The Troubles, Bloody Sunday and the other side of Ireland
(Writer's note: I recently returned from an 11-day trip to Ireland. The following is one of the highlights of the trip.)
The words from the innkeeper at our last stop in the Republic of Ireland weren't exactly comforting.
"You're headed to Derry? Have you seen the news?" he said with more than a hint of concern as he served my poached eggs and toast.
I had not heard the news.
"There's been violence every night for the past week, petrol bombs, the whole bit. It's been quite awful. Be right back with your tea."
Turns out, July is a busy month in Northern Ireland as Unionists and Nationalists hold parades to honor their respective points of view. Even though things have calmed down dramatically in recent years, there's still the odd bit of a trouble every now and then. This is one of those years.
Though I was well aware of
By the time we got to Derry, neither my wife or my mom wanted to take the tour. Meanwhile, I was more excited than ever. "The Troubles" has long been a source of fascination to me. I wasn't interested in dodging Molotov cocktails, but that things were
A few words of encouragement from a cab driver got my wife and mom over the hump. We met Paul Doherty, owner of Bogside History Tours at the appointed time and were off on a dizzying and compelling deep dive into Bloody Sunday and its aftermath.
Paul has a decidedly unique perspective on the subject. His father, Paddy was among those murdered that day by British paratroopers.
When the British government formally apologized for the murders in 2010, he was among the families of the dead who were first to read the government's report. A film depicting that day shown in the nearby Museum of Free Derry, features Paul triumphant, before a crowd of more than 20,000 people.
"This is not a politically correct tour," he says as he gathers the group.
Indeed it is not. While Paul made sure to point out he had no animosity toward the British people, the anger of what happened to his father still smolders. And rightly so. He was just a small boy at the time, but can still remember British troops interrupting his father's wake at their home to question members of his family. He knows the identity of the soldier who shot his father, but refers to him alternately by his official inquiry name "Soldier F," and "a murderer", throughout the tour.
Soldier F is still living, but no longer resides in the U.K. He lied under oath during the initial inquiry, and could be the subject of future prosecution. Doherty remains hopeful he will one day be brought to justice.
"If you want to murder someone, these are your men," he says pointing at a plaque with pictures of the British soldiers most implicated in the massacre. "Cold blooded killers, every one of them."
The tour winds its way through the Bogside, with Doherty pointing out where military checkpoints would have been decades ago. He carefully reconstructs relevant sites along the way, noting spots where victims fell. He explains a mural depicting Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and John Hume, winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts with the Good Friday Agreement.
The 90 minutes goes by fast, winding up at the Bloody Sunday Memorial where Doherty stayed behind for 30 minutes answering questions. His passion for the subject shines through. As several stragglers remain, he explains how he caught his son with petrol bombs years
An hour away in Belfast, Brian Sands leads tours from his black cab of murals around the city. His tour is less political, but he carefully explains the dynamics of Union and Loyalist turf in Belfast.
As in Derry, there had been violence in recent days. During one stop on our tour, the remains of a bonfire sit along a curb. He points out the British flags flying throughout the loyalist side of town.
As we drove, I asked him what would happen to me if I wore a t-shirt with an Irish flag on this side of town?
"You'd need to run faster than Usain Bolt," he says without a hint of humor.
I pressed him, is it really that bad? He assured me it was. Sands said while things have gotten better, he still doesn't visit that side of town after
"I'm just not quite there yet," he said.
The tour passes through both the Shankill and Falls Road neighborhoods. Sands notes gates that are still closed each night to separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Belfast is a city intersected in virtually every direction by walls expressly for this purpose, though there are long-term plans to tear them all down.
On the Unionist side, a mural depicting Stephen McKeag fills one entire side of an apartment house. McKeag, otherwise known as "Top Gun" is honored here because as a member of the Ulster Defense Association, he is credited with killing at least 12 Republicans.
Despite the colorful Union Jacks adorning every home, Shankill Road is bleak and run down in parts.
The tour continues through a set of gates that are locked each night, and into Falls Road where Sinn Fein headquarters sits in a nondescript building adorned with a mural of Bobby Sands, perhaps the biggest Republican hero of them all. Sands died in 1981 after a 66-day hunger strike.
"Our revenge will be the laughter of our children," reads a quote from Sands next to his likeness.
We stopped at the Peace Wall on the Republican side, signing our names alongside those of countless others who visit this part of Belfast, hoping for some kind of clarity of a conflict that has gone on far too long.
"The media often
Bogside History Tours, Derry
Cost: About $10, depending on current exchange rates
Belfast Mural Experience
Cost: About $45 for up to 3 people