Lighting the Way at Christmas

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

THESE words by T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Journey of Magi" conjure up for me a bleak picture of a Christmas in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, some 20 years ago when the Ulster troubles were at their worst. Nearly every city, large town, and hamlet had been huddling behind steel barricades to keep out marauding bombers. Despite the stoicism, resilience, and humor of the Ulster people, it was hard to find silver linings among the dark war-clouds which hung over this beautiful but battered province.

Undaunted nevertheless, I set out for Londonderry, some 70 miles northwest of Belfast on the edge of picturesque Lough Foyle, which had been a United States Naval base during World War II. My purpose was to write an article for the Belfast Telegraph, which in those days employed me as a special features writer to invest my time and the newspaper's money in the Northwest trek to try to find a Christmas spirit of goodwill to men (and women). The journey itself, as I recall, was not unlike that of T. S. Eli ot's "Magi" - "the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter."

The Derry people, as always, were warm and hospitable. But, try as I might, it was not easy to find a sense of hope, much less the star of peace. The city had been disfigured by violence, and there was little prospect of an early cessation of hostilities.

My abiding memory is that of standing in the city square, just beneath its famous walls which make Derry one of the most historic walled cities in Europe. In front of me stood the magnificent town hall, or Guildhall, which itself had witnessed such turbulence, and just to the left was a tall Christmas tree. It had a wobbly star on the top, as if to symbolize the wobbly state of peace in that city. A banner which had been hung across the front of the Guildhall displayed a message which had more to do with

hope than reality - "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men." I looked at that banner sadly, put my pen and notebook away, and turned for home.

There were few silver linings in Derry, or elsewhere, that year, and it seemed that the dark clouds would last forever.

Recently, however, I returned to Derry on business, and the transformation has been remarkable. The streets are spruced up, open spaces have been landscaped, and there is a spirit of pride in the city. For the past 12 months, Derry has had a year-long celebration called Impact 92, during which it has shown the best of the city to the world, and to itself. There have been concerts, exhibitions, parades, and all kinds of shared community activities.

One of the most fascinating, to which I had been invited, was an international fashion show in the Guildhall, featuring some of the best textiles and styles from Northern Ireland. These included the products of two locally based subsidiaries of American companies, which had brought much-needed inward investment to the city. And as the fashion show began, a local man told me of an exciting Boston-Derry link which is also dedicated to bringing jobs and investment to this area of high unemployment.

The inside of the Guildhall was an impressive setting for such a colorful display of local beauty and creativity, and as the Derry audience applauded enthusiastically my mind went back to that Christmas of 20 years ago at "the very dead of winter." The reconstruction and peace which had seemed so impossible then had gradually taken root over the past two decades, and although there is still sporadic violence, Derry is a city that has changed for the better.

As I looked back on my reporting days when Derry was a war zone, I wondered if this city which has been so much the cockpit of Irish history could now be showing a better way to the rest of Northern Ireland.

The star on the top of the Guildhall Christmas tree will stand straight and shine more brightly this year. Twenty years on, I put away my notebook and pencil and set off for home, with a happier Christmas heart.

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