Today I had the sort of day that we all yearn for as travelers. To be at the right place at exactly the right time, as if I had planned it this way all along.
But plan this I did not. A month ago when I was pouring over Ireland itinerary options late at night and decided Derry would be a good overnight stopping point on my Ireland tour, how could I have known that the funeral of Martin McGuinness would be taking place the very day I arrived in Derry?
A month ago, I didn’t even know who Martin McGuinness is. But ever since setting foot in North Ireland three days ago, I’ve been swept up in a real-life history lesson of the complex and heart-wrenching political and religious history of the last century. And Martin McGuinness is one of the main players, as he was instrumental in the Good Friday Agreement that formalized the Northern Ireland peace process.
McGuinness’ illness came on strong, and he died quickly. It was only early this year that he retired from his passionate and controversial political career, due to deteriorating health. McGuinness, a member of the Sinn Féin political party, and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland for a decade, much of his controversy is tied to his work as a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader. He began his political career in his hometown of Derry.
The Good Friday Agreement took place in 1998, and Belfast has since become one of the more bustling tourist hubs in the UK. But the sectarian politics are still tangible, living breathing parts of this region, from little things like how to refer to the city of Derry (I was chastised for calling it Londonderry once, even though this is what is on Google Maps and street signs), and big things like the graffiti and intimidating street art everywhere you go.
So that sums up my last three days of learning. And then here I find myself, stepping off a bus in the heart of historic Derry, as Bill Clinton is speaking to a funeral service for Martin McGuinness in the hills just above me. I dropped my bags off at my lovely Air BnB, googled information about the burial, and starting walking in the direction of the cemetery. From the beautifully preserved city walls, I could see down into a clearing, where small groups of people were gathering. I walked closer I saw the funeral service showing on a large screen, strategically set up in front of an important historical landmark, a large sign that reads “You are now entering Free Derry”.
The funeral procession started minutes after I arrived. The sound of bagpipes tipped me off.
Hundreds of people started gathering along the street to watch the procession.
Watching it arrive in a sea of thousands of people was emotional, and even more emotional still, to see the casket walked under the street art representing the political work that McGuinness had dedicated his life to.
After the casket passed, some people turned and headed home. But I couldn’t. I took this as an important opportunity to continue to learn this special culture and the people that are a part of it.
Being a part of a mourning process is such a personal moment, and it was such a gift to be there in that moment, on this incredibly historical day.
The walk to the cemetery was long, up a wide, steep road. People lined the road, as did the street art of the people.
Reporters were everywhere, and residents of the apartments along the road watched curiously from their windows and balconies.
Arriving at the cemetery was breathtaking. What a beautiful resting place, looking out over Derry and the river that divides it.
Another small service was given at the cemetery, much of which I missed in order to meet my Airbnb host.
Walking back down the hill alone was peaceful, a stark contrast from our trip up to hill with the thousands of other mourners.
I am grateful for the coincidences, and/or the powers that be, that brought me here today.