Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A History of the Bogside

Too many pints and too much time in this dark corner and the rain washing down the windows by the front and echoed even more darkly in the mirrors behind me and I have not truly slept more than three hours of the seventy-two since I made it back home.

"The area that is now known as the Bogside was originally underwater, as the Foyle flowed around the hill of Doire, of the oak grove," said the tattered old book hidden in the bottom corner of the classroom shelf. That stream on the western side of the island, it said, came to be called, "Mary Blue’s Burn. It flowed along the line of Rossville Street to the west of the Lecky Road and out into the Foyle near the bottom of Bishop Street. The burn was crossed by three causeways – probably built by monks – and these followed the lines of William Street, the Bog Road, and Stanley’s Walk."

As I sit at the foot of William Street today it is not hard to see those ancient Christians, disciples of St. Patrick himself, moving along the muddy highground in their rough cloth hooded
gúna. The natives came here for fresh water and fish and the wild plants that flavored their food and drink and to meet the spirits of their world. Later they came to fight the invaders and later still to live at the feet of the "British" for centuries as they squeezed out a living making first whisky and cloth, then shirts and ships and phonographs. Now my friends make hard drives, unless they have escaped elsewhere.

I have come back on one of those annual pilgrimages of redemption. Though it all looks different in fact – the houses are new, the Rossville Flats are gone, there is color here and no barbed wire – when I walk the streets I still see the old outlines rising up from the footwalks and hear the footsteps of my friends, and the thunder of the fighters, and the shouts of frightened parents.

I have seen many people over the past three days, though I have not seen her. She is now across the river, past "The Waterside," in some pleasant new estate I am sure, with her husband and her four children, or however many still live at home. She sent me an email saying, "this time, will you see me?" And all I could answer was, "I will try."

Throughout the nineteenth century the Bogside retained a rural feel with the type of housing and lifestyle of the inhabitants," that book had told me long ago, when I would sneak it from its spot and read that rather than focusing on maths. "Many houses were inhabited by unskilled labourers from the mountain districts of Donegal who subsidised their income by maintaining small potato patches and keeping pigs and feeding them with waste from Abbey Street distillery. Even the Catholic skilled tradesmen who earned quite superior wages could live nowhere other than the Bogside, and often they too rented out potato patches to supplement their income."

Last night I ate bangers and mash with Cillian and his family. It was served with the kind of thick potato soup that would warm me up on nights such as this, and the smells of the kitchen were overpoweringly familiar. Cillian caught me up with where everyone has gone, as he does year after year while his wife tried to convince me to return and offered match-making support.

"You need a woman from here," she told me. "One who knows where ya come from." "American women know where I come from," I said. "Nah," she was absolute. "They think you are Irish and some happy leprechaun or some such thing. They do not know a thing about Derry."

The book had not gone much past partition. "In 1921 Derry nationalists found themselves opposing Derry’s inclusion in Northern Ireland. With the northern parliament assembling in June Derry’s nationalists turned south for support but the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty in December was greeted with dismay in the city." That stopping point was good enough. The rest of the story was personal.

I look into the mirror. The grip of the silver on the back of the glass has weakened. It makes everything look much further away. I turn back, I do not like looking in mirrors. Derry has always been the victim, I think. It is always haunted by what might have been. It is a place of dreams, but dreams unfulfilled.

Cillian and Sean and Brendan push through the door, shaking water off their heads. "He's blasted already mates," Sean announces, pointing in my direction. "Called Kate yet?" Cillian asks. "Not yet," I mumble. "Fuckin' coward," Brendan says. "Always have been," I say, realizing the reason for my exile, "always have been."
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol


Brenda said...

The image of the bogside is working on me, the feel of it in this spectacular piece of writing, its geology, all the shifts and changes of the way people have lived around it over the centuries, and as an emotional substrata in the narrator's life, his telling his tale. The transverse diagram adds yet another element to the bogside that places it in a diagrammatic schema. So as a reader I feel I've been given a 'starmap,' an 'astrology' for navigation through a vast and mysterious landscape of history and passion and return and connection, a starmap for the book itself.

Adriana Bliss said...

Yes, yes, I love the interweaving of the outer-history with the inner. Beautiful, quietly haunting. I'm left thinking, aren't we all such "cowards"?