In January 1997, I made a return trip to the north of Ireland.
I started with a short trip to Dublin, made my way up to visit family and friends in Dundalk, Monaghan, and up in Letterkenny, then took a bus into Derry town. I arrived without reservations on Friday, but quickly found a nice, inexpensive B&B to crash for a couple of nights.
Its a pretty compact city, easily covered by foot.
I soon learned that Sunday morning was to be the 25th Anniversary of an awful incident in that city's history. In January 1972, there was a large, peaceful demonstration that had been banned by the local authorities. The British Army set up blockades and shot 14 unarmed men and boys to death
. I won't get into greater detail here, as the event is better described on Irish sites such as United Irelander
and El Blogador
. The situation had been bad up to 1972, but after Bloody Sunday, the gates of hell opened, and an awful lot of innocent people were hurt.
It was a beautiful, Sunday morning. I got up early, walked down to Free Derry corner in the Bogside, a place I had seen so many times in print and on television. Visited a monument to the 14 victims.
Then, I took part in the march. It was a long walk on a glorious day. Only one bad note. A security guy ( soldier? RUC? ) behind a small grey vehicle at the side of the road, grin on his face, pointed his weapon in the direction of the crowd, then took it back, then pointed it back somewhat in the direction of the crowd. We all saw it.
Derry's come a long way since Bloody Sunday. But they'll always remember, and they always should. I'll always be glad to have taken part in that march, and maybe I will do another one some day.
I took an " Ulsterbus " east from Derry to Belfast.
Belfast is a much bigger, busier place than Derry. The bus station is in city center, from which I walked for 15 minutes toward Queens University, where I found a nice, clean B&B. ( I've stayed a number of B&B's in Ireland, and most of them were just great value for money, with a great breakfast to start the day )
I liked the center of Belfast. The people were friendly, the food was ok, and the pubs were good. The area around Queens' was excellent, with a nice easy pace and lots of college students.
As I remember it, the security situation must have calmed down since four years prior. I don't recall seeing many armored vehicles at all. And I didn't have any nervous travelers with me, which was good.
But my short visit had a political angle to it. I wanted to see for myself some of the areas where the conflicts had taken place. I studied the maps over and over, and decided I was going to see both the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. These are inner city streets that are strongholds of the city's Catholic and Protestant communities respectively.
I went to the Shankill Road first. On the way there, passed houses with UDA and " No Surrender " murals. I saw guys in crewcuts with camaflage outfits on. These guys were not military. I wasn't going to ask them what they were.
I saw a bar there and considered going in. But I wasn't sure of the situation, and the pub had a buzzer you had to push to get in, and my instinct told me to move on.
There were small stores, and the area seemed old-fashioned. And not terribly well-off either.
Somewhere between the two communities there is a thing called the Peace Line. It's basically a wall in the middle of the street. To prevent people from the one community from crossing into the other's turf. As bad as it has been over the years, without those walls, events might have been even worse.
Crossed over onto the Falls Road, much of which looked just like the Shankill. Except for a Sinn Fein store, which you'd hardly see on the Shankill. I had a quick look around. Political posters, books, coffee cups with Michael Collins picture on them were on sale.
There was a security helicopter high overhead, motionless, for a very long period of time. As I walked through these neighborhoods in a red jacket, I imagine I was in a photo or two. It was a long walk back to center city, but I had seen what I wanted to see.
The next morning, I caught an Aer Lingus flight back home. They flew from Belfast to JFK via Shannon until 9/11.
Belfast still has a lot of unresolved problems, but its safer and happier since the Clinton-brokered " peace process " brought an end to the worst of the conflict. I'd like to visit the place again, maybe this year.