A FEW WORDS ON WALKING THE WALLS
Updated: Aug 11, 2022
Derry, Ireland, is a town I could love so well. But we’ve had our ups and downs.
The first time I entered the six counties of Ireland still under English control, the English at the border check point pointed a machine gun at me. The Irish people with me told me not to take it personally: “Aye, Reyn, the English point their machine guns at everyone.” Well, we were in the middle of the Troubles, so I guess I could see the English point, but, still, it didn’t exactly make me feel welcome.
On the trip to Derry that occasioned this particular poem, I was there to organize a tour to Virginia for the City of Derry Rugby Club. I walked the walls with one of their players, a Protestant, who casually mentioned that where I was on the walls, if he hadn’t been with me, I probably would have been shot. Sometimes with the Irish, Catholic or Protestant, it’s hard to tell when they are being serious and when they are just messing with you. Still, in the back of my mind, I think I heard, “Aye, Reyn, the Protestants point their guns at everyone.”
And sometimes it’s no joke. I took my godson to Ireland as a high school graduation present. He asked to go to Derry. When we got to the Free Derry monument on which is inscribed the names of those who died from English bullets on Bloody Sunday, he noticed something that I hadn’t: almost all who died were under 20.
But now we have the Easter Accords, and things are better. A few years after the City of Derry Rugby Club toured Virginia, I took my club, Richmond Rugby Club, on a tour of Ireland. When we got to Derry, we were well entertained by the City of Derry Rugby, We walked the walls and had a reception at the Guild Hall, the traditional center of Protestant power. The mayor invited us into her office, which had a full bar – Catholic or Protestant, it’s still Ireland. The mayor said she had something at the back of the office to show me. She pulled back a curtain to reveal her alter to Bobby Sands and the other Hunger Strikers who died. “I’m Sinn Fein,” she said.
I finally felt at home in Derry, a town I love so well.
Two notes on particular lines:
“The banshee wail of trash can lid on pavement/ announces the end of hunger…”
That’s not my attempt to sound surrealistic. It’s a literal presentation of how the women of Belfast announced the death of a Hunger Striker. First, a lone woman in the middle of the night, on hearing the news, would begin to bang a trash can lid on the pavement outside her house. Then another woman, recognizing the sound, would join in. Then others, until all of the Falls Road area was full of the sound. It was the Troubles’ version of the ancient Irish tradition of the “keen,” the poetic lamentation for the dead, generally performed by women, but in Irish mythology, performed by the banshee herself. The sound of a trash can lid on pavement might not sound poetic, but the Troubles were not a time for poetry.