Back in the day I would be in Derry quite often for meetings, or unfortunately, for funerals, and occasionally for social events.
A wedding or a christening. Derry was a place apart. It generally didn’t have the omnipresent tension or threatening communal fragility of Belfast.
If the British Army or the RUC weren’t on the streets of the West Bank, there was a sense of tranquillity in that community.
It was far from the beleaguered defensive streets of the Short Strand or the Ormeau Road. On the days like that Derry was not unlike Sligo or Drogheda. A picturesque Irish town nestled on the banks of the wonderful Foyle water.
Martin McGuinness was a child of that town. He was Derry to his core. Donegal was at his back above the heights of Creggan.
That’s where his family came from. Na hUilli, anglicised to the Illies, north of Buncrana, on the Inis Eoghain Peninsula. That’s where Martin spent his childhood summers.
Bouncing high on turf stacked trailers along bog roads. Swatting midges and gathering hay or collecting hens’ eggs in his granny’s place. Learning to fish. In the rain. Watching sunsets. And sunrises. Beach combing on wind-lashed and wave battered deserted sea strands. Freedom!
When Martin and Bernie got married it was in Cockhill Chapel, outside Buncrana, that they made their wedding vows. It was there that Martin got Colette and I the use of a caravan for me to recuperate in, after I was shot and wounded in 1984.
So with the help and hospitality of the late Réamonn Mac Lochlainn - father of Pádraic, Jim Ferry and Eddie Fullerton, I also got to know the magic of the Inis Eoghain Peninsula. Eddie brought me to where he said Wolfe Tone landed on the Swilly and it wasn’t long before I was walking on the hills of that idyllic place.
Inis Eoghain and Derry are on opposite flanks of that same broad finger of high ground between the Swilly and the Foyle. The British border winds its invasive unwelcome way through this beautiful landscape creating two separate jurisdictions and separating Co. Derry from Co. Donegal.
Martin used to joke that the only thing that kept Derry in the British State was the Craigavon Bridge. There is more than a grain of truth in that wry observation.
Occasionally Martin and I would walk out the Groarty Road to Grianán Ailigh. Or Grianán of Aileach - also known as Grianán Fort. This ancient stone built ring fort, founded in the sixth century or earlier, was one of his favourite places. It is one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland.
Martin went there many times, including night times when the beautiful starlit Donegal skyscape is a wonder to behold. Or at sunset. So for me Grianán is forever tied up with Martin McGuinness.
After Martin’s death his family and friends organised a fundraiser for the North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital last March. It took the form of a sponsored walk to Grianán of Aileach from Derry. Siúlóid An Taoisigh -The Chieftains Walk.
Three thousand people took part. All Martin’s clann were there led by Bernie the power walker. Over £30,000 was raised. Everyone who registered and did the walk got a commemorative medal to mark the event. It was a great day out.
I did the walk that day. Me and our dog Fionn and one of the little people in my life, Anna Nic Adhaimh. She was only eight years old. According to my Fitbit we walked eight and a half miles. According to the organisers it is five and a half miles from Glenowen in Derry to Grianán. That’s probably true but we also had to walk back to the car. Anna is a champion. The last few miles to Grianán are uphill. It is so steep, Ted needed climbing ropes.
So this year the Chieftain’s Walk has been re-routed. This year its nearly all on the flat. Or so Andrew McCartney says. That’s Andrew who did last year’s Siúlóid in a minibus.
This year The Chieftain’s Walk will be on Sunday, March 24 at 1.30 p.m. from Ebrington Square to the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium. All money raised will go to the Foyle Hospice and the ICU at Altnagelvin.
It’s a three-mile route. It will leave Ebrington Square via the Peace Bridge and turn left along the Foyle Embankment and walk along Foyle Road. It will cross over the Foyle Road into the Brandywell and finish beside the Ryan Mc Bride Brandywell Stadium. As it enters into the Brandywell, it will pass close to where Martin once lived in Southend Park.
Ebrington Square was formerly the parade ground of one of the largest British military installations in Derry. It was turned into a public space and tourist attraction as part of the peace process and is linked to the west bank of the city via the Peace Bridge. Martin was key to the development of both of these initiatives as well as the Brandywell Stadium which was called after Ryan McBride, Derry City soccer star, who died the same week as Martin.
Ebrington Square was opened as a public space on Valentine’s Day, February 14 2012 and hosted a number of major events in 2013 as part of the year of City of Culture.
So, join us and Bernie and all the McGuinness clann in memory of Martin and in a good cause. You will enjoy the walk and the craic. Last year a woman beside me didn’t recognise me until she heard my voice. I was wearing sunglasses.
‘Jesus’ she exclaimed when she heard me talking ‘It’s yourself. I thought you were a blind man with your Guide dog!’
‘Fionn’ was pleased. He’s a yellow Labrador. Anna thought it was funny. She’s going again this year. So is Fionn. Bígí linn ar Siúlóid an Taoisigh.