Sunday, 3 April 2011
Omagh - my town
I grew up in Omagh and to varying degrees I’ve always loved it. When you’re young, you can’t wait to get away from your home town, especially if you see it as a small, non-metropolitan place. Then as you get older, you swing full circle and find yourself drawn more and more to the place of your roots.
I was back in Omagh on Saturday last to take part in the half-marathon. It was a visit rich in contrasts. As we approached the town in the late morning, there was a diversion; a car had crashed further up the road. So we called over a police officer and asked her which way we should head for the big run. Unlike in the old days, when the cop leaned in with a gun and demanded to know where you were going and why, we asked the questions and she responded. Police service as opposed to police force.
The route of the race took us through the town centre and down Market Street. Past the once-barber’s where I used to be sent for a short back-and-sides every fortnight, past the once-cinema where I went every week regardless of the film, past the spot on the pavement where I finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl – no, not a girl, a goddess – for a date. All of these had been within seconds of the seat of the 1998 bomb. Then, crowds of people running, stumbling, chaos and death everywhere. On Saturday, crowds of people running, clapping, laughing. As the route for the run took us out in loops around the town, it took us past the house where, although we didn’t know it at the time, the young policeman called Ronan Kerr lived.
After the race we got tea and sandwiches and scones and pastries in the Leisure Centre. In 1998 the Leisure Centre was the place where dozens of people waited for hours to hear news of the injury or death of loved ones. On Saturday, it was full of happy, confident people. Beside me a man was busy feeding twins - exquisite eight-month-olds - in a double buggy, smiling and talking to them as he adjusted their bottles. Their names, he told me, were Meabh and Muireann. Over his left shoulder I could see a woman wearing an athletic top that said ‘Gaeilge4mothers’. How at ease fathers are with their role now, I thought, compared to forty years ago; and how at ease northern nationalists/republicans are about their culture and identity. No more hiding the Irish News if you’re walking in the centre of Belfast. And I thought of the twins in the womb in 1998 who, if they’d had a chance at life, would have been twelve years old and probably part of the town’s Big Run day.
Then, the food scoffed and the tea gulped, the speeches made and the awards distributed (yes of course I was robbed), we left the Leisure Centre, got into our car and drove back to Belfast. At almost exactly the same time – although we didn’t know it until several hours later – PC Ronan Kerr left the house where he lived, got into his car and turned on the ignition.
On Sunday, The News of the World , Martin McGuinness and a number of others politicians said the people who killed young Kerr were completely out of touch with reality. It depends on how you see reality. Dissidents believe the Good Friday Agreement is a cul-de-sac so they are determined to drive the Irish people out of it. They’re convinced that next time a young Catholic man or woman considers joining the PSNI, he or she will remember PC Ronan Kerr and think again. In contrast, most Irish people are convinced the Good Friday Agreement has set us on a broad road to reunification where respect and acceptance are the guiding principles.
Which reality prevails, we must wait and see.