A poem by Colette Bryce
I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside
to the sounds of crowds and smashing glass,
by the river Foyle with its suicides and rip tides.
I thought that city was nothing less
than the whole and rain-domed universe.
A teachers daughter, I was one of nine
faces afloat in the looking-glass
fixed in the hall, but which was mine?
I wasnt ever sure, at all.
We walked to school, linked hand in hand
in twos and threes like paper dolls.
I slowly grew to understand
the way the tall Cathedral cast
its shadow on our learning, cool
as sunlight swerved from east to west.
The adult world had tumbled into hell
from where it wouldnt find its way
for thirty years. The local priest
played Elvis tunes and made us pray
for starving children, and for peace,
and, lastly, for The King. At mass wed chant
hypnotically, Hail Holy Queen,
mother of mercy; sing to Saint
Columba of his Small oak grove, O Derry mine.
We’d cross the border in our red Cortina,
stopped at the checkpoint just too long
for fractious children, searched by a teenager
drowned in a uniform, armed with a gun,
who seemed to think we were trouble-on-the-run
and not the Von Trapp family singers
harmonizing every song
in rounds to pass the journey quicker.
Smoke coiled up from terraces
and fog meandered softly down the valley
to the Brandywell and the greyhound races,
the ancient walls with their huge graffiti,
arms that encircled the old city
solidly. Beyond their pale,
the Rossville flats – mad vision of modernity;
snarling cross-breeds leashed to rails.
A robot under remote control,
like us, commenced its slow acceleration
towards a device at number six,
the family home of the politician
John Hume. Neighbours were warned
to keep to the rooms at the back of the house
to no avail: we watched from the front
as a metal arm played cat and mouse
with a hoax some boys from Garten Square
had made from parcel tape and batteries
gathered on forays to the BSR,
the disused electronics factory.
Like a stopper screwed more tightly on,
they elected Thatcher, increased the pressure
that reached a pitch in nineteen eighty-one
with the drawn-out deaths of hunger-strikers
in the Maze, our jail within a jail.
A billboard near Free Derry Corner
clocked the days to the funerals
as riots wrecked the city centre.
Each day, we left for the grammar school,
behaved ourselves, pulled up our socks
for benevolent Sister Emmanuel
and the Order of Mercy. Then wed flock
to the fleet of buses that ferried us
back to our lives, the Guildhall Square
where Mrs Burns, our scapegoat drunk,
swayed in her chains like a dancing bear.
On the couch, we cheered as an Irish man
bid for the Worldwide Featherweight title
and I saw blue bruises on my mothers arms
when her sleeve fell back while filling the kettle
for tea. My bed against the door,
I pushed the music up as loud
as it would go and curled up on the floor
to shut the angry voices out.
My candle flame faltered in a cup;
we were stood outside the barracks in a line
chanting in rhythm, calling for a stop
to strip searches for the Armagh women.
The proof that Jesus was a Derry man?
Thirty-three, unemployed, and living with his mother,
the old joke ran. While half the town
were queuing at the bru, the fortunate other
half were employed in issuing the cheques.
Boom! Wed jump at another explosion,
windows buckling in their frames, and next
you could view the smouldering omission
in a row of shops, the missing tooth
in a street. Gerry Adams mouth
was out of sync in the goldfish bowl
of the TV screen, our dubious link
with the world. Each summer, one by one,
my sisters upped and crossed the water,
armed with a grant from the government
- the welfare systems final flowers -
until my own turn came about
and I swung two hold-alls into a taxi,
hugged my mother, took my seat
on a flight and left that world behind me.
– Colette Bryce
Colette Bryce takes part in the John Hewitt Festival in Carnlough, Co Antrim, today, where she will include Derry as part of her reading. She also reads in the Town Hall Studio, Galway, next Thursday at 3pm in the Cuirt International Festival of Literature