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The International Writers Magazine
Northern Ireland

What Brings You to Derry, Then?
Ashley Dresser

"What brings you to Derry, then?" the cashier asked. She had noticed me carefully examining each of my coins for their correct value in preparation for the total. I stared at her, suddenly frozen by a query that had been repeated to me almost daily since my arrival in Northern Ireland and nearly twice as much prior to my U.S. departure. It was intended to be an entirely harmless question, no doubt, and she delivered it so, in that plucky, uplifting Irish tone that invariably tugged at my heartstrings.

Yet this time, the accent brought me little cheer. The weight of the past few days in this foreign land bore down on me with suffocating precision. I could not bring myself to muster out the standard reply of "Peace and Conflict Studies" without feeling vomit creep into the back of my throat. I wanted to tell her the truth, but it was a truth that I did not want to admit to myself and besides, the supermarket check-out line was certainly no place for matters of the heart.

I had dispensed lofty vindications to those back home on why I wanted to study abroad in Northern Ireland. It was the only place I could come to terms with the realities of terrorism without being in danger as an American. It was a way to seek out the message of peace, in a country where it is both precious, yet so precarious, and bring it home with me. Lastly, it was a new method of understanding the oppressed. I had seen those stricken by poverty, but I had never witnessed the afflictions of war.

There were whispers of other desires as well, but these were more personal and carefully hidden. I was running away from the battlefield of my parent’s marital catastrophe, closely augmented by the fall-out of my first true love. Somehow, I harbored the belief that a country so marked by inexplicable hardship and pain held the answer of how to heal the wounds of my own small tragedies.

Furthermore, all my life I have yearned to be a part of something grand and meaningful to the world. There are many driven and kindred spirits out there, but for every one, there are ten or twenty others consumed by indifference. I had unscientifically determined this to be an entirely American trait, fueled by certain economic and social pressures and the idyllic lull of security and prosperity for all. I was convinced that if I traveled to a place where conflict was a reality and not just played out glamorously on a movie screen, that I would find throngs of people pulsing with compassion and concern for the world…My kind of people.

Predictably, as most ideas that I entertain at the youthful age of twenty, these notions turned out to be entirely foolish. The Bloody Sunday March that took place on January 30th was a poignant introduction to my time in Derry and my studies of The Troubles, but it quickly proved to be nothing more than a gilded façade of the truth. People of all ages showed up to remember the innocent that were killed by British gunfire in 1972. Still more watched silently from their windows, yet few really took its purpose to heart. The youngsters paraded around in their punk attire and eagerly belted out IRA chants to any TV crew within earshot. It was clear they were emboldened not by the Irish question, but by the general prospect of rebellion. My university friends were "full on drink" from the night before and slept through the entire march without an intimation of guilt. Mothers and fathers pushed their children in strollers or propped them on their shoulders; I suspect more for the educational aspect of the event, rather than to foster any sort of revolutionary ideal. Notable leaders from both Sinn Fein and SDLP culminated the march with fervent speeches, but interest was scattered at best. The crowd departed quickly, hardly acknowledging the ominous Bogside murals as they passed on their way to the pubs.

Later, I confessed my disappointment of the political atmosphere in Derry to my friend Conor. He is a fellow student at the University and a Dubliner of slightly republican leanings. He shared his reflections with me over a cup of tea.

"The Troubles have destroyed Derry… I work in a homeless center for rehabilitating alcoholics and almost every one of them is a product of our past. My friend’s brother was shot and killed walking home from school when he was 12 years old. There are so many stories like that… People don’t want to deal with it now. Peace is good. It is our only measure of happiness," he quietly affirmed. A glossy sadness came over his eyes then, but just as briefly as it appeared, he suppressed it, adding, "We still want to be a part of Ireland, but we are tired of paying the price with blood. Britain would be willing enough to offer up the six counties, but they know that would result in a terrible civil war. Enough people have died. So we just sit here…miserable, but alive."

In the news, Northern Ireland has often been portrayed as a shining example of peace after strife. I have found a much different reality. The students do not care either way, as long as they are allowed to socialize, shop, and live as youth are entitled to live. They even jokingly refer to the armored police cars as "Paddywagons" as that is "where they throw the Catholics."
But ignoring the problem does not mean it does not exist.
The other day, I filled out a job application for a minimum wage position and there, staring back at me in bold print was the question, "Are you Catholic or Protestant?" My cheeks burned at the audacity of such an inquiry, and I had a fleeting desire to return to my homeland, where we pride ourselves on equality and justice for all, if at least in theory.

The beeping melody of the check-out line pulled me away from my labyrinth of thoughts and I found the cashier looking at me expectantly. Oh right, the question. What brings you to Derry then?
"I guess…" I started. "I guess I wanted to fall in love with a revolutionary." (And a revolution as well.) There it was: the truth, in all its idiotic and youthful naivety. There was no revolution here and if there was, it was one without an answer.

The cashier startled a little, but let out a hearty laugh. "Oh, aren’t you a dear!" she exclaimed. "All you lot coming to Derry when all we want to do is get out! Well – good luck to you!"

I picked up my groceries and walked out miserably into the Irish mist, feeling as beaten and tired as those who had lived here their whole lives.

Ashley Dresser is a Global Studies major at the University of Minnesota. Her work has previously been published in her hometown newspaper regarding her travel experiences in Costa Rica and Montana.

© Ashley Dresser Feb 9th 2007

Study Abroad Link: ireland/2004/04photos.html

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