‘Borderlines’: The Damned Barbed Wire of Freedom   2 comments

033The national and international news has been rather depressing of late, bringing real winter blues after all that jubilation, if not exactly real sunshine, of last summer. However, as a Facebook post ‘card’ reminded me the other day, sometimes you just have to make your own sunshine, whether summer or winter. Mind you, I prefer these cold, crisp, clear Hungarian January mornings to the wild winter winds of the western seaboard or the pervading gloom of ‘foggy Albion’ at this time of year.

This January, following the fortieth anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ a year ago, it was good to receive New Year greetings from Derry, or Londonderry, at the beginning of that city’s year as the ‘UK capital of culture’. This not only balanced out the rather bad news coming out of the ‘backsliding’ big-sister City of Belfast, but also reminded me that this year marks twenty-five years since I visited both cities with a group of students from Birmingham and a colleague who hailed from the shores of Lough Neagh and whose father had been one a ‘B-special’ policeman in the province. We were supposed to have both Catholic and Protestant trainee teachers in our group, but somehow the students from Newman College failed to materialise, much to the disappointment of our hosts at the Corrymeela community, where we were staying and studying peace for the weekend. I know it was June 1988 because I received a copy of a book of poetry written by poets from both sides of the Derry-Donegal border, one of whom, Jerry Tyrrell, signed the book as ‘full-time Peace worker; part-time navigator!’ As the minibus-driver come trainer on the course at Corrymeela, I had met Jerry some months earlier on his visit to Birmingham at the beginning of his time as my ‘opposite’ number on a project at Magee College. I had been running the Quaker Peace Education Project in the West Midlands from a resource centre in the Selly Oak Colleges since May 1987.

Magee College became a campus of the Universit...

Magee College became a campus of the University of Ulster in 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Jerry was born in west London, and went to live in Derry/ Londonderry in 1972, shortly after the events of Bloody Sunday. He worked as Organiser of Holiday Projects West until April 1988, when he took up the role of organiser for the Ulster Peace Education Project.  A registered charity, Holiday Projects West provided cross-community opportunities for young people in the western area of Northern Ireland to meet and live and learn together during organised holidays, work camps and other activities. All proceeds from the slim volume of poetry went towards supporting the charity, a life-long supporter of which had been Jerry’s aunt, Joan Winch, who had died a year earlier, aged eighty. She it was who encouraged Jerry, among many others, to write, having published her own book in 1960, so it was apt that donations in her memory be used to help publish Borderlines: A Collection of New Writing from the North West. Jerry ‘s contributions included a piece of prose and a series of ‘Haikus for Joan Winch’, reminiscent of her love of all things Japanese. The collection of writing was given its title because its contributors came from both sides not just of the border, but also from both banks of the River Foyle, which on its way to the Atlantic Ocean passes through the Derry, assuming a social-political value in symbolising the differences within the City.

 

In his introduction to the volume, Sam Burnside suggests that the borders giving definition to the heart of this collection are neither geographical nor social-political. While many of the stories were ‘embedded in time and place, they are concerned to explore emotional and moral states, and the barriers they articulate are, more often than not, those internal to the individual, and no less detrimental to freedom for that.’ He continues:

If borders indicate actual lines of demarcation between places and between powers, they suggest also the possibility of those barriers being crossed, of change, of development, from one state to another. And a border, while it is the mark which distinguishes and maintains a division, is also the point at which the essence of real or assumed differences are made to reveal themselves; the point at which they may be forced to examine their own natures, for good or ill.’

 A song which has haunted me ever since I first heard it, and long before I first realised it was about Derry, is Phil Coulter’s ‘Town I loved so well’. It sums up the ‘bruised, never broken’ spirit of the City. A native of the from before ‘the Troubles’, Coulter moved away to make his name as a musician, but on his return was horrified to see barbed wire surrounding the wall where he used to play football with his classmates, and by the militarisation of the townscape:

There was music there in the Derry air, 

The Bogside, looking down from the entrance to...

The Bogside, looking down from the entrance to the city walls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like a language that we could all understand.

I remember the day that I earned my first pay,

When I played in a small pick-up band.

There I spent my youth, and to tell you the truth,

I was sad to leave it all behind me;

For I learned about life, and I found a wife,

In the town I loved so well. 

 

But when I returned, how my eyes did burn

To see how a town could be brought to its knees 

English: Derry Guildhall. Looking over the roo...

English: Derry Guildhall. Looking over the rooftops of the shopping centre towards the 19th century guildhall and the River Foyle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the armoured cars and the bombed-out bars, 

And the gas that hangs on to every breeze. 

Now an army’s installed by the old gas-yard wall 

And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher; 

With their tanks and their guns, oh my God, what have they done 

To the town I loved so well? 

 

 

 

Now the music’s gone, but they carry on, 

English: River Foyle, Derry, County Londonderr...For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken: 

They will not forget, but their hearts are set 

On tomorrow and peace once again. 

For what’s done is done and what’s won is won,

And what’s lost is lost and gone for ever: 

I can only pray for a bright, brand new day, 

In the town I loved so well.

 

Coulter’s thread of faith in the spirit of the people and hope for a future peace, expressed in his prayer, is on which also runs through Burnside’s collection of new writing from a decade later, though it took yet another decade for his prayer to be fully answered. Burnside’s own poem Outside the City makes the clearest connection between these themes and the surrounding landscape. Born in County Antrim, Burnside worked for the Workers’ Education Association in Derry, where he lived. He coordinated the Writers’ Workshop, from which the collection sprang, and won prizes for his short stories and poems. In the poem he gives the reader directions to the hills of County Donegal and interposes the descriptions of the landscape with memories of a lover:

English: Morning on the River Foyle, Derry Cit...

English: Morning on the River Foyle, Derry City centre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The People farm a little; they fish a little; they have a little dole

From Dublin. The land is poor in places, marshy yes, but there may be oil under it.

And the coastline is rich in wrecks; it is said some contain gold. And tomorrow a deal may be carried off – it all depends on who you know; and the people generally are hopeful.

And it is so peaceful, so restful here; little stress; such a healthy air…

 

 

 

Descend through the wide glen, circumnavigate the standing stone at Asdevlin

Then, before returning to the city,

The River Foyle at night

The River Foyle at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walk along the shore as far as Fahan, place of poets and saints:

On a moonlight night you may be lucky enough to see the Abbey walls, raised again,

Standing white between water and mountain.

On a quiet night, when the tide has retreated, you may be graced

To hear men’s buoyant voices singing devotions.

One of the areas where the RUC were unwelcome ...

One of the areas where the RUC were unwelcome was the Bogside area of Derry often known as Free Derry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

When I think of Derry now, I remember picking up Jerry and driving over the Foyle Bridge, passing army posts with tall barbed wire and soldiers walking backwards in pairs, automatic rifles and machine guns sweeping the scene. I remember the great mural proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ and thinking how glad I was to have this local, albeit a west Londoner, on board. Although ‘the Troubles’ seemed to be coming to an end at this time, I felt real fear for my life, for the first time in my life, and a great burden of responsibility for the young lives of my students. I wondered how people lived, day-to-day, under such militarised conditions. Then came the contrast of the peaceful landscape of Donegal. This taught me, as Frank McGuinness’ preface proposes, that ‘freedom is full of contradictions, arguments, the joy of diversity, the recognition and celebration of differences’. It’s about diversity, not about making everyone the same, equal in indifference. That’s what Northern Ireland taught me.

‘Integrated schools? Yes, they could be part of the answer,’ a Catholic school teacher told me, ‘but our kids first need to feel secure in their own cultural identity before they can learn to appreciate those of others.’ That same autumn emboldened by these experiences and insights, I went beyond the barbed wire for a second time, this time visiting Hungary, at that time still behind the iron curtain. My well-travelled Quaker colleague asked if the sight of heavily armed police at the airport troubled me. Not after my visit to Ulster, I thought!

In October 1989 I found myself crossing a border into the People’s Republic of Hungary for a third time and leaving the Republic of Hungary a week later. One geographical location, the same border, but two very different countries in the transition of time. At least one could make that assumption at that time, as pieces of barbed wire became symbols of freedom. A point of revelation, with no room for turning back. In Ireland, twenty-five years later, the barriers, ‘peace-lines’ and barbed wire are still in evidence, but the symbols are internalised in individuals, rather than entrenched, with the potential to become part of a shared identity. While Belfast may still be troubled, might the capital of culture yet recreate itself as a place of mind, heart and spirit where differences and diversity are affirmed and celebrated? One thing’s for sure, to adapt the poster I bought at Corrymeela and which goes to every new job. We need to be patient with each other. God isn’t finished with any of us yet! If there’s one place in the world that’s proved this true, its Derry/ Londonderry. So good they named it twice!

Corrymeela Community

Corrymeela Community (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Photo of Craigavon bridge over Foyle ...

English: Photo of Craigavon bridge over Foyle river located in Derry. Català: Foto del pont de Craigavon sobre el riu Foyle al seu pas per Derry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

2 responses to “‘Borderlines’: The Damned Barbed Wire of Freedom

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