Music Student Seeks Sounds of Reconciliation in Northern Ireland

Donal McCann for The Chronicle

Kyle Inman learns to play an Irish bouzouki in one of Belfast's oldest pubs. She has a Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship to study music that bridges the Roman Catholic and Protestant cultures.
October 23, 2011

Can two sectarian groups, bitter enemies divided by religious and political differences, forge a bond by making music together?

Kyle K. Inman wagers they can, and she's determined to record the elusive sounds of peace in the pubs and on the streets of Northern Ireland, a region still shaken by decades-long political and religious strife. Through the Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship program, the 22-year-old graduate of DePauw University will hunt for Roman Catholic and Protestant musicians bent on creating a harmony that runs deeper than just melody.

She also wants to make Americans more aware of Northern Ireland's division and violence, issues that no longer get enough attention in the United States, she says.

"One thing I've realized is that it depends on which generation you're talking to in America as to how much they know about Northern Ireland," she says. "I saw Fulbright as an opportunity to return and use my passion for music, love for travel, and knowledge of Northern Ireland to make a difference by drawing attention to the artistic support of the peace process."

This is the fifth year of the Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship program, which sends American students around the globe to study music and culture. Ms. Inman willstudy at Queen's University Belfast—which serves Catholics and Protestants alike—to earn a master's degree in Irish history.

Before the political conflict that intensified in the 1960s and lasted through the late 1990s, Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists made music together quite often, Ms. Inman says. When the conflict began, all of that stopped. Protestants pulled away from traditional music as strife plagued the country.

But now, groups like Different Drums, one of the local bands Ms. Inman plans to study, blend the musical flair of both cultures. Different Drums uses both the lambeg drum and the bodhran drum, representing the two groups in Northern Ireland. Ms. Inman aims to combine the groups' messages into a video or audio presentation and share the collection in Northern Ireland—to encourage the movement—and in the United States.

However, outside of small groups and situations that force Catholics and Protestants together, there's little effort to join hands, she says. For some, the past is too bitter; for others, it's a matter of physical and cultural separation.

"Protestants would generally go to Protestant convenience stores, Protestant pubs, Protestant schools," she says. "The same goes for the Catholic communities. In Belfast, the primarily Catholic road, Falls Road, and the primarily Protestant road, Shankill Road, were two of the most violent sectarian areas in the past. They are literally right next to each other, and yet someone living on the Falls may have never set foot on the Shankill in the past and wouldn't to this day."

Ms. Inman, who is from Texas, says her passion for Northern Ireland developed in college after a tour during her freshman year. At DePauw, where she earned a bachelor's degree in music and English literature, Ms. Inman ran a Northern Ireland awareness project, a weeklong series of events focused on the country's art and culture and how they related to the conflict.

In January 2009, she traveled there again and met a man whose guitar playing would later help shape the idea for her Fulbright project. At a traditional pub in Belfast called the Hatfield House, the man, a former leader in the Irish Republican Army, told her about his time as a prisoner and about his music, which commemorated friends lost in the violence.

"He played a song for me, and it was beautiful," she says.

Now Ms. Inman wants to track him down. Coincidentally, she is living down the street from the Hatfield House. She'll continue to make a study of the country's musical trends this year, but her purpose is firmly in activism.

"There isn't enough of a conscious effort to bring the two communities together through music," she says. "That's why the groups I'm looking at stand out, and why I feel it is important they are brought to the attention of a wider audience."