Friday, May 26, 2023

Fifty Years Ago in Ulster


Walking along the city wall of old Derry, my mind slipped back to the first time I had been in Northern Ireland.  It was 1973, and I was in the midst of a semester abroad program through the University of Edinburgh. One long weekend, I took it into my head to go see Ireland, knowing from stories my father had told that I had Irish ancestors in my family tree.

          Back then, the accepted mode of travel for students on limited incomes was hitchhiking, and this was how I got from Edinburgh, Scotland to Liverpool, England. I couldn’t hitchhike across the Irish Sea, however, so I bought passage on an overnight ferry to Dublin. This way I didn’t have to pay for lodging.

          When I arrived in the Irish capital early the next morning, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Many friends in college had talked about the Guinness Brewery, so I went there for free samples. After a draught or two—or four—I felt energized enough to wander around seeing the sights. Following my usual travel pattern, I found the Dublin Youth Hostel that afternoon and stayed the night. 

    The following day, I decided to explore the countryside of the Emerald Isle. It was only March, but the land was moist and green, living up to its moniker. As I walked along the roadways, I held out my thumb each time I heard a vehicle approach. It turned out getting rides in Ireland was quite easy. The people were very friendly and helpful. In one day I got all the way from the east coast of Ireland to the western side to Killarney, whereupon I found the Youth Hostel there, as well. 

          That evening a rainy cool front moved in. It struck me that I had only two days to get back to Edinburgh for school. Unperturbed for the most part, I set out for Dublin again the next morning, walking along with my thumb out. I’m not sure what I thought I would accomplish that day since there was no way I could walk all the way across the Emerald Isle in a day. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. One of the rides that stopped for me on my trek back from Killarney was a group of three young men in a small compact car.

          “We’re heading over to Kilkenny to visit a friend,” they said. “He’s sure to have a lunch for us. You’re welcome to come along.”

          Some people might say I was foolish to accept this ride with three males I didn’t know. But in some strange way, I wasn’t worried. God has seen me safely thus far, I thought. I’ll just keep following his lead.

          When we arrived in the town of Kilkenny, they went straight to what looked like an old church. Parking the little car, they led me into the ancient-looking stone building. A man in a rough brown monk’s robe met us in the hallway and exclaimed, “Ah, so good to see you fellows. I see you’ve brought a friend. Come on in, I have a light lunch here to share. There’s always enough for a guest.” (Years later, I’d learn there was a deeply-rooted belief in Irish culture to help the stranger or traveler along their way, whether by food or other means.)

          After our meal of fruit, cheese, and bread, the monk asked me, “Where are you heading today, dear?”

          “I have to get to Dublin,” I replied.

          “Ah, well then we’d best help get you on the right road,” he smiled.

          The next thing I knew he was standing beside me in his long brown robe, helping me thumb a ride. Of course the very first car stopped. Yes, they were going to Dublin. As I climbed into the car and waved good-bye to my new friends, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be nice to have a monk along on future hitchhiking trips.

          I arrived back at the Dublin Youth Hostel shortly after dark. Getting out my map, I contemplated how far I still had to go in only one day. Another fellow-lodger was looking over my shoulder.

          “You don’t want to hitch in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It’s not safe like it is here. The Troubles, you know.”

          I was well aware of the Protestant and Catholic violence in Ulster in the 1960s and 70s, so I wasn’t all that keen on visiting Northern Ireland at all. “I’m not sure I could hitch all the way from Liverpool to Edinburgh in a day, though,” I said. “The ferry would take half my travel day.”

          “You could take a train from here to Belfast.” He pointed at the route on my map. “There you could get to the Larne Ferry to Scotland. That would connect you with trains to Edinburgh.”

          This would be more expense than I’d hoped, but it did give me a guarantee of making it back to my goal in one day. So the next morning I bought a ticket for the Belfast train.

          Riding along, I watched the green countryside of the Republic of Ireland fall away behind me. Trains often travel through the bleaker parts of cities and landscapes, and this ride was punctuated by high walls with barbed wire and broken glass embedded in the tops of stone or concrete walls.

          Once we reached Belfast, I was told I had to go to a different station to change trains. At an information desk, I asked the attendant, “Which bus do I need to take to get to the Larne Ferry train?”

          “No buses are running,” came the reply. “One was bombed last week.”

          My heart did a flipflop.

          “You’ll have to walk,” the attendant’s voice continued. “Here, take this city map. It shows you which streets to take.”

          My heart pounded as I took the city map and set out in the streets of Belfast. Walking along one row of glass-fronted shops—with bars protecting them from possible outside violence--I happened to hear a low rumble. When I turned my head, I saw a huge armored tank rolling by, British soldiers--with their guns ready--seated on top.

          This was the mental picture my mind jumped back to when I was standing on the ancient city wall of Londonderry almost fifty years later, looking at the fence constructed to keep out the Molotov Cocktails which were being thrown from Bogside.


          As our tour group walked to the next stop, I told the guide about this Belfast adventure, especially the tank.

          “How old were you?” he asked.

          “Not quite twenty-one.”

          “I find it very surprising that you’d so such things alone, and so young.”

          I shrugged. “Maybe I was foolish, but God took care of me.”






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