Two weeks after our family moved to Cork, Ireland, in August of 1998, a bomb exploded in Omagh, in Northern Ireland, killing 29 people and wounding 200 others. The Real IRA, a group that had splintered from the IRA after the Good Friday Agreement had set the stage for peace several months earlier, claimed responsibility. Later, the organization apologized for injuring civilians, saying that the true target had been a British garrison in the town.
Exactly one week after the bombing, at 3:10 on Sunday, Aug. 22, there was a nationwide minute of silence. “What’s happening?” our children, then 2 and 4, asked. We’d taken them to an outdoor model railroad in Clonakilty that day, a set of toy trains running through tiny versions of West Cork cities and villages — Clonakilty, Brandon, Kinsale, Dunmanway. Suddenly, the trains stopped. Everyone stood still.
I’ve been thinking of that moment, and of the Troubles, in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the Israeli counterattacks. In some ways, of course, the two conflicts are so different that any comparison feels like a stretch. It may be that the only thing they have in common is bloodshed.
But where there is bloodshed, there are people certain that the causes they believe in are worth killing and dying for. As a result of the Troubles, 3,720 people were killed; approximately 47,541 people were injured. As of Nov. 19, more than 1,200 people have been killed in Israel since Oct. 7; over 11,000 people have died in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
For as long as I have been alive, it seems as if there has been violence in the Middle East, and for almost as long, there has been talk of a “peace process.” Accords have been signed at Camp David and in Oslo and Washington. Each time peace draws a little nearer, there is violence. Sometimes, militants and terrorists commit acts of murder with the express intent of subverting the possibility of peace; it may be that the Hamas attack on Israel was intended to derail Israel’s peace talks with Saudi Arabia. The violent Israeli response will absolutely make resuming those talks more difficult, although there are plenty of people who suggest that forging ahead with the Riyadh talks would be a better way of thwarting Hamas than the current invasion. Thus far, more than two thirds of those killed in Gaza have been women and children.
In Ireland, the Omagh bombing turned out to be the moment when people finally said Enough. It was the last major violence of the Troubles.
The song “There Were Roses,” by musician Tommy Sands, was everywhere in the fall of 1998 — on the radio and in the pubs. There had been other tunes about the Troubles — Paul Brady’s “The Island” had compared the Northern Ireland conflict to the civil war in Lebanon — but few songs clenched at the heart like Sands’s tune. It tells the true story of two friends — one a Catholic, one a Protestant, each of whom was killed during the Troubles, one life taken as payback for the murder of the other.
There were roses, goes the refrain. There were roses. And the tears of the people ran together.
You’d have to be stark raving mad to think that folk songs could end the current cycle of destruction and death in Israel and Gaza. But you’d have to be just as mad to think that the actions of Hamas — or the Israeli response to them — have brought about a better world.
Pete Seeger once told a story about a peace demonstrator he’d seen in the 1950s. An observer asked a Quaker carrying a sign, “Do you think you’re going to change the world by standing here at midnight with that sign?” The Quaker responded, “I suppose not, but I’m going to make sure the world doesn’t change me.”
And so, as “There Were Roses” has haunted me this last week, I thought I might ask Tommy Sands, 77, about music and activism and whether the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland can tell us anything about the prospects for peace in Israel and Gaza.
I reached him by phone at his home in County Down. “My very earliest memory is hearing a bang going off when I was maybe 6 or 7,” he told me. “We thought the wall had fallen in beside us. It was that loud. But it wasn’t. It was a local police station that had been blown up.”
Two of his friends were killed in 1974; he wrote “There Were Roses” eight years later. “People had stopped talking to each other,” he said, “and were afraid to trust each other and afraid to not trust each other. But the song in a sense helped the people to have a mutual narrative that they could understand.”
During the Stormont talks, which ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, Sands organized a group of drummers and pipers and schoolchildren from both sides of the conflict to sing outside the hall where the talks were being held. He wrote a song, “Carry On,” for the group to sing. Later, it was said that the negotiators inside heard those voices and that music. The chorus was: Carry on, carry on, till peace will come again.
In 2010, Sands went to Israel and Gaza in hopes that music might bring people together. But that trip ended differently. One of his songs, “Peace on the Shores of Gaza,” had been adopted by artists aboard the ship Rachel Corrie, a vessel that was attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. But the ship was intercepted by Israeli Defense Forces. (The ship itself was named after the American activist Rachel Corrie, an Evergreen College student killed by a bulldozer as she attempted to stand in the way of the razing of a Palestinian home on the West Bank.)
Once in Israel, Sands had to cancel a concert because he was told he could not perform the song, though it’s not exactly incendiary. The chorus is: Salaam, Shalom, peace on the shores of Gaza. “I wasn’t taking sides,” he told the Jerusalem Post at the time. “It’s a song for peace, not just for Palestinians, but for Israelis, too.”
In this bleak autumn, that peace seems further away than ever. Here in America, we are afraid and angry — at Hamas, at Benjamin Netanyahu, at our own government, at each other. And yet, as Mark Landler reported in The New York Times, the very bleakness of this moment is inspiring some to look to the future, to consider again the possibility of an idea that recently seemed dead — a two-state solution, and not least because any other viable alternative seems impossible.
In Ireland, the peace established 25 years ago continues to hold, although neither sectarian violence nor the paramilitary groups responsible for it have disappeared. But agreements like the one worked out in Stormont — as Tommy Sands and a group of children sang outside the walls — show that peace is not impossible, even among people who have been at war with each other for decades. Or, for that matter, centuries.
There we were, my young family and me, standing by a miniature railroad in Clonakilty, the little trains at a standstill, everyone silent, everyone thinking, Enough. Please, dear God, enough.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 18 books, including “She’s Not There” and “Mad Honey,” co-written with Jodi Picoult.