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In Love With Derry – Derry, Northern Ireland

In Love With Derry
Derry, Northern Ireland

If I focus my eyes on the ruins ahead and put one foot in front of the other, I know I can make it. It’s wet and bloody cold, but that’s the least of my worries. I once read that locals think the best thing about Ireland is the rain, “It keeps the feckin’ tourists away.” I’m one tourist that hasn’t been deterred. Caz, a 25 year old country girl from Victoria who is usually as tough as they come, is looking worse for wear beside me. We stumble up to the castle and start climbing the narrow stairway. I come up with the brilliant theory that if I count each step it will make it easier…42, 43, 44. Caz mentions something about last night’s drunken antics. “Don’t make me laugh, I’ll loose my concentration,” I reply. The thing about being in a country whose locals love to drink as much as you do is they always want to compete. We make it to the top, just. If the sky wasn’t so grey and I could focus more than 30 centimetres in front of my face, it would be a beautiful view from up here. There’s a line of three Italians ahead of us, their high spirits are quite frankly insulting. I watch as one sits down, ready to continue a tradition hundreds of years old. I turn to Caz in horror, “You mean I have to lie over the edge backwards?” Never mind ‘Kissing the Blarney Stone'; I was about to puke on it.

I will admit I had started this trip with a rather immature goal, to drink as much Guinness as humanly possible. I had heard that the Irish love a good time and the odd pint of ‘the black stuff’ and was keen to get into the Celtic spirit. Having been summoned back to uni, this one-week jaunt was to be my last before heading home to the real world. I had spent the last 12 months working six days a week for the minimum wage in the tourist centre of Cambridge. It was my year off, a chance to explore the unexplored and live a life of adventure. So I did what every other twenty-something Aussie has done, flew to London, took a job they couldn’t get a Pom to do, and spent the money backpacking around Europe.

Coat of Arms
Coat of Arms
As a grand finale, Ireland presented many drinking opportunities. Conveniently it also had lots to write home about. I had planned the Giant’s Causeway, a seaweed bath in Sligo and a few castles for tourist distractions. However, after a few days I weighed up my astronomical visa bill and ever diminishing bank balance and decided to leave Caz and head for Northern Ireland. For some reason not so many tourists want to go to the recent battlegrounds of the IRA and this has kept prices a little cheaper. If this meant I could have six Guinnesses (What’s the plural of Guinness � Guinnessai?) per session instead of four then I was prepared to take the risk.

I wasn’t long into my trip before I realised I had my priorities out of order. Getting away from the leprechaun tea towels and shamrock ashtrays of Dublin, I was able to witness a whole different side to the Irish story. I am embarrassed at how little I knew of the Northern Ireland conflict. I knew that the Catholics and Protestants were fighting, a few bombs had gone off and that U2 had written some pretty awesome songs about it.

Belfast was a giant slap in my ignorant face. I spent my first afternoon with Joe, a local black cab driver who gives tours in his time off. Walking around the city made it obvious that the conflict is still very much alive. Although there are no outward signs of violence, there is no doubt that tension still bubbles beneath the surface. Only two weeks before I arrived one of the world’s biggest bank robberies had occurred at the central Belfast branch of the Northern Bank. The police have blamed the provisional IRA for the £26.5 million ($64 million) raid. If it was the IRA, I can’t help but wonder what this will finance.

The British military, much to the aggravation of both the republicans and many loyalists, has a permanent presence in Northern Ireland. They are supposedly there to stop any IRA or Unionist faction activities. I don’t know what they were doing two weeks ago. Their preferred mode of transport is helicopter, it seems the locals can get a little hostile if you ram tank-like armoured jeeps through their neighbourhoods. Joe tells the story of his eight-year-old niece winning a Christmas art competition.

“She drew a nativity scene featuring Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus and a British Gazelle helicopter flying overhead.”

With air patrols every fifteen minutes, Gazelles have become part of the landscape.

Security cameras are also a standard feature in Belfast, and we’re not talking mini CCTV cameras either. These things can digitally zoom in from the tops of spy towers kilometres away and identify what flavour ‘tayto’ chips you’re eating. As we walked through suburbia, Joe pointed out a high rise heavily covered in aerials, “The top two floors are the surveillance headquarters, billions of tax payer’s dollars being spent so a bunch of army personnel can watch our every move.” Having just paid 12 months worth of tax to the Inland Revenue, this slightly pissed me off.

We drove along the peace wall that separates the Catholic and Protestant areas. It was raised by two metres only three years ago. This and the fresh petrol bomb burns are signs that the violence still lingers. As we walked through the Protestant neighbourhood Joe joked with a dark humour only an Irishman from Belfast can get away with, “Will you walk behind me love, I don’t want to get shot in the back.”

He showed me tribute murals to members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a loyalist militant group, killed in one of the many spouts of violence in the nineties. A sniper painted in Khaki and a balaclava followed us like the Mona Lisa. Two mothers pushing prams strolled pass, an indication that life went on around us. I couldn’t help thinking, these kids have grown up like this; some of their fathers are still in jail for their roles in organised violence. On the Catholic side a mural read, “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” This is the nature of the conflict. It is a war of revenge and retaliation. The irony is, revenge is what is preventing their children from laughing. As Joe would say, “It’s all very Irish.”

Derry Sites
Derry Sites
Feeling that my new existential experience had put a dampener on my drinking holiday I headed to Derry, not because I thought it would be uplifting but because I’d actually been quite sucked in by the history of the troubles. Derry is now officially at the top of my ‘ten most awesome places’ list. Forget Venice or Paris or any of the usual suspects, Derry should be the number one tourist destination. Having just written that, I realise I have condemned it to death by tourist suffocation and would therefore like to retract my prior statement. Derry is a pathetic excuse for a city and should be avoided at all costs; I wouldn’t even send my dog there.

The best thing about Derry is when you mention you’ve been there to Republic of Ireland locals, they look at you as if you’re mad and inquire whether you got shot at. Derry, or Londonderry if you’re from the other side of the river, has layers of troubled history. I pity the poor city; the buildings almost wince with pain. In the 1800s Ireland was plagued by famine caused by failed potato crops (which Joe believes didn’t really happen, instead that the British were just taking the produce from the farmers and exporting it to Europe for their financial gain). During this period Derry was the main port out of the country if you couldn’t stand the starvation any longer. Farmers travelled from counties far and wide to get a chance at a new life in America or Australia. Many got to Derry and took one look at the ‘coffin ships’ (it’s all in the name) and said, “Bugger it, I’m staying here” The only land that the Protestants allowed them was an area called Bogside, and I’m sure it was as pretty then as the name sounds. So right in the heart of a Protestant city a little pocket of Catholics created their own land of opportunity. It grew and grew as more farmers, each with a wife and 38 children, got to Derry and realised it was suicide going any further.

Fast-forward to 1972 and Bogside played host to the human rights march that would forever remain in infamy as ‘Bloody Sunday’. It was a peaceful protest by a group of people who were labelled republicans, therefore making the demonstration illegal. Marching unarmed, they demanded an end to the government’s policy of interment without trial. As they rounded the corner they came face to face with the British Army and were fired upon with plastic bullets. (Joe had souvenired one from his rebellious days and let me hold it, there is nothing ‘plastic’ about those things.) It left fourteen dead and hundreds wounded, but it was only one incident in the 33 years of unrest in Northern Ireland.

After a few false starts, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has ensured peace since 2002. Unfortunately, with tensions deeply imbedded in the Irish psyche, scattered violence still crops up. A month befor,e I arrived a young Catholic man pulled up outside the police station next door to our hostel and emptied an AK-47 into the front door. (I have only just realised why I didn’t tell my mother where I was going.) There is no ‘happy ending’. To quote the divine Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own, “This isn’t an American Story, it’s an Irish one.”

History and politics aside Derry introduced me to the addictive and insanely positive attitude of the Irish. They have a philosophy that I think should be included in high school curriculum around the world. They call it ‘The Craic’. As in “What’s the Craic?” or “He was great Craic.” Most ignorant tourists translate it as ‘fun’, but this is grossly insufficient to say the least. The best ever definition is written on the wall of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin (and I am willing to admit I may have been sucked in by clever advertising).

The Craic:
It is hard to define.
It is about ordinary days
And extraordinary days.
Ordinary people
And extraordinary people.
It is whatever you make it.

How could a culture so divided and manipulated by hatred of each other be so insightful? How can people overcome the everyday threat of violence and death and be so good at ‘living’? Maybe this in itself is why. Maybe the ‘phoenix out of the ashes’ theory is more genuine than we know. Perhaps the Irish have lived in conflict for so long that they have evolved metaphysically like some freak Darwinian experiment. Or maybe they just hate the British, and refuse to take it lying down.

Derry Wall
Belfast Peace Line
Theories aside, the Irish know how to have a good time like no other people on earth. Why else would the ‘Irish bar’ be the second largest franchise in the world? You know those movie scenes set in smoky pubs packed with locals drinking Guinness to the tune of ‘Whisky in the Jar’ played by a fiddler, a drummer and pan flutist in the corner? Well unless there is a mass plot to simultaneously act this scene out in every bar in the country, this is what Irish pubs are really like. They are the embodiment of The Craic.

I spent my first night in Derry drinking in Bogside in a pub where politics was not spoken about. Everyone was equal, as long as they didn’t ask for lager. I did not pay for a drink all night as two local fishermen I met on the way in, John and Stuart, shouted rounds for a dance. My only recollection of the dancing is one particularly lively number in which I was spun clockwise then counter clockwise for a full six choruses, much to the amusement of the rest of the bar. If we get to choose our own heaven mine will look just like Peadar O’Donnell’s, with a never-ending keg of Guinness and packed with locals on a Monday night.

In Ireland it’s hard not to feel Irish. You feel compelled to riffle through your family tree, desperate to find even the faintest Celtic connection. At the end of the week I had to be thrown over a flight attendant’s shoulder fireman style and dragged on to the plane. I guess what started as a drinking adventure turned out to be a mind blowing, horizon broadening and life changing drinking adventure. I honestly feel I could have stayed in Derry forever. Obviously I admit that I didn’t witness any of the troubles first hand. Perhaps my view would be different if I had to live with the violence day in day out. However it hasn’t seemed to put a dampener on the spirits of the boys in Peadar O’Donnell’s, and some of those guys looked old enough to have taken part in the Easter Rising in 1916.

Before leaving Derry I headed back to Peadar’s for one last pint. Stuart was there drinking with some friends I didn’t recognise. “Allo there lovely,” he shouts, “Come tell these boys the story of you puking on the Blarney Stone, it’s great Craic!”

I miss it already.

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