It was a few years ago to the date, August 2010 in Dublin airport. I was picking up my Uncle and his wife for what was going to be their first visit in Ireland; the second time only I was going to meet him. This was a special moment, a reunification after so many years of tears and sorrow, questions unanswered and self inflicted silences. By hugging each other in the busy terminal, we were finally making peace on behalf of our own stubborn late mothers, unaware of the tragedies that had unfolded before our time, keepers of only a few pieces of a puzzle, fragments of broken lives; this jigsaw was going down!
My mother was born in south Brittany in 1948. The marriage of her parents broke down a few short years after as her father – who came back from Dachau or Buchenwald for steeling and reselling bicycles from German soldiers ( or so I was told) – started to drink too heavy and grew, as it often does, more abusive. She was placed in the care of her Dad’s Mother, a proud and austere hard working Alréenne( An Alre – Auray). My grandmother moved to Paris to start a new life, and was very much part of her daughter’s life, even if travelling 500kms in the 50’s/ 60’s from Paris to Brittany must have been quite an adventure! Life was hard growing up; making crêpes and galettes to survive, and my mother would go and deliver them on her bicycle in the neighbourhood; some would even call in to eat them in the kitchen of the small house they shared.
My grandmother finally found love again, and married a handsome Catalan young man, one of the multitudes of immigrant workers who contributed to the reconstruction of Paris; she was happy again and they were expecting a little baby. But life is merciless sometimes, even more so when it is determined to keep the head of innocents under water. The day the little baby was born, her husband fell off the scaffolding he was working on and died on the spot. A new storm was brewing, the tongues were pouring their slow killing poison into the ear of young and fragile minds; my mother was now 16 and wondering why was she stuck in Brittany while her mother was in Paris with a little baby? Her half brother? The mind and the heart of a teenager don’t always see clearly nor do the struggles of a single mother raising a child in the early 60’s… The communication was finally broken, and all went silent. These two women separated by the madness of men, this mother and daughter who struggled all their lives never spoke or saw each other ever again…
After my mother’s passing in 1997, my sister felt the urge to heal that wound, once and for all. She eventually retraced our grandmother who had been waiting all her life to receive that letter starting by “I believe you are our grandmother”. She replied within a week and they were soon to be reunited. I was lucky enough to have spoken to her a couple of times, from Ireland and over the phone, but she died just a couple of month before we could see each other. Funny enough, I don’t feel too bad about it, I know she had finally met her grand children, and told us what had happened. “The little baby” was now a fine looking Parisian, with the unmistakable twang, the accent of the French Capital, the pride and confidence of a Catalan, and the notorious stubbornness of his Breton blood. The resemblance with my mum was quite unreal and he was only 10 years older than me, sitting in my kitchen, sipping a mug of tea, in the middle of the Isle of Ireland; after all these years, we were reunited. As a good host, I asked what they would like to do, where they would like to go, anything in mind… ( It sounds better than the famous Irish saying when one has visitors:” So, when are you leaving again?”). Maybe not this time!
“ I want to go to Derry” he said. “I want to see the murals in Derry, you know, the Bogside and all that”.
As a teenager of the mid 70’s, he had been fascinated by what we call so casually “The Troubles”. Keen photographer and fan of street art, I couldn’t refuse. I would have been happy enough to bring them to Connemara or the West in general (which we did too), but since I had never visited Derry, the newly announced “City Of Culture” the previous month for 2013, it was a perfect opportunity to make amend. A couple of days later, we were on our way, for a long day trip north. As we drove trough Enniskillen, I thought that my Uncle owed me a lot of missed birthday and Christmas presents, but as I smiled to the idea, I decided to keep that one for myself. We parked behind the Tourism Office, just by the River Foyle and before we started our visit of the city Centre, we went for a bowl of beef and Guinness stew, on the Diamond, the heart of the walled city, by the war memorial for soldiers who died during WWI and WWII.
We proceeded towards the Bogside and the notorious “You are now entering free Derry” stamped on the remains of a former house. We visited the “People’s Gallery”, home of the three artists who painted the famous murals of the neighbourhood. We met John Hume outside, who welcomed us in French for a brief moment. That encounter was a bit surreal; my uncle, big fan of U2 asked simply:
“Who was that man?”
“Well, how could I explain? Do you remember the concert U2 gave in 1998 in Belfast? When Bono held the hands of two men; two men with very different political views? On stage? One of them was David Trimble, the leader of the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party), the other, that lad, was John Hume, his counterpart from SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) a bit of a legend like!”.
“how yeah!!! Coooooll !!! I remember, it was on the French news! Cooooolll”
After taking a few more pictures from the Bogside, we finished our visit of the walls. At some stage, we were overlooking a neighbourhood below, with a huge mural and Union Jacks flying all over. It said something like “Still under siege, no surrender…”. The body language of my Uncle was hilarious. I could hear the voice in his head, I swear!
To self: “ mmh… Shall I take that picture? Mmhh… Maybe not… Well, after all, fair is fair, messages are messages. I am ok with that, I’ll take the picture after all…”. I anticipated slightly what was about to come; only confirmed when I heard the impacts of three stones carefully aimed at missing us. Camera went back in the bag, “fair enough, fair enough! No harm meant!” said the hand of my Parisian visitor…
We went to a “M&S” for a spot of shopping before heading back. Border towns were very popular at that time as the £ gave more value for money than the €. I have never indulged in this practice, as for one: I was living too far away from any of them, second: I like to support our own local economy. The young lad at the till wanted to check us out, in more ways than one:
“So, you are in Derry for a wee bit of shopping, are you?”
“Not at all” I said, “we are here as a family, bringing these fine people from France to visit your beautiful city”. With a certain amount of pride he smiled; and was quite surprised at my answer. My answer or at my accent; during our short trip, it had puzzled more than one of the locals.
While we were driving back south, I was overwhelmed by a lot of thoughts and feelings. The fact that war never solved anything, of course, but also the fact that dialogue should always remain open. Not talking to each other brings nothing but regrets. Life is ruthless, no judge, no executioner, you might get unlucky when the dices are rolling or strike a blissful life that will make you unaware of how fortunate you are. We all feed some demons; cherish better moments by doing unselfish acts of kindness. The real question I ask myself since this reunion, from this life changing event is: “What are you going to do about it?”.
And that made me the person I am happy to be now…
Keep Well, Eat Happy
10 thoughts on “We’ll always have Derry”
What an amazing piece. Written with tenderness, exasperation and relief. Your Uncle is the same age as me, at a guess and I am not surprised he wanted to visit Derry. Your images are superbly evocative, your words kept me transfixed. Loved it.
Thank you so much Osyth, I wasn’t too sure about that one… Thank you for reading that means a lot! 😉
Such an incredible story!
Thank you so much for reading… Yes indeed, a bit mad! And that is the side of the family I didn’t know! 🙂 Thanks again for taking that time!
This story is full of heart and interest. Your writing is one of elegance, and the photos are amazing. Thank you Franck for sharing the amazing story. Have a happy week my friend. 🙂
You too friend, thank you so much for reading! 🙂
A moving write up and beautiful images Franck 🙂
Thank you for taking the time reading it; all the way back to the roots. Have a nice weekend!
Such an amazing story, fit for a novel.
Thank you… Maybe one day, if I get my act together 🙂