In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Gladys Ganiel, who is a reader and writer of sociology of religion, and has represented Northern Ireland in the marathon at the Commonwealth Games.
I have very much chosen to live in Northern Ireland. I was born in Maine, in the United States, and quite often I am asked why I would want to live in Northern Ireland.
To answer that, I need to explain how I got here. In 1998, I was an undergraduate student at Providence College in Rhode Island. I was on the athletics team, running cross country and 10,000 meters on the track. My coach was Irish, so a number of Irish and English athletes had come to Providence to run on the team. One evening at dinner, an English athlete was slagging the Irish runners (in a good-natured way, I must add), saying that the world cross country championships would be held in Belfast the next year and he was looking forward to it being on “home soil”. Another English athlete piped up to say that the problems in Northern Ireland were “all about religion”.
I had been raised in an evangelical Protestant culture, and for me, religion had been a positive part of my life. So, I was intrigued by the view that religion had been “the problem” in Northern Ireland. I had also started to become interested in Northern Ireland because the peace talks mediator, Senator George Mitchell, was from my home state. Later, when I had an opportunity to pursue graduate research in Ireland, it was an easy decision.
I now lecture in sociology at Queens University. For more than two decades, I’ve studied the relationship between religion, conflict, and reconciliation. I sought to understand how religion has contributed to division and violence, as well as the processes that lead people to critique their own religious traditions and in doing so, change their ways and work for peace. I’ve been inspired by people I’ve met through my research who have done just that.
Since moving to Northern Ireland, I’ve also gotten tremendous support from people involved in athletics. In 2014, I ran the marathon for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. I wouldn’t have made it to the Games without the efforts of my coach, my training partners, physio, and my club — mostly people who were born and bred in Northern Ireland (from all political and religious backgrounds) and who decided to invest their time and effort in me.
Academic research and marathon training has something in common — both require vast reserves of energy and motivation. You need meaningful reasons to carry on, or else you won’t be able to do the work that’s required. The people I’ve met in Northern Ireland have convinced me that my effort is worth it, whether that has been pursuing an academic or an athletic vocation. They’ve inspired me and made me feel at home. Our people are the reasons that this place has a future, a future with hope.
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.
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Images © Allan LEONARD