In 1986, after taking our bar exams, two friends and I spent a month bicycling around Ireland. We flew into Shannon Airport on Aer Lingus, listening to Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to the movie “Cal,” with its haunting tin whistle riffs.
This was before the Celtic Tiger economy of the mid-’90s. Southern Ireland was poor and somewhat primitive. For years, its young people had been leaving to find opportunities elsewhere. Many roads were single-lane. I can remember riding past men cutting peat to be used to fire small electric generating stations that dotted the countryside.
Ireland is small enough that you can see quite a bit of it by bicycle. It has a remarkable variety of terrain: from tropic beaches with palm trees on the west coast (thanks to the Gulf Stream), to a spectacular tidal zone that reaches well inland with little estuaries that rise and fall with the tide, to miniature mountains, gorgeous lakes, picturesque villages, and a couple of big cities. It is breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly green. The people we met were uniformly warm and friendly, if occasionally hard to understand.
We spent most of our time in the south, riding from Galway to Cong, around the Connemara Peninsula, to Tralee (in time for the Rose of Tralee), around the Dingle Peninsula, over the Molls Gap in the Ring of Kerry, and down to Kinsale, Cork and Shanagarry. Each day’s ride ended with a race to the first pub for a restorative Guinness Stout.
After few days in Dublin, we rented a car and drove to Belfast. Crossing the border was going from a third-world country to a first. The roads became multi-lane and well-paved. A few miles in, we were stopped at a roadblock. Armed soldiers lined the sides of the road, at the ready in case our intentions were unfriendly.
In the North, the center of every town we traveled through was striped in yellow indicating that if a car was left there unattended it would be presumed to be a bomb. In Belfast, there were walls separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. At night, they would enclose the center of the city with a retractable, corrugated metal fence.
I was reminded of my visit when Martin McGuinness died on March 20. McGuinness was the son of a Londonderry iron worker. He studied under the Christian Brothers, but left to become a butcher’s apprentice. Radicalized by watching the British mistreatment of Catholic protesters, he started out throwing rocks at soldiers and went on to become a leader of the Irish Republican Army.
McGuinness described the British as invaders with whom the Irish were at war. More than 3,600 people were killed during almost 30 years of “Troubles.” Among them was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, whose boat was blown up by a bomb in 1979. McGuinness was second-in-command of the Derry Brigade on “Bloody Sunday,” in 1972, when 14 protesters were killed. He served two terms in prison for his role in the hostilities.
But he evolved into a peacemaker.
Inspired by the example of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, McGuinness shifted his focus and worked through the IRA’s political affiliate, Sinn Fein. He engaged in secret peace talks with the British that led to a ceasefire in 1994, and to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, in which the IRA agreed to lay down its weapons.
He became an unlikely friend to, and ally of, his former enemy, Protestant Minister Ian Paisley. To his death, McGuinness continued to believe in a united, independent Ireland, but one that could only be achieved through peaceful and democratic means.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said that while she could not condone the path McGuinness took earlier in life, he went on to make a historic contribution to peace.
In eulogizing McGuinness, former President Bill Clinton observed that there used to be a legal principle called “corruption of blood.” The idea was that children had to pay for the sins of their parents. It perpetuated the cycle of recrimination.
Clinton recalled that Mandela, whose own people criticized him for betraying them to the Afrikaners, told his people:
“I spent 27 years in jail. They took my best years away from me. I didn’t see my children grow up. They ruined my marriage. A lot of my friends got killed. If I can get over it, you can, too. We have got to build a future.”
They were words that no doubt inspired McGuinness, too.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.