Being born and raised in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, my work developed from the context of The Troubles. “The Troubles” refers to the systematic violence that began in the late 60’s and ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. During that time 3,500 people lost their lives, which, considering the population of Northern Ireland, ensured that everyone was directly impacted by the devastation. On top of that, businesses were destroyed, people maimed, bombs thrown and riots became something of a constant backdrop to daily life. During this period around 25 peace walls were erected, spanning over 20 miles of land (with another 75 or so installed after the Good Friday Agreement), and many areas became enclaves where the police couldn’t enter without military support.
The Troubles itself involved an explosive cocktail of religion, politics, class issues and questions concerning ethnic identity. But rather than thinking of this as a conflict perhaps it is better to think of it as the refusal to have conflict.
The Troubles, like all wars, was partly the result of a failure to embrace conflict. By this I mean that wars are generally started by those who wish to attempt to destroy their enemy rather than enter into the difficulty of real engagement with them. We’d rather destroy the other than really listen to what they have to say and do the difficult work of sitting in the same room, hashing out the relevant issues. War can then be seen as the failure of politics, which is the arena in which true conflict should play out.
While my work was partly a response to all this, it was also connected to the way that The Troubles themselves became a type of reflection of my own inner troubles. At a personal level the same walls I witnessed all around my city also reflected my more personal ones. The projection I saw happening so explicitly at a social level seemed to speak of a reality that I tried to deny was within me. Belfast thus became a type of psychic landscape, revealing to me my own more subtle struggles. The personal and the political thus began reflect each other for me. They spoke to each other and started to appear intimately intertwined.
It is partly because of this that I came to believe the work some of us were engaged in there would be able to speak beyond Belfast. If a doctor is training students to identify cancer, she must first show the students extreme forms so that they might be able to identify less extreme, less developed forms. In this way, they learn what to look out for before the tumor gets out of control. In the same way the work of pyrotheology might be able to identify less extreme forms of religious/political/cultural exclusion and violence because it grew out of a context were they were so overt.
The aim of pyrotheology is not to avoid conflict, but rather to create a space for it. There are real and serious issues to be addressed in every culture, and the strategies of hawk-like war mongers or neo-liberals, who would seek to avoid all conflict, are rarely the answer. Rather gritty, dirty salons are required where drinks can be slammed onto tables, obscenities shouted and tears shed. Spaces where the only real non-negotiable is a commitment to returning again and again to the same space and the same people. To hash things out, to be challenged and to perhaps discover that the other has a perspective that might change you.
The point of embracing unknowing, interrogating assumptions and facing personal issues (the bread and butter of pyrotheology) is to facilitate a better form of life that is not only more enjoyable and enriching at a personal level, but also one that provides the basis of more healthy and effective political engagement.
Pyrotheology, baptized as it was in a world full of violence, has always had a political edge and outworking. But it isn’t one that falls along the usual political lines. It is one that comes from seeing first-hand a city go through, come out of, and still struggle with, a world of deep antagonism. It is one that has learned first hand from unsung peace makers. And it is one that embraces the messiness that comes from true engagement with the other.
It’s my hope that some of those involved with exploring, developing and critically engaging with this thinking might be able to help bring some of these elements to the surface in the coming years.