Alison Gilmore grew up amid the rolling green hills and narrow roads west of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and she’s well aware of how the “troubles” reached their formal end.
She knows the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998—after more than 3,600 people had died, and thousands more were injured. She remembers how both sides, for the most part, laid down their arms and agreed to share power.
|Alison Gilmore is shown here with her three children and family pet on the hillsides of Northern Ireland. It's a place she remembers well, having grown up in the countryside west of Belfast in the village of Tempo.|
How peace, or a semblance of it, was restored after three decades of bloodshed.
Sometimes, in her counseling office at East Belfast Mission—a nonprofit with a 170-year-old history of serving the poor and marginalized within the city—Gilmore has her doubts. In that room, with its soothing, apple green walls and burning candles, the violence, hate and anger still rage. Sometimes she has to schedule personal recovery time between therapy sessions.
“My clients knew guns and bombs and death beatings in ways that truly shock, repulse and give me disturbing images in my mind,” said Gilmore, appointed by the General Board of Global Ministries and assigned to the mission as a mental health counselor in 2011. “Violence leaves lasting footprints, shadows that haunt a person that come through in addiction, depression and inappropriate behaviors.”
The mission—which includes a homeless shelter, a worshipping congregation of about 200 people, education classes and job training—offers free counseling to all in the community. Gilmore estimates 75 percent of the issues she treats are directly related to the fighting. Her clients are victims and aggressors and everything in between, paralyzed by guilt and shame, unsure of how to make peace with the past.
“There is a lot of regret,” said Gilmore, whose husband, Britt, is a United Methodist minister at a nearby church in East Belfast. “Issues of guilt are something I experience from clients. They cannot comprehend why they acted or did what they did.”
Legacy of pain
Walking through those painful memories alongside her clients is more than a job for Gilmore, who hails from the sleepy village of Tempo in County Fermanagh. It’s an opportunity to use her God-given talents to help heal her home country after so many years of conflict.
“There was something captivating about living life differently from the norm,” Gilmore said. “I wanted to share Jesus with others in a practical way, and the thought of being in a place of vulnerability, yet dependence on God, was appealing.”
Before returning in 2011, she and Britt had lived in America for eight years, and she knew the transition would be challenging.
“Ireland was home, but I was also away long enough to realize that home changes and to fit back in would never be easy,” she said.
Gilmore admits to being surprised by the extent of emotional trauma in Belfast.
She saw families plagued by hostility and depression and an alarming increase in suicide across the country. Those still-raw wounds were evident in January 2013 when protests, some of which were violent, erupted near the mission after Belfast officials voted to limit the number of days City Hall would fly the British flag. One year later, angry loyalists protested outside the mission when it hosted a reconciliation program that featured Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry, the daughter of one of his victims.
“I had to relearn and work hard to truly understand what the troubles were like for those living with it every day,” Gilmore said. “I only experienced the tip of the iceberg.”
|Home to East Belfast Mission, the Skainos Centre is part of an urban regeneration project in the inner city. It's described as a space for community transformation and renewal. The civic square hosts outdoor concerts, farmers markets and other events.|
‘What you remember’
The soft-spoken mother of three—12-year-old Ellie, 10-year-old Emily and 6-year-old Jake—considers herself fortunate to have lived “a very peaceful and carefree childhood” in Tempo with an extended family that included 48 first cousins.
“My parents had Catholic friends and dad owned a construction business employing both sides of the community. Not many would do that, as there is a saying, ‘We look after our own,’” said Gilmore. “My mother always taught me to be open and to see good in friends who didn’t share the same religion.”
Divisions and strife between Catholics and Protestants were simply a normal part of daily village life.
“The elementary schools were separated with the Catholic school directly across the road from our Protestant school,” said Gilmore, who was raised in a “decidedly religious, but not Christian,” home. “We walked home on one side of the street and they, the other.”
When Gilmore was about 12, she experienced her first bombing in the nearby town of Enniskillen while shopping for back-to-school uniforms.
“I was shopping with mum and remember the force of the bomb exploding shop window fronts close by us,” she recalled. “Unharmed, that was my first real experience of terror.”
A few years later, in 1987, Enniskillen drew worldwide attention when a massive Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb killed 12 people at a Remembrance Day service. Gilmore’s father lost a cousin and his wife in the blast.
Although her parents were open-minded and never taught her to dislike Catholics, she readily admits to a fear of Republican neighborhoods that lingers to this day.
“Sometimes the fear comes from what you remember.”
Gilmore works hard to keep that in mind when she’s helping clients sort through deep-seated hatred of “the other side.” But the darkness can be overwhelming.
“I have had periods of loneliness and wondering when God would show up,” she said. “The belief that forgiveness would work was deeply rocked for me when I couldn’t see that within people I admired. I felt, does all this work? Can we really help people reconcile? Is it worth it?”
In those moments, Gilmore holds tightly to the power of God’s grace, balancing two different images, so many clients share with her—the person they once were and the person they want to be.
“As we deal with the wounds of pain and despair, I also gently share the new picture of light and goodness and a better way,” she said. “We walk there together. For many, and this is key, it is not going to be a 10-step change. It will never be Eden for any of us, but if it can be only two steps better, then I’m thrilled.
Gilmore also chooses to focus on the long game.
“I decided very early that life should have purpose and adventure, that I was called to plant sequoias—a seed so small and where I would never see the end result,” she said. “I like planting sequoias. Now, it is with my children and, hopefully, in the counseling room at EBM.”
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance journalist based in Pensacola.