and violence has left its mark on the people and I recognise a familiar posture of shame and dispiritedness in today’s generation of adolescents. Shameful, self-propagating interactional patterns have been established and sadly, as a result, people have learned not to expect to be received or supported by their environment. Each generation, by virtue of its experience of being humiliated and intimidated, has shamed the next. Today’s adolescents have been born into a culture of isolation, secrecy, repression and fear. Shame has become part of the ground of their experience: the same disparaging and undermining patterns which have been experienced at a cultural and political level, have occurred within the family system, and inevitably also, at an intrapsychic level for these adolescents – such is the influence of culture on the developmental process.

Shame As A Regulator

The adolescent’s journey is from embeddedness within a family field and an introjected sense of self and his world, towards ownership of his life and appreciation of his unique place in the world. The adolescent’s reorganisation of self and of his relationships with family, peers and his wider environment, culminates in a sense of personal agency and an essential security in who he is in himself and in the world.

Many of the adolescents I work with have experienced significant trauma. This trauma has, for the most part, been generated within their families as opposed to distressing experiences which have occurred in their lives through external tragic circumstances. Much of the trauma today’s adolescents experience is created and sustained by the very people who are meant to support and care for them; Neglect, sexual abuse, violence, addicted parents etc. Often it is not the sins of commission, but rather the sins of omission which have hurt these adolescents most. It is not a surprise that so many of them believe they are intrinsically bad and worthless.

McConville (2006) postulates that when we make contact with another person we are attuned, either consciously or unconsciously, to at least four possibilities:

(1) objectification and condemning judgment,

(2) neutral disinterest,

(3) neutral interest or curiosity, and

(4) enthusiastic embrace.

Certainly the first and possibly the second are shaming encounters. There is a quality of support within the latter two experiences of relating.

My contact with adolescents informs me that the first two possibilities are most familiar for them. To be met with neutral interest or curiosity is quite unexpected; enthusiastic embrace is treated with contempt and suspicion. We are a skeptical, cynical people and our standard mode of contact is to shame and be shamed. We have developed appropriate behaviour strategies to make others the reciprocals for our shame. For us, personality has shaped itself around this enterprise and we have become known for our sharpness and sarcasm.

People truly do not expect to be supported here and I believe that is because experience in the family informed us that others were either incapable or unwilling, or both, to support us. Robert Lee (1996, 2001) speaks of our inherent wisdom in using shame as a regulator of the field. We experience shame when we perceive that our yearnings for connection and belonging might not be, are not, or have not been met in our environment, and we do not have sufficient support. Shame’s function is to have us pull back from and hide our yearning when we sense that we are not received. Hence, every experience of shame is a natural attempt to protect, although the effects of shame can be very destructive.

When an entire people have been shamed to such a profound extent by another nation, that shame becomes part of the ground of our experience. For centuries we have been treated as second-class citizens by the occupying forces and stripped of our land, our identity and often our dignity. And because of this political history, there have not been a lot of human and other resources that people could count on. Supportive relational connections have not been possible; and so the way to survive in the face of this climate of isolation that has existed has been for people to learn to rely on themselves.  In a spirit of integrity and self-preservation, the adolescent dissociates from various components of experience.

So many adolescents growing up in Northern Ireland find themselves without relational connections and resources. They do not feel appreciated and valued for who they are, which makes their journey through adolescence a lonely and difficult one. Some do not make it and many of those who do, arrive at adulthood having had their experience of the emerging self disconfirmed and diminished. Such a shame!

Bronagh Starrs IAHIP maintains a private practice in Omagh as a psychotherapist and trainer, specialising in working with children & adolescents. She is a founding member of Borealis, a support organisation for Humanistic and Integrative psychotherapists working in the north of Ireland. Email: bronagh@blackfort.net

References

Foster R. F., (1990) Modern Ireland 1600-1972. Penguin Books

Lee, R. G. (1996). Shame and the Gestalt model.  In R. G. Lee & G. Wheeler (Eds.). The Voice of Shame: Silence And Connection In Psychotherapy, (pp. 3-23) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Lee, R. G. (2001). Shame and support: Understanding an adolescent’s family field. In M. McConville and G. Wheeler (Eds.). Heart of development: Gestalt approaches to working with children and adolescents. Vol II – Adolescents (pp. 253-270). Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Horgan G. and Kilkelly Dr U. (2005) Protecting Children & Young People’s Rights in The Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Why? How? Save The Children and Children’s Law Centre, Belfast Northern Ireland

McConville, M. (1995) Adolescence: Psychotherapy And The Emergent Self. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

McConville, M. (2006) Shame In Adolescent Development And Psychotherapy.  Paper presented to the Cleveland MetroHealth Conference, 2006

Smyth, M., Fay, M.T., Brough, J and Hamilton, J. (2004) The Impact of Conflict on Children in Northern Ireland, Institute of Conflict Research, Belfast

Editor’s Note: This article should have preceded the author’s article in the last issue, February 08. It should be read in conjunction with that article.