Americans say Derry is like a home from home

Kara Cheever
Kara Cheever

Maggie O’Brien and Kara Cheever are students of Bucknell University in USA. Recently the girls spent three weeks in Derry as part of their post-conflict peace-building programme. As part of the program the ladies spent six days working in the Derry Journal offices. In these articles the girls explain their pride at their Irish heritage, how they enjoyed spending time in a city so steeped in history and their love of Barry’s Tea

Maggie O’Brien’s Story

Maggie O'Brien

Maggie O'Brien

My great-grandparents came from County Kerry and County Cork in the Republic of Ireland, and my family has always instilled within me a certain degree of Celtic pride. Each time we would visit my grandmother in New York City, my father and I would take a ten-minute drive to the Irish section of the Bronx to visit the small grocery store and deli where we’d stock up on treasured Irish sausage, Hobnobs, and Barry’s Tea.

It is due to this Irish background that my family and I have chosen to return “home” to our native Ireland twice; once when I was seven, and again when I was ten.

I have fond memories of dancing on the tables in the pubs of County Cork, sleeping in charming B&Bs scattered across the Southern coast, and gleefully watching my mother overcome her fear of heights to kiss the famous Blarney Stone.

This past fall, I learned of an opportunity to study Peace and Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland. Although I had briefly visited the Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh during my first trip to the island, I harboured very few memories of the area.

I eagerly sent in my application as visions of the sprawling greens, lively culture, and charming folklore that characterized the Ireland of my childhood danced through my head.

As I look out the window of the bus on the way from Belfast Airport to Derry, familiar elements support my vision of Northern Ireland: sheep grazing lazily on a verdant hillside, white cottages with thatched roofs, the feeling in my stomach the bus briskly navigates the wide, winding roads. Soon after our arrival, I go for a run through town. I see the bustling street corners and shopping centres; witness the places where the paths of families, students, and business people intersect to form a non-descript mass that encapsulates the common geographical tie between these disparate people. Upon first glance, I liken Derry to the cities of Dublin and Galway: lively, accessible cities, full of cultural and social opportunities.

However, upon closer look I notice the damaged furniture store not far from Magee College, the broken windows and general state of disarray a startling reminder of the car bomb left by dissident Republicans last August.

Later in the day, I visit the Bogside murals, shivering with emotion as I pass through the streets where the events of Bloody Sunday occurred. Beneath the surface of a prosperous, modern city I find remnants of the deep sectarian divisions that once threatened the livelihood of Derry and its people, elements that complicate my perception of Ireland, and challenge my sense of cultural identity.

While trying on a sweatshirt the other day in the University shop at Magee College, I was flabbergasted when the cashier urged me to go to the restroom in the next building over to see how it looked, effectively allowing me to take unpaid merchandise out of the store with only my word as proof that I would return.

I was instantly reminded of the overwhelming sense of acceptance and welcoming I felt during my first two trips to Ireland. This overwhelming kindness and universal warmth of character has been a common thread throughout all of my interactions with the citizens of the isle. It made me wondered what the relations between all Irish people would be if they could offer each other the same degree of amiability and trust so readily extended to visiting Americans.

This past year, I began to look into a career in International Relations, thinking that I might enjoy a future as a foreign diplomat. I had originally imagined Spain to be my country of choice, as I am relatively proficient in the language. However this trip has made me reconsider that decision. Perhaps I will again have the pleasure of visiting Derry in the future, and learn more about the special island I like to consider my home away from home.

Kara Cheever’s Story

I dreamt of Ireland as a child. I am the daughter of two United States Naval Commanders and our family was frequently transferred from state to state. While our belongings were neatly stowed in brown cardboard boxes in the trunk of a moving van, I would close my eyes and picture this island. My mother often described it to me, her homeland. She told me that it did not matter where we lived; we could always go home to Ireland.

Through my mother’s flowery imageries, I envisioned green fields scattered with purple heather. I saw linnets soaring above oak trees and dryads lounging below the canopy, their legs swinging from the branches. I imagined a green and Edenic world of Innisfree.

As a student at university in the States, I was recently given the opportunity to study abroad in Derry for a month. I eagerly leapt at the opportunity. But this Ireland, the one that I met less than a week ago, is unlike the mythological paradise of which I dreamt. While visiting the Bogside and listening to the narratives of the murals, I have learned, instead, of a heartache that is sewn into the flesh of the people – stories of men blinded with hate and teenage boys murdered in the streets.

Below this volatile history lies the Ireland, I believe, of lore. Indeed, there are many aspects of my mother’s tales that have proved to be true. For instance, the rain that falls sideways and soaks through three layers of socks. Or the beautifully rugged landscape with clay cottages adorned with brightly coloured shutters.

But what I have especially noticed is the genuine kindness of the Irish people. Yesterday, I was lost and standing on the corner of Strand Road, unsure of which direction to take. A man in a leather bomber jacket approached me, asked me where I was going, and drew a map with arrows on a loose piece of notebook paper. I barely had the chance to thank him before he tipped his hat and left.

The Ireland that I see is not the one fashioned from my childhood naivety with leprechauns hidden beneath clovers and selkies sunbathing on cliffs. No, it is much better, because it is real.