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On the right-hand side was an office, with yet another British flag fluttering atop it, and a sign announcing that this was a British border crossing and anyone crossing at this point was subject to passport and customs checks.
A soldier from a Scottish regiment approached the car in a friendly manner, his weapon resolutely pointed downwards.
“Where have you come from and where are you going?”
“We have driven up from Dublin and we are going to Derry.”
“What is the purpose of your trip, may I ask?”
“We are going to a wedding of a friend of mine.”
“Very good, drive carefully and have a nice day.”
The soldiers didn’t look at us as we passed, although the RUC men congregated around their Land Rovers did seem to scowl and glower. Nevertheless, I left the border crossing impressed with the friendliness of personnel on both sides. There had been no customs or passport check, and the men seemed primarily concerned with the ever-present terrorist threat. Still, I was glad to leave the British border point behind. I suppose, like many Irish, I feel distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of the Union Jack and the trappings of Great Britain.
We passed through the village of Aughnacloy and made good time after that, barrelling speedily through the sunny Northern Ireland morning. The roads weren’t busy. Everything seemed neater than in the South. We still travelled through agricultural land but the hedges were smaller. We could see the fields and the cattle grazing pastorally. I had always thought that members of the European Union must display distances on road signs in kilometers, but here the distances remained stubbornly in miles. The place names on the signs, names like Aughnacloy and Magharerafelt, sounded sort of Irish but not really. Many times I had heard those names on news reports of shootings and bombings. There was a guttural quality to them. Town names in Northern Ireland tend to sound Scottish Gaelic to my ear, rather than Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge). Place names in the South for the most part describe an area. For instance, the town of Emyvale in the ancient Irish Gaeilge is Scairbh na gCaorach which means, “a good place to cross a river with sheep.” A reasonable analogy would be the languages of North American indigenous nations which describe places such as “Buffalo Jump” or “Sticks-in-River” rather than just naming them.
About twenty minutes in from the border, as I came around a bend there were two white armoured RUC Land Rovers parked at angles across the road 50 metres ahead of me. Luckily I was within the speed limit of 40 miles per hour. It was a checkpoint manned jointly by RUC constables and the Ulster Defence Regiment, a British force often accused of collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries.
I stopped where the UDR trooper, in heavy camo, blackfaced and helmeted, holding out his left arm, indicated for me to stop. His right hand directed his self-loading rifle directly at me.
He made great drama out of looking at the registration plate on the front of my car, as if he had never seen a Southern registered vehicle before. I felt intimidated and uncomfortable before I’d even opened my window. He made a further drama out of looking at the insurance and tax tags on the windshield.
I rolled my window down, smiling weakly and trying to look relaxed as he approached.
He bent down and rested the muzzle of his weapon exactly where the Garda had laid his friendly hand less than an hour previously. He was pointing it directly at my chest.
“Where are you going, son?” he growled.
“We’re going to Derry,” I said as airily as I could.
(Now, in what follows, the subtext is that the city’s Old Irish name was Daire, which became Derry. When the British developed the area in the early 17th century they added the “London” prefix to remind them of home, or of the source of their monies. So, while Derry is still used, Londonderry is the official, and incidentally loyalist, name.)
“Where did you say you’re going, son?”
“Derry,” I repeated rather more weakly than I intended.
“That would be Londonderry, son,” he continued, pronouncing it Lontonderry.
“I was told it was Derry,” I rejoined, seizing my courage even though my mouth was dry.
“You were told wrong, son, it’s Lontonderry,” he pressed home his obvious advantage.
“Oh I see,” said I.
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