Decades ago, when I was less discreet and less traveled, I engaged in a brief war of words with a reader about the virtue of Americans sending money (and guns) to other countries, from the safety of their own. The gentleman failed to convince me of the merits of plunking down coins for the I.R.A. in a bar in Chicago, but he did say one thing I agree with: The conditions in the north of Ireland were beyond my imagining. That was true. Even now, years after a peace process that changed Northern Ireland and having finally visited it for myself, I can only imagine what it must have been like to live there then.
So I won't. Though it's difficult to know how to write about this particular part of the world without any politics; even place names are disputed. The city close to the border with County Donegal, for example, is called Doire in Irish, Derry or Londonderry by English speakers; during "the Troubles" what you called this town was a shibboleth that put you on one side or another. But my observations are those of a North American visitor, what I see from outside. I am using the terms as used by my hosts and the people I've met from there, just as I pronounce "TanZANia" the way my Tanzanian guide pronounced it, and "AppalATCHia" the way everyone around me said it when I was growing up there. Even if you say AppalAYCHia, I hope we can still get along.
More than twenty years ago, I spent a week traveling in eastern, western, and southern Ireland. The one part of the island that I missed out was the north. This time, we flew to Belfast in Northern Ireland, then made our way to Derry and from there to Donegal. (For North Americans who, like me, struggle to keep up with the geography of these islands, Donegal is also in the north, but part of the Republic of Ireland.)
I saw a vending machine in the airport for something called "Taytos," a brand of potato chips manufactured in County Armagh. Of course I had to try these. They tasted exactly like other potato chips, but there was that curious emphasis on pronunciation: TAYto. Naturally I thought of the Gershwin lyric: you say poTAYto, I say poTAHto (which no one does...) As we drove west, signs began to appear for Londonderry, some with the "London" crossed out with spray paint, others with the "derry" crossed out--or random parts of other town names. Years ago I used to hear news about Northern Ireland and not click that Derry and Londonderry referred to the same place, or, for that matter, the Maze Prison and Long Kesh. You almost have to be bilingual to get along here, and that's just the accent.
There is a United Kingdom election coming up, so here too there were political signs for the "Westminster election." In Wales a couple of weeks ago I saw signs for the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru; here I saw more and more signs for Sinn Féin, "Putting Ireland First." (Factoid: the first woman ever elected to the U.K. Parliament was a Sinn Féin candidate, the very Irish nationalist-sounding Countess Markievicz, but in the tradition of her party, she never actually took her seat at Westminster.) Then there were signs for the Democratic Unionist Party. Last year in Scotland I was wondering about the outcome of an independence referendum there. These are big decisions, but I was struck by the ordinariness of lawn signs, as opposed to murals and posters of other kinds.
Those were visible when we arrived in Derry. Like many other place names not knowing what they referred to, I'd heard of the Bogside; on the other side of the River Foyle is the Waterside, but it is not true, for example, that only Protestants come from the Waterside. Instead, here and there are curbs painted with red, white, and blue paint; elsewhere there are Irish flags. On the Bogside we approached a mini roundabout with a poster of a balaclava-clad figure: "Welcome to the Creggan. Watch your back on the way out." "Not a bullet IRA," urged a nearby graffito. "Not an ounce."
Some people like to go on tours of this sort of thing, black cabs, museums, but I was happy just to drive past the murals of "Free Derry" and street signs like Bishop Street/Sráid an Easpaig. When I was a child, I remember reading that Irish Gaelic was the most difficult language in the world to learn. I have no idea if this is true or how to measure it, but dealing with "tomAHto" is enough hard work for me!
On my first trip to Ireland, even though I was traveling to Dublin and Cork, I remember police in the British airport armed with machine guns. You rarely see firearms on anyone in Britain, including the police, so that stood out. This time, I didn't even have to show ID to fly to Belfast. Similarly, crossing the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic used to involve a checkpoint, with soldiers. Now it's no more exciting than crossing a county line. The only thing that happens is suddenly the signs are in km, and also in Irish. Twenty years ago, the currency of Ireland was the punt, but it's the euro now. With the switch to metric, a different currency, and a general sense of escaping tension, it felt like crossing the U.S. border to Canada.
Dún na nGall, Co. Donegal, is a place of stunning rural beauty. I was immediately struck by the familiarity of the landscape. With its hills--not high mountains--roosters crowing to wake us up early in the morning, and checking the dogs for ticks, it reminded me a lot of my original home, Upper East Tennessee. I could understand why the Ulster Scots (see previous post), when they reached the Southern Appalachians, felt at home.
I was reminded of where I grew up in other ways, too. No people of color; no bars on the mobile phone. And here lies the awkward part: to a foreign observer like me, the difference between a Catholic or Protestant is completely invisible. You might as well ask me to pick Hutus or Tutsis out of a lineup. All I saw were a bunch of white people and churches, and none of them were wearing labels. This is true of the church buildings, too: I kept looking for signs, but never saw one identifying the church as Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. Maybe you're just supposed to know.
The welcome couldn't have been warmer. We stayed in a big rented farmhouse with an upstairs room big enough for a loom to weave Donegal tweed. There was an old-fashioned clawfoot tub in the bathroom (why don't they make them like that anymore, with the faucet in the middle?) On Sunday morning the radio played a gospel hour, with country hymns like "I'll Fly Away" and "This World Is Not My Home," followed by the mass. I didn't make it to any of the churches, but I felt like I'd covered all bases!
And the hills were only the beginning of Donegal's beauty. The coastal drive, the "Wild Atlantic Way," and beaches which, in the improbably sunshine, looked like they could be somewhere in the Caribbean. The water shining with different shades of blue and green. Fanad Head, Lough Swilly. Fresh baked scones and enormous Ulster fried breakfasts. And, of course, pints of stout. The sun was shining every day of our visit, but the diet is for people who deliver lambs and gather eggs in the rain.
The last evening wrapped up at a local watering hole where country dance music was accompanied by a melodica, and the drinks were more likely to be juice or mineral water. People danced with great enthusiasm, and if the only partner available was a 90-year-old man, or another woman, they just went for it regardless. At the end of the set, we all stood up for the Irish national anthem (I didn't recognize it having not watched an Irish sporting event lately, but that's what it sounded like to me). After all, we were in the Republic.
We crossed back over the border: "Welcome to Northern Ireland. Signs are in miles." (I will never understand why the U.K. still uses miles--Canada doesn't--while insisting on kilograms, Centigrade, and every other measurement like the rest of Europe.) Having seen, shall we say, a range of "Welcome" signs on the trip, I wanted to stop at the Peace Bridge, the newest bridge across the Foyle. The Peace Bridge is for pedestrians and cyclists, and physically, if not emotionally, connects the Waterside and the Cityside. I don't belong on this bridge, or this island, but I wanted to see something designed to represent hope for the future.
On my first trip to Ireland in 1994 I missed all this, from Donegal to Belfast, because my family (and lover at the time) would have thought I was crazy to go. I think of all the opportunities missed, as well as lives lost, because of violence that has enveloped communities, not only here but in many parts of the world. There have been young men willing to kill and die for "the cause," and mothers willing to sacrifice them, at least since the days of Carthage and Rome. In the 1970s Madeleine L'Engle wrote about Northern Irish Catholic and Protestant women who crossed the lines to pray with each other; I never appreciated before how brave they must have been. L'Engle cautions us against being "big on causes and small on people."
We only passed through Belfast, not visiting it properly, but on the way I saw a tremendous amount of publicity for the city's major tourist draw: "We built the Titanic." You wouldn't think anyone would want to brag about having built the unsinkable ship whose sinking is one of the most famous disasters of all time. But if the alternative is creepy posters and historically recent conflict, maybe it's just as well for Belfast to be famous for something else!
Twenty-plus years ago I sat in a pub in Galway with my salmon and stout and listened to a musician. He sang "In the city of Chicago, as the evening shadows fell, someone is dreaming of the hills of Donegal." Chicago was my home then, where I'd come from and was going back to. Now I've finally made it to those hills of which the singer dreamed.