Past and Present
14th August 2018
It rained during the night and was still raining when I awoke. I lay on my back, warm and comfortable in my sleeping bag, watching the drops of water gather on the flysheet above, before racing to the ground. The campsite was situated a field away from the undetectable border, on the outskirts of Derry, and when I’d checked in the night before I’d had to enquire whether I should pay in pounds or Euros. I felt done in. My legs and body ached and I was dog-tired. I did not feel like getting up. I had no fixed plans, other than to spend the day exploring the city and the lashing wind and pouring rain provided the excuse I needed to stay in the tent.
I spent the next couple of hours reading parts of Colm Tóibín’s Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border, picking out the chapters which described the places I’d cycled through. First published in 1987, Tóibín travelled from Derry to Newry a year after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed walking along what was then the militarised border. He too set out during the summer, but unlike me had started in Derry and walked towards Lifford. He’d soon crossed the border for the first time, where he was stopped by a British soldier, before walking onto the customs posts.
‘The first one which belonged to Her Majesty was closed up. No one would ever dream of smuggling from the South to the North. The Irish customs official sat in the second hut, waving each car by. They were all locals, he said, he knew them; there was no point in stopping them, it only annoyed them. They were probably just driving over to get cheap petrol.’
The book is beautifully written and amusing in places, but it also describes the desolation, the bombings and murders of thirty years ago. The images placed in my mind then, of events which occurred on road side verges, woods and fields strengthened the disquiet which had come over me since leaving Belfast; the sense of a violent past still tangible in the present and one, although familiar, I did not understand.
By mid morning the rain began to ease. A text message came through on my phone. A friend from London, whose teenage son goes to the same school as mine, and who grew up in Derry, had messaged to say a relative could show me around the city’s walls. She also mentioned some community organisations and reconciliation projects I should visit including the Resource Centre on Racecourse Road, and the Cathedral Youth club on the Fountain Estate. I rang the relatives number and arranged to meet James outside the Guildhall at two. Afterwards, sluggishly I roused myself and got out of the tent. I set up my gas stove on a nearby picnic table and while I waited for the water to boil, I chatted to two British bikers who had pitched their tents close to mine.
The Guildhall is situated close to the River Foyle. The Peace Bridge built with money from the European Regional Development Fund in 2011, connecting the mostly unionist Waterside on the east bank, and the nationalist Bogside on the west, stands close by as a symbol of reconciliation. I waited standing on the steps of the neo-gothic building. On the terrace in front of the café sat a few American tourists eating sandwiches. Soon James arrived, wearing a waterproof and carrying a camera. He shook my hand. He asked about my journey and was surprised when I mentioned how much better the roads had been than the potholed and worn out lanes I was used to cycling at home. He told me then that although Derry and Belfast were only 70 miles apart, before the train line and main road had been improved, owing to the uneven infrastructure development overseen by powerful Unionists, it had taken hours to travel between the two and Derry had essentially been cut off.
James suggested we walk directly to the walls. As I followed him towards Shipquay Place, he told me how many of the civil rights demonstrations in the late 60s had been focussed around the Guildhall, which still houses the Council Chamber. To maintain unionist dominance gerrymandering and the restricted development of Catholic public housing had served to weaken the Catholic vote in the city, and many Catholics experienced discrimination in jobs as well as housing. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the protests in Paris, during the summer of 1968 the Derry Housing Action Committee had protested outside the Guildhall. The Civil Rights March held later that year on October 5th, is considered by many to signify the start of the Troubles. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) baton charged the crowd to break up the march, originally planned from Duke Street to the Diamond. Two days of rioting followed in Derry while the televised coverage of police brutality led to the spread of civil rights demonstrations across Northern Ireland.
After passing through the gate on Magazine Street we climbed the steps to the ramparts. 400 years old, the wall is the last walled city to be built in Europe, and was constructed to protect settlers from England and Scotland. As we walked along the dense stone construction, I stopped briefly to photograph the Castle Gate Buildings housing Papa Busty’s Pizza Café and the Check Point Charlie Gift Shop selling souvenirs from Free Derry, and Derry Girls t-shirts. Soon the path levelled. Sitting under the trees, we came across two men dressed in 17th Century costumes to commemorate the protestant rebellion against Catholic James II in 1689. Here running along the outer wall, James pointed out a metal fence, and above it a second, taller, wire fence some five meters high with a security camera attached. The windows of the building opposite were boarded up. James explained that the Memorial Hall, the headquarters of the Apprentice Boys of Derry was still subject to the occasional petrol bomb. Further along the ramparts, after passing a small walled cemetery, he showed me the car park where the British army had been stationed during the Troubles, explaining the tower constructed there was dismantled only in 2005, when the British army began to wind down their operations.
We stopped to look over the wall. Below, just beyond a long steep grassy bank, was the Bogside. From our elevated position I saw trees, the Lecky Road, parked cars, apartment blocks and streets of pebble-dashed mid century houses rising up to the top of the hill behind. The Catholic neighbourhood, I often heard later described by those who had lived there as a ‘war zone’ during the Troubles, was where the civil rights movement began.
James pointed out John Hume’s house, the founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, saying he still lived there but was now gravely ill. Martin McGuinness also grew up there. James Callaghan, when British Home Secretary had visited the now boarded up Bogside Inn in 1969, as part of a three day fact-finding tour. During the hunger strikes in the 80s, there had been severe unrest and rioting; three of the men who died in prison were from the area. Looking beyond the houses, James said that on a clear day you could see the hills of Donegal, and that we were but a few miles from the border. To our left in the distance was the Brandywell Football Stadium, and I could just make out the grassy expanse of the cemetery where the victims of Bloody Sunday were buried. Looking out from the walls, over seemingly ordinary streets, it was difficult to get my head around the magnitude and reach of the events, which had occurred there, and for sometime, I stood quietly trying to take it in.
Soon, as we walked towards the Bishop Street Gate, James drew my attention to the activity behind a white corrugated fence a few meters to the left of the pub. There, where the Tricolour flew a group of young men were building a tower of wooden pallets. Sprayed on the fence were the letters ‘IRA, B.R.Y’, and the words ‘BRIOGAID DHOIRE 1st BATT’, and ‘SF/PSNI you are warned’.
A man standing close by, visiting from London to show his daughter where he grew up, overheard James talking and asked about the bonfire.
‘Of course it’s not sectarian.’ He joked.
‘It’s to celebrate the rising of our lady.’ James responded.
‘More like tit for tat.’ The man said more seriously. ‘You made a bonfire, so we’ll make ours bigger.’ He said referring to the unionist fire a few weeks before to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne.
The two men reminisced about their childhoods in the Bogside. ‘You’re a little young,’ the man said. ‘But I was a teenager when the hunger strikes were on. It was a dark time. Then I thought it was normal. But it was a dark, crazy place to grow up.’ He nodded to the youths below, ‘what’s going on down there now is the equivalent of child abuse.’
‘You have to wonder who is behind it, who is influencing and directing them’ James agreed. ‘Some of them are just kids, 12, 14 years old – they were born after the Troubles, somebody is giving them ideas.’
‘It’s extremism. It will scar them for life.’ The second man added.
In the Bogside, even since the peace agreement was signed there has been regular, sporadic violence. During the summer I visited, the new IRA were allegedly behind the riots and petrol bombs running up to the unionist 12th of July celebration. The following year, the journalist Lyra McKee was fatally shot during rioting on Finad Drive, in the Creggan Estate, ahead of the Easter Rising commemorative parades.
James explained ‘there are still people who believe we should be fighting a war.’ But then he put the bonfire into perspective by reminding me of how the Bogside had been thirty, forty years before and suggested the recent violence was less about nationalism and more driven by self-interest and turf wars.
‘It’s really, really important to remember,’ he said ‘that any flare-ups are from a very small minority. Media focus on the bonfires and other events misses the experiences of most people. The rest of the community don’t support or want it.’
He said, he hoped there would not be a return to what he called the dark times, but he cautioned that any camera or device set up to monitor the border if the UK hard Brexited or crashed out of Europe could become a target.
‘At worst,’ he said, ‘if you put British soldiers back on the border, it might give oxygen to the few hardliners.’