Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free Derry - An Experience

I like having my mind changed. I was going to write "I like changing my mind" but that doesn't give enough credit to the arguments made by others. For instance my position on the death penalty has reversed thanks to discussions with my brothers-in-law and nephews. I ask a lot of questions and try to be intellectually honest when answering other's questions (rather than play the devil's advocate). They may be open to changing their minds. It is with that mindset that we head to "Slash City" the belly of the beast known as the "Troubles."

Thursday - September 24, 2009 - Ballycastle, Northern Ireland

What I didn't mention about last night was that during our nice dinner, and interesting chats, we ran some dirty clothes through our washer/dryer. We actually read the instruction manual before we started and found that we were pretty close in our understanding of the settings both in France and in Portugal. What we also learned is that the normal drying cycle is in fact over 3 hours long. Combine wash and dry and this baby is running for 4 hours at a clip. Not to be critical but the capacity of the tub is a couple of t-shirts, 2 socks, a pair of shorts, and some female stuff. Enough about laundry; at least until we get to Italy.

The plan for today is simple. Drive to Derry/Londonderry, do some sightseeing, have lunch, take the Free Derry tour, then drop Rich and Lu at the car rental office in downtown Belfast. Kat and I then head to Trim (35 kms. outside Dublin) while they spend a few more days in Ireland before heading back to the US. To help Rich acclimate to the driving environment he drove and I navigated (which I found was as difficult as driving). We parked at Quayside and began exploring this interesting city.

At first blush this small walled city looks a little rundown, but that's not a fair assessment. On this gray-cloudy day, nothing is sparkling. There is a lot of construction going on and that hateful graffiti is all over the place. The people we've talked to are friendly and helpful, and the city is generally clean. First let's straighten out this name thing. Originally called Derry, the colonizing English built a wall around the part of the city that was on the hill and called it Londonderry (Problem No. 1). Expressing no view on who is right or wrong, I will refer to it as Derry because there are 6 less letters to write/type and much fewer than both names with a slash.

Allow me to oversimplify and butcher some history here.

When Britain partitioned the island into two independent states within the United Kingdom in 1920, the northern 6 of 32 counties chose to stay British; thus Northern Ireland was born (Problem No. 2). One would have expected that Derry, which lies west of the Foyle River, the natural boundary between North and South, would have ended up part of the Irish Free State (the other 26 counties) but it didn't (Problem No.3). After a lot of fighting, the Republic of Ireland was born in 1949, but Derry was not part of it. There has been trouble ever since (but much less in the past decade). With this as the contextual backdrop we began our exploration of the city.

Walking the top of the walls is exciting and we had it to ourselves. The names of the gates (Bishop's, Magazine, Butcher, Castle, Ferry-Quay, etc.) make it easy to imagine what it might have been like in 1650. As we passed each landmark Kat would read the description from Rick Steeves' book and we were living it. I was disappointed the IRA had bombed out of existence the tall, 105 stepped tower that was dedicated to Governor Walker - it must have provided a spectacular view. Looking to the east is the river and to the west you look down on a congested area of the city called "The Bogside." Populated mostly by Nationalists (people who argue they are oppressed by the British and want one United Ireland) the Bogside was the scene of most of the demonstrations and fighting. Even way up here some of the buildings still show marks of the conflict. Check out the paint bomb marks on the side of this building.

While Rich and Lu went for lunch, we passed in favor of visiting the Tower museum which focuses on the history of Derry. It is extremely well done, both informative and interesting. The Celts (from somewhere in central Europe) settled in what is now Ireland, and because Rome considered it too cold to bother with (they called it Hibernia - Land of Winter - think hibernation) left it alone. There were tribes and clans and warriors and fighting aplenty. Ultimately the English colonized it (as they were wont to do), and everything was cool until the locals wanted to take back their country. To give it an hour and a quarter does no justice to the museum. But that is all the time we had. We rushed to meet Rich and Lu and headed down the hill to the Bogside for a scheduled tour. (On the entire trip, this tour and a timed entrance into the Uffizi gallery in Florence were the only two time sensitive activities we had planned. Otherwise we would have stayed longer in the museum.)

It was a short walk down the hill and from this new perspective the walled city looks imposing, impregnable and ominous. You immediately feel at a disadvantage, a remarkable change in a short 10 minutes. The Free Derry tour is conducted by Michael Cooper and run out of the Free Derry Museum. Michael is articulate, passionate, and extremely knowledgeable; everything you look for in a tour guide. He is also admittedly biased. Over the next hour we walked the sites while he gave us the counterpoint to what we had seen in the Tower museum, and learned about the Troubles growing up in the US.

At the beginning of the tour he made three points and asked us to keep them in mind:

Contrary to the press coverage the conflict had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with economic and nationalistic agendas. It was advantageous to label it a religious war.

The population (descendants of the English colonists and Protestant) in the upper city kept the population (descendants of the native clans and Catholic) of the lower city economically depressed by not hiring or trading with them.

The voting system where a homeowner or landlord got one vote each, and renters (most of the people in the lower city) got no votes, maintained an overwhelming political majority for the people in the upper city.

The situation came to a flash-point on "Bloody Sunday" in 1972, when marching demonstrators were fired upon by the British military in the streets we were now standing upon. Fourteen unarmed people died, including seventeen year old Michael Kelly, whose brother John works the museum. We passed by some of the murals painted on the sides of buildings. They are powerful and poignant. In 1998 the British government began an inquiry into the actions of Bloody Sunday and the report is due to be released in March of 2010 ... only 37 years later. Huh? We had no time to view the museum (I'll explain in a sentence or two) but you can handle the plastic bullets and "non-leathel" trajectories that were used to maintain order. They looked deadly to me and even if not hit directly with one, a ricochet could be debilitating. It is a sobering experience to take this tour and to see the museum, and one not to be missed.

To the more mundane. We realized soon after lunch that there was no way we could get Rich and Lu to downtown Belfast to pick up their car before the agency closed. Thanks to Lu's quick thinking and possession of a Europe friendly cell phone, we contacted the agency back in the US and arranged for a pickup at Belfast airport. These arrangements were made by Rich who stayed back at the museum while we went on the tour.

Derry to Belfast was easy, and the roads are well marked. We did see a couple of signs where the London in Londonderry was duct-taped over. We felt the normal pangs of separation as we left our travel-mates at the airport. It is fun traveling with them, always lively, sometimes contentious, but that's all part of being family. We thanked them, did the huggy/kissy thing, wished them well, and headed south to our B&B (our first) which was located right across the street from Trim castle. A longer than expected drive to Trim caused us to arrive after sundown, and our record of not being able to find places in the dark stayed intact. A minor course correction by a helpful local (right down the road ... across from the huge castle ... you can't miss it) did the trick. Felt like a dope.

Even at night you can tell this is going to be a good experience. We were greeted by name at Highfield House and we felt instantly at home. Geraldine (our hostess who I had communicated with by email) was not there and sorry she had missed us (she was just returning from France that night), but had reserved room 8 for us, a beautiful room on the ground floor with a view of the front gardens and I imagined, the castle.

We hadn't really eaten all day, so we headed off to La Scala, a very good Italian restaurant a short walk away. Some food, some wine, a pleasant walk with my honey on a beautiful evening and we were happy. Geraldine was home when we got back, and she is bubbly, lively, and a great hostess. I didn't think I'd like all the "friendliness" associated with staying at a B&B but I was prepared to have my mind changed.

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