It was half an hour into the tour when I realised this wasn’t going to be any normal jaunt around well-known locations, when my guide disclosed that he’d served time in prison for the death of a British soldier. When he pulled plastic and rubber bullets out of his pocket for me to handle – and they’re great big things – I knew for sure that this was going to be different.
Welcome to 21st century tourism in Northern Ireland. News of Monday night’s car bomb in Newry was a jolt. I passed through the border town three days earlier by train, and was struck by the beautiful, rolling countryside and once again struggled to comprehend how such a peaceful-looking part of the world could be blighted by such a terrible recent history. I went to Ireland to get away for a few days and catch up with some friends, but I’d also been curious about visiting Derry for some time. I first visited Belfast five years ago, and wanted to see how it’d changed since then. What I came away with on my second visit was a sense of just how people are trying to use the awful legacy of violence – and people’s curiosity about it – as a force which will hopefully do some good.
There’s two sides to visiting the north of Ireland – the first is the wonderful countryside and scenery, twinned with generous hospitality. The rail journey between Derry and Coleraine is stunning, a road trip along the Antrim coast (which you’ll do if you ever travel from Belfast to the Giants Causeway) is inspiring, and the hills over Belfast remind you this is a wild country. And, of course, I wish I’d seen more of Donegal than I could witness from a coach window. The border slips by, hardly noticeable but for a sign on a petrol station.
The other side is the Troubles. On my first visit, I took a trip to the Bushmills distillery and was amazed to see the village covered in loyalist regalia. I took a minibus tour around the Shankill and the Falls Road, and a local journalist took me around some of the bleaker spots. We passed Ian Paisley’s home at a time when the big man seemed to be on his last legs – when he was still more of a demagogue than a Chuckle Brother. This was while the assembly was suspended, with police still roaming the streets in armoured Land Rovers. It seemed a pivotal moment for the future.
Upon our return, a pair of Italian tourists stopped to ask us “when the next bus to the murals” would be. It was late on a summer’s evening, they were due to leave for Dublin later that evening, and my host decided to give them a quick tour herself – driving cautiously in case she was spotted in a strange area. It was a decision she came to regret when we pulled up at traffic lights outside the home of a leading loyalist figure, only for the Italians to try to get out of the car to take photos. “NO!,” she yelled, pulling away at speed. It took her some time to recover from that, although the Italians did get their photo in the end.
This time around, the Belfast police still use Land Rovers, their stations are still fortified – but this was more because the of cost of taking down the defences, said our man on a packed open-top bus. The tour took us around historic Belfast, out to Stormont; by Glentoran FC, the club which rejected George Best; past the Harland and Wolff works; the dock where the Titanic was built; the amazing regeneration work on the waterfront… but somehow the passengers only really started to pay attention as we made our way to the Falls Road – the Bobby Sands mural at Sinn Fein’s HQ prompting a “see the sort of dentist he had!” quip from the guide. Close by, the oddity of this tour became apparent when our bus got stuck in a side street behind a beer lorry making deliveries to a pub, which still had grilles on its windows to defend it from attack.
Once the lorry had shifted, it was through the peace line, and some kids shouted out at the bus “up the Shankill!” And just as in the Falls, every memorial, every mural noted. In the dark days of the 1980s, it must have been inconcievable that open-top buses would one day be surveying the city’s still-raw scars, but human curiosity and a desire to make sense of the past have combined to make a journey which is troubling as much as it is fascinating.
Of course, tourists come to see battlegrounds from 1470 all the time – so it’s hard to see why battlegrounds from 1970, 1980 and 1990 shouldn’t be any different. Especially as the story as told in Great Britain was often wildly different from the stories which those on the ground will readily tell you.
The Museum of Free Derry tells the story of the Catholic population of the city’s Bogside with an array of first-hand testimonies, ornaments, and a determination to set the record straight. Among the exhibits is a 1969 receipt for petrol. That fuel was used for making bombs in the Battle of the Bogside. Locals conduct twice-daily tours explaining the events leading up to Bloody Sunday from their perspective – one of police intimidation and discrimination from a Unionist authorities which sought to deny Catholics a voice by denying them proper homes and – under the laws of the times – votes. “See that man over there? He was the first person shot on Bloody Sunday.”
It is very hard to reconcile the Bogside view of the IRA as community defender and enforcer with the IRA I grew up with here, the one which bombed Woolwich twice and tried to blow up the East Greenwich gas works (one of my earliest memories is of the “wanted” posters from the 1979 incident) and for whom the lives of Londoners seemed expendable, as shown in South Quay in 1996. Making peace, though, has meant recognising all sides of the story. It is a multi-layered tale, too – one of the little-known aspects of Derry’s recent history was that until the Troubles, a job in the British Army was a secure way for young Catholics to learn a wage and learn a trade.
The sense of injustice after Bloody Sunday still burns now, with no sign of the Saville inquiry reporting soon. In truth, with all that has happened in the intervening decades, it is unlikely the people of the Bogside will be ever fully happy with whatever it reports back with. Inquests from 1972 are still being opened, and adjourned. There is still tension with the tiny Protestant enclave the other side of Derry’s walled city, with tales of taxi drivers getting beaten up. My guide was convinced passing a policeman was giving him a strange look.
He told me of the British soldiers he’d taken around the Bogside. One was now a close friend, he explained. “We went walking in Donegal the other week,” he added. When they first met, they realised they’d a lot in common. Remember I said my guide had served time for his part in the death of a soldier? His new friend was on patrol with that soldier at the time. A mutual friend of theirs interrupted us by calling him on his mobile. While there was still a long way to go, a lot of water had clearly passed under the bridge since the peace process started. It was hard to see my guide picking up arms again – but what of his generation’s sons and daughters?
Of course, there’s a lot more to Derry than its recent past. It’s a really friendly place, and it seemed half the city was packed into Peadar O’Donnell’s music bar last Tuesday night. But division is written deep in its history, and the impressive city walls are filled with a significance that will live on for centuries, whatever happens to this part of the world. The Tower Museum is worth a visit for this side of the city’s story. These days, campaigners in the Bogside are using tourism to push their cause – from the museum and a community gallery to guided walks by the men behind the murals which adorn the gable walls. The Free Derry Tours team will even help put together your stag or hen weekend if you ask them to. From Molotov cocktails to organised booze-ups? The path to peace remains an intriguing one.