Moving On, Part 2

I have been crossing the Border in Ireland for as long as I can remember. Back and forward many times each year. It divided our family: my mother from north Leitrim and my father from mid-Antrim. Separated my home from my grandparent’s farm. Places I loved. Early crossings were marked by the tension of an Irish Customs inspection, of car and baggage. Pass, and you got into the Free State. Fail, and you returned to the North to offload the contraband. A pound of butter? Later the frontier was marked by police and army checkpoints, with high green security sheeting that became unremarkable.

An early satellite image of Ireland and Britain (Wikipedia)

In Derry I discovered the Border again, harder and more fortified. It’s close to the City. Cuts it off from a large part of its historical and cultural hinterland. The few roads out to Donegal were heavily militarised, gated security checkpoints. Elsewhere along the arc of territory that was incorporated into Northern Ireland was a network of blockaded side roads. I ran, walked and cycled over many of these unauthorised cratered crossing points. Areas that were regularly patrolled and observed by the Army. Fields on either side often became grim places with a sense of no-man’s-land; abandoned cars and machinery, dumped waste, and sometimes bodies.

The reality for those who live around political Borders is that they divide us. They are a hindrance to the ebb and flow of our daily lives.  We work around them as we can. Living on the Donegal Derry Border is no different. And worse, this hundred-year-old Border remains a fudged Imperial solution that institutionalised sectarianism, difference.

In the early nineteen eighties, we had been living in Muff for about two years; a small village right on the Border. Daily trips to Derry meant going through the permanent checkpoint at Culmore.   Mostly this was routine with little delay. However, one evening was more memorable. On my way to a Derry meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, better known as CND. I was pulled over, probably at random, and questioned by two soldiers.  One, a tall young man with a South of England accent. He held a clipboard. After the usual boot-and-bonnet search, he began to ask familiar questions in a friendly but formal tone. The other was shorter and I recognised him as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).  

‘Where are you coming from, Sir?’ the English soldier asked.

‘Muff,’ I replied swiftly, wanting to get along.

‘Place of birth?’

‘Ballymena.’ The answer written down on his clipboard.

‘How long have you lived there, Sir? In Muff?’ the UDR man asks in a mid-Antrim accent very similar to my own. I turned to him and answered that it’s been a couple of years.

‘Is this your car?’ the English voice again.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘You like it there? In Muff? Sir?’ The Antrim man again, adding emphasis on the ‘sir’. I switched my attention.

‘I do, yes.’

‘Date of birth, please?’  the Englishman asks, who’s given the answer he wants, and follows up with, ‘And where are you going to?’

‘A CND meeting in Derry.’ I replied and he wrote that down.

‘A CND meeting. What’s that, sir?’  I turn to the UDR man and explained what it is – a campaign aimed at removing the threat of nuclear weapons.

‘Thank You. You can go now.’ The English soldier told me after I gave him the address of my destination.

‘Is it a large group then, sir? CND?’ The Antrim accent continued, getting sharper with each question.  I answered that it was fairly small.

‘You can go now, Sir.’ I looked again to the English voice and nod.

‘Does your country have nuclear weapons? Sir?

And I really didn’t know. Does my country have nuclear weapons? My country? Muff? Antrim? What was my country?  Where did I belong? Had my Antrim mates come to get me back? Northern Ireland, UK, or the Republic of Ireland?

‘No.’ was all I said eventually. He flicked his head for me to leave; my fellow Antrim-man seeming happy at some achievement I couldn’t figure. And to a degree, I still remain confused by that question. At having to decide between one and the other. Of course, we can claim multiple identities, and I do. We have multiple identities. Yet the circumstances on the Border that night demanded a singular choice.

On a slightly different note, the best Border, and train song I’ve come across is one by Kevin Doherty on All Aboard, a track from his album Strange Weather. Enjoy the carriage-swaying rhythm and the sharp lyrics, as the train makes its way from Buncrana to Derry, across the Border. I caught a live version many years ago in Buncrana, where we now live. That night the train rolled on and on, past the Border, past Derry. Superb.

All Aboard, Kevin Doherty

“We’re heading South… to the North

You can keep your East you can keep your West

It’s the North and South that I like best

We’re heading South

To the Border, Why always a Border?

Why always a border?”


Strange Weather, Kevin Doherty is available on CD and on some online platforms, link here.

Print and pdf version here.

Moving On, Part 1

Six years living away from Northern Ireland, I decided to come home, to Ireland. To live on the island of my birth. Reconnect. To touch places and communities familiar and unfamiliar. Derry was a good place to start when I was offered a job there in 1978.

During my time as a volunteer in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, living on local wages, I had hoped to make a small contribution to a country on the verge of independence; I carried the notion that perhaps I could do the same on my return. It came as a surprise that a group in the City had fundraised for my project in the distant Western Pacific.  Meeting them was my first contact with Derry.

A detail from Bishop’s Gate on Derry’s Walls (Wikipedia)

The City was in effect in the middle of a war. The Troubles. Deaths had peaked in the early years of the decade, yet in the late seventies, there were still around one hundred fatalities each year. The widespread relief across all communities at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was twenty years away.

I lived on the west bank of the City, mostly Catholic and broadly republican. I enjoyed the music and social scene. Dated girlfriends. Met friends in bars. The place was alive with political debate. Among my friends, there was a sense that change was always possible. Actually inevitable. That it would get better for everyone.

A few things came as a shock. I’d never seen a city get its foreheads darkened with ash, on Ash Wednesday. Never. I’d never stood for The Soldier’s Song. Beside young men upright to attention. The a.m. disco beat just faded, the room bristling. Never.

I settled in and went about my work as best I could. It was a new project that sought to improve understanding and action around issues of global inequality and poverty. I worked in schools and with community groups. Catholic schools were generally more sympathetic to reducing inequality. Protestant ones often suspicious of action for change. It was a challenge.

There were high levels of poverty across the City. The Catholic population seethed with resentment against past and present discrimination. I knew this but had never really come face to face with it. The gerrymandering of housing allocation had stopped. The City Council had begun to reflect a more democratic voice. Though I didn’t need to look far to see that sectarianism was alive and kicking. The new Ulster University had been sited in green fields outside Coleraine rather than at the obvious location at Magee College in Derry. A decision cloaked in secrecy.  The understandable anger initially shocked me.

Suspicions abounded in the security-conscious City. Who was who? A Ballymena prod wandering in and out of the Bogside Community Association, where I was generously offered admin support, must have raised an eyebrow, a question asked. I had my list of trusted friends and community contacts at the ready, though it was never needed.

I had the good luck to have an office in 45 Clarendon Street; a Victorian red-bricked terrace. The building housed four or five community projects, no one knew for sure how many. In my spare time that first year, I delivered a local magazine, Community Mirror; getting to know the geography of the City’s communities. The sweep of the river, its hills and tight old streets. Discovering elevated viewpoints where the visitors looked in awe. The last walled City built in Europe. Walls again used for defence.

The small office on the first floor had a beautiful large oak desk. It had been used previously by Paddy Doherty – Paddy ‘Bogside’ as he was known. Often, sticking his head around the door to enquire how I was settling in, he would point to the desk, ‘My desk,’ he would remind me, ‘I’ll want it back,’ he said in a tone of parental authority, one Paddy was noted for.

Derry took on a facade of normality. Yet gaping holes in city centre streets and the numerous screened security locations with tall camera towers told another story. You quickly became blind to much of this. To the visitor the place looked grim. A night-time bomb would send a hollow boom across the river leaving an eerie silence, a heartbeat stalled. Then at the next dawn you woke with the City, got up and got on with it.

The music scene was alive with rock and punk bands. The Undertones got Teenage Kicks and The Casba rocked. The Casba Bar that is; its floor and tables swayed as we pogo-danced, bunched in the small bar just outside the City’s walls.

People I was aquainted with were killed by one group or another, others lost loved ones in Bloody Sunday’s carnage, others damaged by the overarching violence and trauma. It’s a terrible picture, its detail sharpening with time.

Some years earlier at the height of the Troubles, while living at home in Ballymena, I jumped at the chance of escaping the bloody insides of a small chicken factory to drive a regular delivery run to Belfast. Dropping off boxes of chickens all across the city. Winding through street barricades and checkpoints, past burnt-out cars, changing routes around ‘ongoing incidents’. The old Transit liable to backfire, potentially lethal if it happened in the wrong place. I don’t ever recall mentioning any of this back home. These were regular working days.

Travelling with a friend one Friday night on our way from Derry to Ballymena, we were stopped at an army checkpoint a few miles north of the town.  On the dark roadside, we answered their questions, but on the request for our date of birth, we tried the ‘I’m-not-legally-obliged-to-give-you-that’ answer. A term that was legally correct, if uncooperative. As the minutes past the repeated questioning took on an edge. I was pushed back against the car and told, with a rifle on my chest and the soldier’s breath on my face, that he could spend all f******* night at this game. Our choice. They weren’t going anywhere. We gave them our dates of birth and went our way.  Chastened. Raised in an entirely Protestant community I had no experience of this type of policing with its edge or threat, though it was common for many on a daily basis. And this was relatively mild.

A year after arriving in Derry I met Berenice in Dublin. Two years later, on a journey that took us over a pot-holed road to a ‘mixed’ marriage, we were looking for somewhere to live in Donegal. Not Derry. Across the border in Donegal.

Concludes in Part 2

A note here on my use of Derry as opposed to Londonderry or L/Derry. Growing up in Unionist Ballymena in the 1960’s I recall it always being referred to as Derry. Whether in conversation or referring to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, or the Derry Feis where my father had sung as a child. Later political agencies started to use the more formal Londonderry to further the case of the City’s Unionist and Protestant roots and allegiances. I don’t recall this use in our family. So, I’ve stuck to what I’m most familiar with.

Print and pdf version here.