Research Article: Music and Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

May you have warm words on a cold evening, A full moon on a dark night, And the road downhill all the way to your door.

-Irish blessing

Ireland is a country with a rich musical history dating back to ancient inhabitants. “The Irishman appears to have been musical from the very beginning, from those far-away days of legendary lore, and music has always been an accompaniment of his national growth. We are told that in ancient Ireland the systems of law, medicine and poetry were set to music being poetical compositions” (Coursen, 271). Irish music has historically been integrated into different areas of life and peace, and reconciliation efforts are not an exception. There have been several grassroots efforts made by Northern Ireland’s artistic community leaders to foster peace and unity through music. Despite the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement signed in 1998, Northern Ireland still struggles with internal conflict amongst Catholics and Protestants. The region’s 1968-1998 conflict can be classified as a “new war,” and although violence isn’t currently at its peak, tensions between the two religious groups are prevalent. Neighborhoods, public areas and schools are still commonly segregated in the Northern Irish region.

Pauline Ross, founder of the Derry Playhouse, created an artistic and inclusive space for people to come together and perform. She has facilitated performances and festivals with the goal of forwarding peace. She launched the 2010 Theatre of Witness program, a peacebuilding intuitive designed to share women’s stories affected by Northern Ireland’s conflict. Ross has a family history that intertwines music and conflict resolution, and it served an inspiration for the Playhouse. She shares a story about how her grandfather challenged cultural barriers through his musical craft:

“I remember one of my first experiences with the power of the arts to cross divides. When I was growing up, my mother shared her memories of being a little girl, remembering men in black berets coming to her house for secret meetings, men of the Old IRA Brigade of the 1920’s and 1930’s. She told me that many a night she and her sisters slept on a mattress of rifles with a box of gelignite under the bed. But she also witnessed the power of music to bring neighbors from both cultural traditions together; her father, the bandleader of their community’s Catholic flute band, crossed the cultural divide to teach the neighboring Protestant flute band” (Coen et al., xiii).

The Irish Peace Choir is a musical organization that has promoted peace and unity. “Formed in the aftermath of a bomb in Omagh, Northern Ireland in 1998 that claimed 31 lives, the choir has become synonymous with the promotion of peace and reconciliation through their music” (Brennan, 2019). The choir has traveled internationally and was asked to perform at the 2015 football match between England and The Republic of Ireland. The original football match, held 20-years prior, was cancelled midway due to rioting. The 2015 football event marked England's first visit to Dublin since the former riot, and the Irish Peace Choir was able to help solidify the teams’ mutual commitment to peace. One of the choir members recalls her experience as a performer:

“I was part of the Island of Ireland Peace Choir and we had been rehearsing for the past two months. We had a four part harmony for the British National Anthem and a three part for the Irish. There was no favouritism. We had to play it down the middle, play fair and make sure each team got a rousing welcome…It was the fastest two minutes of my life…it was like the final rattle of an examination with the clock racing around to the end point. We were so focused we did not have time to think…We were like survivors, shell shocked and dazed. As we entered the tunnel to leave, the crowds clapped us again, some standing to show their appreciation. And with our hearts beating, our eyes bright and our cheeks reddened we left the arena. It was without any doubt the most exciting part of the entire day” (Godsil, 2015).

The musical performance payed tribute to both teams and demonstrated how music can serve as a symbol of unity and respect within intergroup conflict. In this case, the football teams were “two groups with different psychocultural narratives and there are multiple issues and narratives on each side that make the ostensible issue slippery and hard to address” (Ross, 197). The Island of Ireland Peace Choir publicly set the unification tone for the match and solidified the competing teams’ commitment to a peaceful event.

Irish singer/musician and activist Bono has also used music as a platform for peace. He has served as the front man for the hit band U2 since 1976. The band was originally formed in Dublin and has gained worldwide notoriety over the decades. Bono has used his fame to prompt social change and peace initiatives. During a 1998 performance, he brought David Trimble (First Minister of Ireland and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party) and John Hume (leader of the opposing Social Democratic and Labour Party) on stage for an impactful handshake.

“On all sides, people were compromising to make that peace agreement. Once on stage, Bono organized it so that Trimble and Hume would walk onto the stage from opposite sides to shake hands. He announced: ‘I want to introduce you to two men who are making history; two men who have taken a leap of faith, out of the past and into the future. We want them to join together, with us, on this stage.’…after they’d shaken hands, Bono held up their arms like prize fighters—thus producing the photo fit for the history books…U2 guitarist the Edge remembers the experience vividly: ‘To have those two characters, David Trimble and John Hume on the same stage, I felt afterwards that this had been a really important watershed. The mood of the province and the whole island was so positive, everyone knew that the result of the referendum was in the balance at that moment.’” (AtU2, 2008).

The concert itself reveals how a multicultural musical event can bring intergroups together: “The music scene in Ireland was cross-community, you could be standing beside complete strangers at a concert and no-one gave a damn if they were Protestants or Catholics” (AtU2, 2008). In addition, the concert provided a public platform for a peaceful demonstration between two politicians. The handshake served as a symbol of reconciliation on behalf of both sides and gained much public attention.

In addition to Bono and U2’s activist efforts, the band has funded a non-profit music organization called Music Generation. “In 2009 U2 and The Ireland Funds gifted a €7m philanthropic donation to music education in Ireland” (Music Generation, 2017). Music Generation has 11 educational facilities scattered throughout Ireland with plans to add 9 more locations by 2021. Their mission is to provide all children access to music education, despite their cultural backgrounds.

Music Generation coordinates workshops and concerts where kids and families can integrate and perform together. In May 2017, the organization hosted “Music Generation Live at the Milk Market” that offered a “platform for young musicians and groups to perform their own original music on stage for friends, family and the public” (Music Generation, 2017). One of the performances included a group of kids emphasizing their vision for unity. After taking the stage, the front man performer stated: “We wrote this song today and we all came together…Music Generations from all the counties. Basically, this is our tune. Because we believe it’s better to come together than to be separate.” The musical performance included students’ sung refrains, “Better together than separate” (Music Generation, 2017).

Ex-NME editor and author, Stuart Bailie, has worked to publicize the relationship between music and conflict in Northern Ireland. His 2018 book titled Trouble Songs contains “over 60 interviews and conversations with the likes of Bono, Christy Moore, the Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Orbital, Kevin Rowland, Terri Hooley, the Rubberbandits, Dolores O’Riordan and the Miami Showband” (Bailie, 2018). Bailie’s book focuses on how music artists and listeners interrelate music and Irish conflict: “I look at how musicians and their audiences expressed their feelings in song. Over 3,700 people have died in conflict-related events since 1968. Paramilitaries armies and State security forces have been involved. There was a political agreement in 1998 and life in Northern Ireland is considerably less violent, but we are not entirely at peace yet” (Bailie, 2018).


Cohen, Cynthia, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, and Polly O. Walker. Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict. Oakland, CA: New Village Press, 2011.

Coursen, Sophie Chester. "Irish Music." Art & Life11, no. 5 (1919): 271. Accessed April 13, 2019. doi:10.2307/20643785.

Godsil, Jillian. "Live from the Pitch on England/Ireland Soccer Friendly." Jillian Godsil. June 14, 2015. Accessed April 14, 2019.

"Music Education Ireland." Music Generation. Accessed April 14, 2019.

"Phil Brennan and The Island of Ireland Peace Choir." Phil Brennan. Accessed April 14, 2019.

"Rocking the Peace." @U2 Home Page - U2 News, Lyrics, Tour Dates & More. 2008. Accessed April 14, 2019.

Ross, Marc Howard. Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

"Stuart Bailie: The Story of Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland." Stuart Bailie: The Story of Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland | British Council. April 10, 2018. Accessed April 14, 2019.

#music #conflict #resolution #Ireland #peacemaking #peacekeeping

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