My Story

Photo by Paul Reitano

Céad Míle Fáilte

(One Hundred-Thousand Welcomes)

Céad Míle Fáilte is Gaelic and I graciously welcome all many times over to Walk to Freedom’s spring journey to Northern Ireland.

Beginning in April, I will travel to Belfast, to continue my Walk to Freedom journey with a 114-kilometer (70 mile) peace walk commemorating the 50thAnniversary of the 1969 People’s Democracy March from Belfast to Derry.

The idea of walking across Northern Ireland developed last year while I was completing a 400-mile (643 km) walk across the Southern United States from Selma, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee visiting some of the major cities where the Civil Rights movement developed out grass roots efforts led by Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and other Black clergy in Montgomery.

The goal of the first Walk to Freedom journey was to remember those who marched for us, and to speak out about the importance of Civil Rights while participating in activities commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

During the walk I was frequently asked people I met if I had another walk in mind that I hoped to do in the future. I often replied that I wanted to walk across Ireland.

“Ireland,” people replied with a confused look on their faces. And I would explain that Northern Ireland’s sectarian struggle for and against Civil Rights, Self-determination, and the unification of the whole island involved just as much hatred, bigotry, and oppression as some of the fiercest Civil Rights battles witnessed in the United States. However, Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights movement veered sharply away from Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence at the end of 1960s mainly because it lacked a clear leader with Kings vision and moral leadership. As Britain’s military became more involved in Northern Ireland domestic affairs as an enforcer of peace its role as a foreign occupier once again was unacceptable to the Irish Republicans. Loyalists, who wanted the six County United Kingdom territory to remain part of the British empire fought to defend their long history and legacy as Protestants in the country.

“The connection between the US Civil Rights movement and Northern Ireland is very real and fascinating, for its contrasts as much as its similarities,” said Michael Moriarty, Executive Director of One Holyoke.

During my journey, I look forward to meeting people who may have participated in the original march from Belfast to Derry, or other key Civil Rights marches that took place between October 1968 and January 1972. I hope to symbolically connect the stories and spirits of the 1960s Civil Rights movements in the United States and Ulster, UK. I want to find answers to questions that ask:

Where does Northern Ireland go from here if a Brexit deal is not reached before the end of March?

How does the long shadow of the Troubles effect future peace in Northern Ireland?

Did the American Civil Rights Movement have a lasting effect on Ulster?

Is Brexit challenging people to look at themselves in a new way?

Today the struggle for maintaining the fragile peace in Northern Ireland remains tenuous at best. The strain of Brexit weighs heavily on the territory and no one knows what will happen if Britain crashes out of the European Union at the end of March. Many politicians are speculating that it will mean the return of hard borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with British soldiers guarding it.

With so much transition set to occur in Northern Ireland, I look forward to walking across this region to recover the voices and experiences of a previous era with the hope of reminding those who want peace that they must speak out for it now if they hope to achieve it.

Background

I live in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a former Gateway city for immigrants arriving from Ireland, Poland, and French Canada to the United States. I attended the University of Massachusetts as a young man, and have lived here in the western Massachusetts since I was a boy. I’ve enjoyed the ebb and flow of marriage, the delight in raising a child, the profound grief of losing a child, and finally divorce. And after all these experiences I’ve learned one has to keep going in life because another horizon awaits you over the next mountain.

Walk to Freedom came about in late 2017 after I discovered the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee was planning remembrance ceremonies in April 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. I recognized the importance of this moment and I thought about how could I contribute to this great event.

I asked myself what could I do to honor the legacy of Dr. King’s ideas? What commitment of myself could I offer the Civil Rights movement today? How could I pay homage to our ancestors who sacrificed so much for our freedom?

That’s when the idea of Walk to Freedom was born. I realized if I was going to offer a symbolic gesture to Dr. King, move the Civil Rights movement ahead by one yard, give thanks to the original Freedom Seekers, then I was going to walk to demonstrate my commitment.