In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Denis Stewart, who was a research scientist and educator, and is an enthusiast for conversation in civic spaces.
Northern Ireland is my homeplace. I was born in north Belfast, reared in a small hill farm just to the north of the city, by parents who were mostly Presbyterian in stock, who weren’t particularly well off financially. It was a bit of a struggle at times for them, but the word poverty was never applied to the situation that I was accustomed to. It was natural for me to have a sort of cultural orientation, especially in those early years towards Scotland. We were just looking across the water towards Scotland from Knockagh Hill.
I was fortunate enough to be born just five years after the end of the Second World War, a few years after the establishment of the welfare state and particularly the National Health Service. I reckon my life was probably saved from some rather debilitating and even lethal diseases through those vaccination processes. And certainly when I was 13 coming 14, my life really was saved by surgery in the Royal Victoria hospital. The other aspect of those early years was the access to education: post-primary right through to postgraduate research. All the sorts of things that were just simply beyond my ken, in my cultural background, but were available at no cost to my parents or to me. So deep, deep gratitude for that.
It’s a beautiful place in many ways. It’s a place that often gladdens my heart. I’m also gladdened by the warm generosity of many of the people who live here. There’s a lot of that around.
At the same time, I’m very saddened and indeed I’m often deeply frustrated and furious, about the attitudes of too many of my fellow citizens. There’s a real tendency, I think, to be complacent and to be rather careless in relation to the physical environment that we live in. The other thing that’s more obvious to outsiders is that there’s a fundamentalist tendency in our culture. People tend to be fundamentalist in religion and/or politics, and the two often get mixed up together.
Against all that, it’s always great to see what I would call the candles that are lit in the darkness, the cultural darkness. There are lots of people who are doing really important things, often in very small ways that are making a difference to people’s lives and indeed making a difference to the planet.
I do have some thoughts about what I would hope for in the world a hundred years from now, particularly Northern Ireland or whatever it’s called. I say whatever it’s called, because I’ve no idea what the constitutional position of this part of Ireland will be. And quite frankly, I don’t care. That is of minimal concern. The concerns of this place as every other place will have to be more to do with where are we on planet Earth.
I would hope that this would be a place that will be coping well with climatic and ecological changes. And where the people who live here, will be welcoming to strangers because they’re fleeing from places that are much less conducive to surviving.
I’d love to see a place where there’s a sense of being at ease with who we are. And that means being at ease with the differences amongst who we are.
A third thing that I would love to see is a place where learning is really valued. Historically, there’s a lot of value in learning and not least in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition. That’s something that would be good to see reviving and returning, because learning in itself is a good thing.
And I would love to see this part of Ireland being a place that is somewhere where, what I call the poetical is prominent. And when I say the poetical, I mean it in the sense in which William Wordsworth and people like that would have said this in the early 19th century, that which gives you a sense of uplift, inspiration, sees beauty, sees the aesthetics of the world and looks beyond the mundane. If we had a prominence for the poetical, we would have the generosity, and the sense of being at ease and the sense of humility in the face of this life.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
If you would like to suggest someone for a future episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images © Allan LEONARD