Category: Archive

History beckoning, but I’m outta here

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

People like the opportunity to boast "I was there when history was made." Unfortunately, I have to confess that on the day history was made in Derry just over 30 years ago, I was on my way to Dublin. I do recall seeing the marchers gathering outside the railway station that afternoon as we drove out of town. I said to my companion that I hoped that the trouble (it was still not the Troubles) would not spread to Belfast, because then, I had no doubt, the guns would come out.

I was not a political pundit by any means. Indeed, I had little interest in modern politics, especially Irish politics. I just happened to be acquainted with Belfast and Derry, having grown up in the former and spent the last two years as a student in the latter. And it seemed to me that however bad things became in Derry, they would always be worse in Belfast.

In October 1968, I was really more concerned about having to leave Derry, which I had grown to like. To someone coming from the North’s capital, Derry seemed more like a part of Donegal than Northern Ireland. The distance in miles between Belfast and Derry was nothing — less than 100. But the distance in mood, atmosphere, political culture, if you like, was astronomical.

The first thing a Catholic noticed moving to Derry was the lack of sectarian menace in the air. In Belfast, you were never quite free from it, even when you were strolling along in the heart of the Falls Road. The Shankill always seemed very near, and very threatening. No doubt they felt the same way about us. But in Derry, at least on the west side across the River Foyle, with the hills of Donegal in the near distance, and Inishowen just up the road, you walked with a lighter tread.

Perhaps it was simply because you had that relaxing feeling that comes from knowing you are in the majority. Even though, as the civil rights marchers were endeavoring to show — indeed this was the putative point of their demonstration on Oct. 5 — being in a majority did not necessarily mean you had much of a say in how the place was run. But it still felt a safer place nonetheless. If the worst came to the worst, you could simply hop over the border and be standing on the shores of Lough Swilly in half an hour. In Belfast, on the other hand, you were a minority and you were made to feel it every day. The Catholics of Belfast were always aware of their isolation from other Catholics — southeast Antrim one way, north Down the other, and Armagh farther on — all solid loyalist areas where the red white and blue covered the landscape from June to September. For succor, the Catholics of Belfast had to trek all the way to the Mountains of Mourne or across Carlingford Lough to Omeath, which many of them did during the Orange marching season.

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It is strange that these considerations, while never often conscious, still exercised a powerful influence on you. They were part of the collective unconscious of Belfast Catholics, I suppose. I realized this when I moved to Derry in October 1966 simply because of the feeling of ease I enjoyed, and at first I could not fully explain from whence it came — until, that is, I started examining the geography.

Yes, it helps when you are in an actual majority, regardless of whether you can translate that immediately into political gains. However, Derry’s attractions were not just to do with a reassuring head count. History there was quite palpable — in the form of the walls, the cannons, and also in the remnants of the 18th century trading town which still stood. In Belfast, any view of the past was blocked by the huge factories and industrial chimneys, by the monstrous gantry cranes at the shipyards. You could not see it around you as you could in Derry. The present was too obtrusive. And it was an ugly present. It was not just the sectarian element that made it so. It was, at least for me, the industrial nature of Belfast’s present that seemed to blot out all remains of the past. The whole, grimy weight of Victorian industry squatted on the floor of the Lagan Valley like a big toad. Not a very pleasant sight to contemplate.

Many years later, long after I had left Derry, I returned to live in Belfast. Many things had changed since the 1960s, both in Belfast and in Derry. But not the sense of relief as you crested the Glenshane Pass heading West and, if it was a clear day, caught that first glimpse of the hills of Donegal.

A radical notion

One of the things about the civil rights movement that is often overlooked when people look back on it is its radical inspiration. Historians have compared it to the Daniel O’Connell demonstrations in the mid-19th century, which brought about the repeal of the anti-Catholic legislation then in force. But in truth, especially as it manifested itself in Derry, the civil rights movement was closer to the student radicalism in France and Italy.

At the time, Derry had a much stronger radical leftist tradition than Belfast. That was why the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was reluctant at first to sponsor the Derry march on Oct. 5, 1968 which had been organized by Derry socialists such as Eamon McCann and John White.

NICRA only agreed to back the march when McCann and his supporters made it clear they were going to go ahead with it anyway. The socialists looked to the strike and student uprising in France that summer, not the traditions of Irish politics, for their inspiration. They sought to confront the state, not reform it.

Derry’s left-wingers were in an uneasy alliance with the more middle-class elements in NICRA, as well as with the traditional Communist Party left and the sprinkling of republicans, most of whom regarded the whole thing with bemusement. In the end, these unlikely revolutionaries actually did more in a few days to make Northern Ireland an issue than 50 years of IRA resistance.

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