On the ramparts of the walled city of Londonderry
As predicted, we were in London(Derry) within the hour. David offered us an optional walking tour for 4 pounds each–which all of us on the bus decided to take. He then introduced us to Rory, a radical Catholic, who took us through the walls of Derry towards the ‘Bogside’, the area that was ravaged by the religious turmoil that shattered Northern Ireland in the 1970s. David had laid the foundation for us on the bus, telling us about the troubled history of Ireland from the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin to the 70’s when Bloody Sunday led to the rebellion and the founding of the IRA or Irish Republican Army with strong Catholic ties and a determination to free Ireland of the British yoke.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, Rory took us towards the many murals that remember the tragedies of that period and the courageous men and women who gave up their lives fighting for what they believed to be a just cause. As someone who can trace his family lineage to centuries in Northern Ireland, long before the English took control of the island, Rory is fiercely proud of his heritage and refuses to recongize the control of the English crown over his beloved land. He told us that as far as the IRA is concerned, though labelled terrorists and militants and guerillas, they are merely fighting for what they believe to be their birthright–an Ireland free of the English. We paused by Celtic crosses with verses penned in Gaellic that recall the sacrifices of these young men and the passion that led them to their goals and their deaths.
Of course, we received only one side of the debate from Rory, and, no doubt, I would receive the Protestant version from another equally impassioned fighter before I got out of Ireland. But in his retelling of the tragedies of that period, I received an insight into the history of a people and a country that has laid a pall of gloom over the culture. Indeed, it amazes me that in the midst of their multiple losses and suffering, the Irish people still find the joy in their lives to indulge their love of music, dance, drink and merriment.
Derry is an extraordinary city perched upon a mountain that is enclosed by walls that were built in the 1600s. It is divided by the River Foyle that cuts through the Protestant and Catholic parts forming a natural line of division to keep the warring factions at bay. With my mind still wrapped around the strife, I arrived at a large public church yard where a recent X-Factor star called Owen made an appearance, much to the thrill of pre-teen girls who had arrived there to catch a glimpse opf him. It is manic, this power of reality TV and the reations it can induce.
By 4. 30, we were bidding goodbye to Rory, then boarding our Paddywagon to head towards Belfast where we arrived after darkness had fallen. It was a long ride but a very pleasant one indeed. I noticed that there is little in terms of the countryside to distinguish Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland further south. They can both boast incredibly beautiful countryside that is unspoiled by human development, a slow pastoral lifestyle that is characterized by good music and loads of good stout.
It was to experience some of this that I headed to Robinson’s Bar, one of the most famous Belfast pubs with Marina, an Italian from Ancona, and as we chatted over a cold cider, I realized how enlightened I had become by my visit to Northern Ireland. Our travels in the Republic of Ireland, a few years ago, while introducing us to the bloody uprising of 1916 on O’Connell Street at Dublin’s Post Office, had not prepared us for the immediate encounter I had with more recent strife in the Northern part of the country.
As Belfast attempts to rise up, phoenix-like, from the ashes of her troubled past, I could only hope that the Peace Agreement, however tenuous it may now seem, will be a long-lasting one, and that the country may enjoy the same lightness of spirit that is so easily evident down south.