I’m always happy to publish a guest post from people visiting or just returned from Ireland. This piece is by Dick Davis, a retired San Francisco Bay area stockbroker and author of “Bus Journey Across Mexico” and other photo journals; and Victor A. Walsh, a retired California State Parks historian who has written about Ireland and Irish America for the San Francisco Irish Herald, Irish America, Eire-Ireland, and Journal of American Ethnic History. MH
Massive 17th-century siege walls surround the city of Derry (Londonderry to Loyalist Protestants) in Northern Ireland. Waterloo Street, which parallels the old gray walls, rises steeply above the Bogside. In a 2002 visit, at a late hour, it’s empty; the buildings a silhouette of dark forms in the black night.
At the corner where Waterloo turns toward Diamond Square, we spot a brightly lit pub — a glow of life on the otherwise dreary street. The sign in front says, “Tonight Frank Sinatra”; below in smaller letters, “Jimmy Breslin.”
This is nuts, I think. I’m in Ireland, not New Jersey, and Frank’s dead.
We enter Kate’s Bar. It’s packed. Men are standing shoulder to shoulder drinking black pints of Guinness. Wisps of cigarette smoke and loud conversation fill the stale air. Some of the men are wearing white polo shirts with a football patch. Three ladies, near the front corner by the mike, more than fill a bench meant to seat four.
They remind me of buxom cafeteria workers from my high school days, only without aprons. All of them are blondes and their hair is curled and teased in the beehive style of the early ‘60s. It’s clear that they are here to listen to Frank.
We push through the throng of people, and find two tall stools against the back wall. A fellow next to me with tousled wavy black hair tells us that there are some empty tables in the next room. “Thanks,” says my friend Vic, “but we want to hear the music of Hoboken, Ireland.” He nods somewhat quizzically and introduces himself as Declan.
Just as he begins to speak, someone yells, “Mop,” and Declan springs into action. A tray in front of a golden retriever sitting underneath the bar in front of us has been kicked over. As Declan quickly mops up the floor, he tells us that the dog belongs to a blind man, a regular seated at the bar. The tray is refilled, and the dog goes back to contentedly lapping up the Guinness.
At the far end of the bar stands an animated chap alternately talking and listening to his neighbor. When a point is made or something funny is said, he twirls his hand in a spiral motion and pokes his finger at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if he was challenging God or keeping score.
Being newcomers, we begin to attract attention. “Where you from?” asks a thin fellow with a brown, droopy moustache. “California, near San Francisco,” I reply. “Oh, you’re a Yank,” he says in a friendly manner. He introduces himself as “Fergus,” with an emphasis on the “fer.”
We chat, and soon Declan returns. Like several other men at the pub, he is wearing a white polo shirt with a Celtic Football Club badge embroidered in green with a shamrock in the center. The patch is sewn on the right side of his shirt. On the left side, stitched in a circle with Irish flags are the words, “Celtic Supporters Club, McSheffrey and Deery.”
“Can I buy one of these shirts here?” I ask him. “They’re not for sale. They’re commemorative. They honor the memory of me friends, Eddie McSheffrey and Paddy Deery. We lost them to The Troubles here in ’87.”
“To your friends,” I saluted with my glass raised high and took a drink. Fifteen years, I thought, and The Troubles are still here, but friends are never forgotten.
The stone walls that encircle Derry rose out of history. They stood in 1689 when Protestant defenders repelled a 105-day siege by the Catholic army of King James II. They straddle the steep ground above ‘Free Derry’, the Catholic Bogside where British paratroopers in 1972 without provocation opened fire on unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers, killing 13 (a 14th person died later) and wounding 17 protesters in a massacre remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
The murals and slogans painted on the walls and ramparts—“No Surrender”, “End The Torture”; “We Salute Those Who Gave Their Lives For Irish Freedom”—are a living testament to what divides the two cultures into segregated communities: one Protestant, British and Unionist; the other, Catholic, Irish and Republican.
As I think about this, someone whistles. The crowd claps, a cheer goes up, and a ruddy-faced version of Jimmy Breslin steps forward and screams into the mike, “It’s time for Frank!”
He’s dressed like a young Sinatra in a white-on-brown plaid sports jacket and fedora with the hat cocked and the brim turned down. He taps the mike; the crowd quiets as he fixes his gaze on the lady with the tallest beehive and sings, “I’ve got a crush on you…” She throws back her head; her face enveloped in a great smile. Her two friends nudge and jostle her.
As Sinatra croons “You do something to me…,” I look out at the blissful gathering, sparkling eyes, happy faces, people at the bar talking and laughing, small men dancing with large women, more joy and love than I’d ever seen in a church on Sunday.
Fergus comes over, taps me on the shoulder, and whispers, “To New Jersey,” referring to Sinatra’s home state.
Declan, who had disappeared when Frank began, returns with a white polo shirt. “Let me check the sizes. I couldn’t see in that cave-dark store room,” he explains. It’s extra-large, my size. As he hands it over to me, I could see a tear of joy in his eyes. “The club stocks the shirts, but we never sell our memories,” he says.
In June 2017, I returned to Derry with my granddaughter and grandson. We visited the Museum of Free Derry. The film clips on The Troubles were both personal and deeply moving, especially Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology on June 15, 2010, for what happened on Bloody Sunday. The Bogside was jubilant; the fallen finally remembered as victims, not perpetrators. In this sense Free Derry represents a future together as much as a past apart. .
Afterwards, we walk up Waterloo looking for Kate’s Bar. Uncertain, we ask around until I spot a pub called Castle Bar. For me, it’s still Kate’s.
When we enter, my commemorative polo shirt catches people’s attention. At the bar, I ask if anyone remembered Kate’s. “Yes,” an older fellow shouts while nudging his way forward. When he sees the polo shirt, he slowly bends his head, kisses the logo with the two names, and then praises me for bringing my grandkids, letting them know about The Troubles.
The mood is subdued; almost reverential. No one spoke. Words did not matter for the faces in that moment of silence simmered with the memory of tribal wrongs.
(Editor’s Note: Patrick Deery and Edward McSheffrey were among nearly 100 people killed in Northern Ireland in 1987. Nearly 3,600 violent deaths–nationalists, loyalists, British troops and innocent civilians– occurred during The Troubles, which lasted from 1968 to 1998.)
The worst of the Troubles ended nearly 20 years ago with Good Friday Agreement, but neighborhoods in Derry/Londonderry remain divided between Unionist/Loyalists, top, and Nationalists/Republicans, below. June 2017 photos by Dick Davis.