In a word

Derry

 

It may seem odd on the second last day of the ninth month (which is really the seventh) to write about the fifth of the 10th month (though it’s really the eighth). Got it?

That sentence again in translation: It may seem odd on September 29th (seventh month in the Roman calendar) to write about the 5th of October (eighth month in the Roman calendar). It is what I propose to do.

I vividly remember October 5th, 1968. Events that day were the end-point in what was an extraordinary year for my fevered, young imagination, fired as it was by youth revolt and civil rights campaigns against a background of murder and mayhem. Elsewhere.

Or so it seemed from the sleepy torpor of a west of Ireland school. Bliss seemed it to be alive in early 1968. By March, that bliss was losing its glee. Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis that month, Bobby Kennedy in June.

In France, students almost topped General Charles de Gaulle, and in Chicago that August, they almost stopped the Democratic convention, in protests over Vietnam. In Prague, the people thumbed their noses at Moscow and almost got away with it, but were crushed that August, too, by Soviet tanks. It had become the year of . . . almost”. Is there a more heartbreaking word?

And then there was Derry, lovely Derry. And the brutal crushing of a civil rights march there by an out-of-control RUC. For many, the brutal savagery of that day, as unarmed peaceful protestors seeking equal rights with fellow citizens were hammered into the tarmac, was the spark for 30 years of violence. It continued until the Belfast Agreement of April 1998.

That year, 1968, was hard on young idealists, but October 5th of that year was particularly cruel on young Irish idealists who, until 1968, remained convinced that meaningful change could really be brought about by peaceful means. Derry 1968 saw deep holes driven through that conviction.

It is why the truly great were those who remained loyal in their commitment to peaceful means then and during even more trying days later. It is why, arguably, John Hume is our greatest living Irishman. He, and some others, resisted the temptation to reach for the gun after October 5th, 1968, in Derry. From the Irish Daoire, meaning oak grove. inaword@irishtimes.com

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