Walking together as protest: Collective identity transformation in sectarian Northern Ireland
Keywords:protest, embodiment, emotions, memories, collective identity
Although thirty years of violent sectarian conflict ended with the 1998 peace agreement, public spaces and politics in Northern Ireland remain contested. Paramilitaries and violence persist, affecting daily lived experiences. Following the death of journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019 at the hands of a dissident paramilitary group, a grassroots social movement developed, demanding to “re-boot” the peace agreement. Lyra’s Walk for Peace engaged in a three-day 68-mile walk across Northern Ireland to acknowledge shared memories of loss and protest persistent sectarianism in politics and public life. Using embodied walking ethnography, I examine what meanings participants assigned to participation and what these narratives tell us about the embodied experience of walking in protest. Participants and organisers initially created a collective identity based on three themes: history, collective suffering, and an imagined future. This identity did not remain static throughout the protest. Instead, the meaning and identity of Lyra’s Walk evolved through embodied experiences of public hospitality, solidarity and the bodily pain of walking which together generated strong emotions. Although the protest began with an orientation towards the past and future of Northern Ireland, by the end, the focus had shifted towards the embodied present.