Our group was blessed again with another amazing guide. Jon McCourt is a former IRA member, current peacemaker. He told us story upon story as we walked along the top of the nearly 400 year old walls that surround the original part of Derry. The girls were tired from the previous day, and at times i wondered if they would make it with their level of interest intact.
First we learned about the historical aspects of Derry and the siege. Jon connected us with one of the members of the Apprentice Boys organization, a fraternity based on the original 13 who fought to save the walled city of Derry in late 1680s and early 1690. The Apprentice Boys current organization is somewhat like the Masons, as best I can tell. In the AB club, there are no girls allowed, no Catholics allowed, and a lot of rituals and ceremony. Their “lodge” is a drafty corner building inside the walls down from St. Columba’s.
What is most fascinating to me is that Jon coordinated an event for us with an unequivocally Protestant old boy’s club. It was a big deal that 14 girls were even allowed in (well 15, including me). The men’s restroom was labeled toilet (as all restrooms are here) and those of us who had to go to the bathroom were instructed to use the “disabled toilet.” Just think about that…
Later, I asked Jon about how we came to gain entrance and how he maneuvered that from the Other side. Through a series of shrugs and grins and snippets of reasons that couldn’t seem to make a coherent whole, i was left with the impression that Jon has had to work very hard to cross the divide in the hearts and minds if those different than himself. The relationship, too, between Jon and those Others he works with, is somewhat tenuous, but ongoing though effort, diplomacy and discretion. But make no mistake…Jon is a force to be reckoned with.
Jon is pragmatic, and passionate. I watched him come to terms with a number of issues…like lunch. He didn’t want to take us to the restaurant where we went because he didn’t want to patronize a loyalist restaurant, but it was the only one that would accommodate our large group quickly. But, he reasoned, the establishment employs Catholics. That made the situation acceptable if not ideal. Over lunch, Jon expressed (again) his distaste for standard commercial tour guides. “They just ride around, pointing at this, pointing at that, sayin’ this is what happened here, or what happened there. How can you sit in a coach and point at the street an’ say this is where Bloody Sunday happened??! I hate it…I jus’ hate it…” the trailed off, looked down with disdain, and went back to eating his lunch.
Jon was confident and ill at ease simultaneously, at least that is what I sensed at the eating establishment and the Apprentice Boys’ museum/lodge, and certain parts of the city. A tradesman of Peace, Jon measured his words twice, uttered them once. Or…sometimes not at all. There were some questions he indicated he would answer at the next part of the tour…and certain ones were never answered. I don’t know if anyone else noticed that but me… He carried himself tall (easy to do with his stature), looked over his shoulder, made direct eye contact and watched his mouth. Later, I would see a more candid side, but in front of the girls, Jon was 100% professional.
You have never heard about Bloody Sunday until you take a tour with This man. To be fair, outside of a U2 song, many US people don’t know much about that day, when 13 lives were taken in Derry, creating a ripple effect of violence and retribution. The Troubled times had already begun, the tensions were high, and the tolerance low. But negotiations were underway to help resolve the internment and discrimination issues related to jobs, voting rights, housing, etc. But on that day, the fragile negotiations going on behind the scenes would shatter like the lives and loves of Derry’s residents, as terror and violence escalated as a direct result if the massacre.
Jon was there when James Wray and 12 others were gunned down. Jon doesn’t just tell. He shows. Actual photos from the day. Dead bodies in black and white photocopy, sleeved in plastic sheet covers. The exact spot on the street where his people where fatally shot. He shows us a photo of a man wearing a black ski mask and carrying a machine gun. A member of the IRA. It’s a photo of Jon.
This is not historical report, lifted from a textbook or Wikipedia. This is how students should learn…there is something to be said for the role of the personal narrative in pedagogy. Jon relives Bloody Sunday every time he gives a tour, he confides in me over a smoke. He sees everything just as it was. I knew on a deep level that Bloody Sunday was like yesterday to him, and I was awestruck at his ability to relive this tragedy over and over again, sometimes several times each week. Jon said that the day he DOES NOT see that day clearly in his mind…the day he no longer relives it…he will quit. “It won’t mean anything anymore.”
I cried. A lot. I am fighting back tears as I write this. Crying over the tragedy, the direct quotes he remembers from the parents and friends of the slain young men. “my son!!” The outrage. I cried at the heartbreak and I cried seeing Jon’s face, with his furrowed brow and biting at his lower lip, as he tells us how he stood two or three feet from James Wray’s still warm body. Jon was not shot or killed that day…but only because a British soldier decided not to. They stood at point blank range. Jon looked at the soldiers face, then slowly his gun (mind you, 13 of his colleagues/friends are lying in pools of blood, dead, and another 15 are seriously injured at the hands of the British army in a mere 20some odd minute episode). That same soldier had just shot the unarmed but seriously injured Wray twice more. James was dead for sure, The solider looked at Jon, shrugged and walked away.
Jon fought with the IRA until he saw too many people die and “buried to many friends”
I was pretty sure that the apparent uneasy truce in these territories, were made largely with Big Jon…I wonder how the pivotal moments of his life lead him along his path. I suspect they all did. He is working on big projects, finishing raising the rest of his 9 children, and fighting the government in new ways now. People in Derry know Jon McCort. I’m privileged to say that I do, too, now.
You can find him down at Sandino’s just off Foyle…a little rougher around the edges. I know I did.