Borderlines: Remembering Sojourns in Ireland.   Leave a comment

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Edited by Sam Burnside, published by Holiday Projects West, Londonderry, 1988.

The recent ‘Brexit’ negotiations over the issue of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have made me think about my two visits to the island as an adult, in 1988 and 1990, a decade before the Belfast talks led to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. I had been to Dublin with my family in the early sixties, but recalled little of that experience, except that it must have been before 1966, as we climbed Nelson’s Column in the city centre before the IRA blew it up to ‘commemorate’ the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. I had never visited Northern Ireland, however.

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Nelson’s Column in the centre of Dublin in 1961.

A Journey to Derry & Corrymeela, June 1988:

In June 1988, while working for the Quakers in Selly Oak, Birmingham, I drove a group of students from Westhill College to Corrymeela, a retreat and reconciliation centre in the North. We drove to Belfast, being stopped by army blockades and visiting the Shankill and the Falls Road, witnessing the murals and the coloured curb-stones. Political violence in Belfast had largely been confined to the confrontation lines where working-class unionist districts, such as the Shankill, and working-class nationalist areas, such as the Falls, Ardoyne and New Lodge, border directly on one another (see the map below). We also visited Derry/ Londonderry, with its wall proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’, and with its garrisons protected by barbed wire and soldiers on patrol with automatic rifles. Then we crossed the western border into Donegal, gazing upon its green fields and small hills.

My Birmingham colleague, a Presbyterian minister and the son of a ‘B Special’ police officer, was from a small village on the shores of Lough Neagh north of Belfast. So while he visited his family home there, I was deputed to drive the students around, guided by Jerry Tyrrell from the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project. He described himself as a ‘full-time Peace worker’ and a ‘part-time navigator’. I had already met him in Birmingham, where I was also running a Peace Education Project for the Quakers in the West Midlands. He was born in London but had come to live in Derry in 1972, where he had worked on holiday projects for groups of mixed Catholic and Protestant students. It provided opportunities for them to meet and learn together during organised holidays, work camps and other activities. He had left this in April 1988 to take up a post running a Peace Education Project at Magee College.

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Magee College, Londonderry.

Jerry gave me a copy of a slim volume entitled Borderlines: A Collection of New Writing from the North West, containing prose and poems by members of the Writers’ Workshop based at Magee College, including some of his own poetry. The Workshop promoted and encouraged new writing in the North-west, and acted as a forum for a large number of local writers. In his preface, Frank McGuinness wrote of how …

… freedom is full of contradictions, arguments, the joy of diversity, the recognition and celebration of differences.

After reading the collection, I agreed with him that the collection contained that diversity and that it stood testimony to the writers’ experiences and histories, their fantasies and dreams. Its contributors came from both sides of the Derry-Donegal border we had driven over, and from both sides of the Foyle, a river of considerable beauty which, in its meandering journey from the Sperrins to the Atlantic, assumes on its path through Derry a socio-political importance in symbolising the differences within the City. However, in his introduction to the collection, Sam Burnside, an award-winning poet born in County Antrim, but living in Derry, wrote of how …

… the borders which give definition to the heart of this collection are not geographical, nor are they overtly social or political; while … embedded in time and place, they are concerned to explore emotional and moral states, and the barriers they articulate are … those internal to the individual, and no less detrimental to freedom for that.

If borders indicate actual lines of demarcation between places and … powers, they suggest also the possibility of those barriers being crossed, of change, of development, from one state to another. And a border, while it is the mark which distinguishes and maintains a division, is also the point at which the essence of real or assumed differences are made to reveal themselves; the point at which they may be forced to examine their own natures, for good or ill.

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A page from an Oxford Bookworms’ Reader for EFL students.

In the short story ‘Blitzed’ by Tessa Johnston, a native of Derry where she worked as a teacher, Kevin has moved, in a fictional future (in 1998), from Derry to Manchester, to escape from the troubles, but the report of a car-bombing by the Provisional IRA in Manchester brings back memories of his encounter with a soldier in Derry as a schoolboy, fifteen years old. On his way from his home in Donegal to the Grammar School in Derry, in the week before Christmas, he had been blinded by the snow so that he didn’t see the soldier on patrol until he collided with him:

Over the years Kevin had grown accustomed to being stopped regularly on his way to and from school; to being stopped, questioned and searched, but never until that day had he experienced real hostility, been aware of such hatred. Spread-eagled against the wall he had been viciously and thoroughly searched. His school-bag had been ripped from his back and its contents strewn on the pavement; then, triumphantly, the soldier held aloft his bible, taunting him:

“So, you’re a Christian, are you? You believe in all that rubbish? You wanna convert me? Wanna convert the heathen, Fenian scum? No?”

On and on he ranted and raved until Kevin wondered how much more of this treatment he could endure. Finally, his anger exhausted, he tossed the offending book into the gutter and in a last act of vandalism stamped heavily upon it with his sturdy Army boots, before turning up Bishop Street to continue his patrol.

With trembling hands Kevin began to gather up his scattered possessions. Then, like one sleep-walking, he continued his journey down Bishop Street. He had only gone a few steps when a shot rang out. Instinctively, he threw himself to the ground. Two more shots followed in quick succession, and then silence.

He struggled to his feet and there, not fifty yards away his tormentor lay spread-eagled in the snow. Rooted to the spot, Kevin viewed the soldier dis passionately. A child’s toy, he thought, that’s what he looks like. Motionless and quiet;

a broken toy …

Then the realisation dawned as he watched the ever-increasing pool of blood stain the new snow.”

What haunted Kevin from that day, however, was not so much this picture of the dead soldier, but the sense that he himself had crossed an internal border. He had been glad when the soldier was shot and died; he had been unable to come to terms with the knowledge that he could feel like that. He had been unable to forgive not just the young soldier, but – perhaps worse – himself. The shadow of that day would never leave him, even after his family moved to Manchester. This had worked for a while, he’d married and had a child, and he had coped. But in the instant of the TV news report all that had been wiped out. The ‘troubles’ had found him again. They knew no borders.

Fortunately, this was a piece of fiction. Though there were thousands of deaths in Northern Ireland like that of the soldier throughout the troubles and bombings even after the PIRA cease-fire by the ‘Real IRA’, there was no renewal of the bombing campaigns on the mainland of Britain. But it could easily have been a real future for someone had it not been for the Good Friday Agreement.

An Easter ‘Pilgrimage’ to Dublin & Belfast, 1990:

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