Peace Activist Reflects on Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 18, 2013

Photography KARA WRIGHT ’14

“I’m proud of the place that I’m from.” Those were the first words uttered by Jon McCourt, a peace activist and Theatre of Witness performer, prior to a screening of We Carried Your Secrets at Arcadia University. The documentary film looks behind the scenes of a 2009 theatrical project that featured stories and performances from people who experienced “The Troubles,” a decades-long conflict primarily between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland, and its aftermath. The event was attended by students and faculty from Arcadia’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) graduate program.

McCourt came to visit Arcadia from Derry, Ireland. Growing up with the conflict led him to join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a young man. Since that time, however, McCourt has become a peace activist who promotes healing and change. “I’m not a pacifist—I never claimed to be a pacifist. I’m a peacemaker,” explained McCourt.

“I met Jon about two years ago in Derry because he is a prominent peace activist in the city, and he came highly recommended to me through another connection I have. He met with some of my students at the time and has a fascinating story to tell. Part of his story is his participation in Theatre of Witness. He is a wonderful speaker and knows how to tell a great story,” said Dr. Amy Cox, Interim Administrative Director, IPCR.

This wasn’t the first time McCourt visited Arcadia. Last year, he joined students and faculty as the International Honor Society Convocation guest speaker. “When he told me he planned to come back to Philadelphia, without a doubt we wanted him to be our guest and visit again with IPCR students, and to share part of his story through a showing of the Theatre of Witness documentary. It gives very authentic insight into the aftermath of violent conflict and the challenges individuals and communities face in reconciling a violent past with a peaceful present and future,” said Cox.

While some students in the audience had seen a live performance by the Theatre of Witness, those who hadn’t were given the chance to experience it through an emotional documentary starring McCourt and six other victims of violence in Northern Ireland. We Carried Your Secrets explored the chilling stories of the group, whose diverse members included a former member of the Ulster Defence Association and McCourt, a former member of the IRA.

“I have now seen the DVD Jon showed four times and have seen the production live, and the stories still evoke powerful emotions in me. The documentary is such an intense expression of people’s feelings and struggle. Listening to these stories reminds me that there are no winners in war. Everyone who is touched by a violent conflict has wounds that need to be healed regardless of which side they were on, or what their role in it was. These theatre productions also show how story telling can bring about compassion and empathy even for the most embittered enemies,” shared Cox.

McCourt’s pride in his home and struggle to bring about peace and reconciliation inspired students to take him out after the event to get to know him better. Cox, who believes that this was the most successful event that she’s participated in at Arcadia, said, “I was absolutely blown away by how much Jon’s story affected our students and piqued their interest in learning more. I have never been prouder of Arcadia University’s students as they welcomed a guest speaker and really took the opportunity to learn from him.”