THE LOST GIRLS
It was an annual ritual in the school. Sometime after Easter the Year Head had to organise a day out for his or her students. In the past we had gone to places like Dublin, Clare, Mayo or Kilkenny. But that year I got the bright idea of bringing them to Belfast during one of the ceasefires of the 1990’s. The students were thrilled at the prospect of going to a “foreign” country, as they saw it. Some of the staff thought I was mad. “Belfast”, they said, “are you serious? What about all the shootings, the hijackings, the explosions?” “There’s a ceasefire”, I said, “the Provos have promised to behave themselves and besides isn’t it time our students learned something about the North? These are meant to be educational tours.”
The biggest problem was getting a bus. “You want to go to Belfast and back in the one day” they queried. “Do you not realise it will take at least 4 hours to get there from Glen”. “I know”, I said, “that’s why we want to leave at 6am”. Eventually Moran’s Coaches agreed to transport the group of 50 but no more they said. “We are only licensed to take 53 passengers and we don’t want any trouble from the police up there.”
Next morning 50 teenagers and 3 teachers gathered in front of the school in a hazy fog and waited for our transport. When the venerable bus arrived the driver told us he had never been north of the Border so we assured him we knew what we were doing and where we were going, which was almost true. So off we set in the dark with a bus full of very sleepy students winding our way through secondary roads to Roscommon, Longford, Cavan and over to Dundalk where we had a pit stop before crossing the Border. By then hunger had set in so we invaded a petrol station and stripped it bare of breakfast rolls, sandwiches, biscuits, crisps, fizzy drinks and anything that was edible.
Our first visit north of the Border was to the Ulster Folk and Transport museum at Cultra which I loved but the kids were less enthusiastic about. “It’s full of old houses and old trains”, they told me. “When can we go shopping?”
On reaching Belfast city we met up with a local guide I had previously contacted and he brought us around some of the areas made notorious by the Troubles – areas bedecked with Union Jacks, red and white bunting and wall murals, bombed out sites and heavily fortified police barracks. We saw Shankill and loyalist Sandy Row, the Falls Road and Divis Flats, we saw Peace Walls dividing streets and gable ends with images of King Billy and Bobby Sands, tributes to the Provos and the UVF, commemorations of 1690 and 1916. Safely ensconced on the bus we gazed in wonder at all the familiar names and places as black taxis whizzed by us.
After that we drove to the docks to see where the Titanic was built but there was little to see that year as the now famous Titanic Quarter was only in the planning stages. Next we went ice skating in Dundonald and all the energy that was built up during the day was quickly expended as our teens took to the ice like ducks to water.
Throughout the day a recurring question was “When are we going shopping”. In truth none of the adults knew anything about shopping in Belfast but I remembered seeing ads on Ulster TV for the Castlecourt Shopping Centre so we decided to go there. After asking directions several times we finally found it – a large enclosed shopping centre in the heart of Belfast. The problem with stopping however was security restrictions on parking so we had to leave the bus several streets away and walk the students to the entrance.
We got there at 5pm and discovered that it closed at 6pm. So, after telling our students to be back at the bus by 6.15 they scattered in all directions, totally oblivious to traffic and the bustle of city life. The priority for the staff was to get something to eat whereas the students wanted to spend all the sterling burning holes in their pockets.
Back at the bus at 6.20 we did the usual headcount: 45 – 46 – 47 – 48. “Who’s missing?” we asked. After much discussion we were told that it was Margaret and Karen – Margaret we knew would get lost crossing the street but Karen was smart so we weren’t unduly worried. However when they had failed to return by 6.45 we walked back to Castlecourt and found it completely deserted except for cleaners and security people. We asked them if they had seen 2 girls wandering around but nobody had. We searched high and low. We went into the toilets. We tried all the shops. There was no sign of them anywhere in the complex.
Then we started looking outside having discovered that apart from the main entrance there were 3 other exits. The streets were completely deserted. Not a soul was to be seen anywhere. It was eerie and frightening. It was as if the entire population had disappeared. Clearly this was another legacy of the troubles – a voluntary curfew. People did not feel safe on the streets as dark approached. It reminded me of the deserted streets of Irish towns on a Sunday before shopping became the new religion and leisure activity.
It was now 7.15 now and after a further search we returned to the bus in the hope that the wanderers had returned in our absence. They hadn’t.
Panic started to set in. Where were they? What should we do? Had they been kidnapped? How would we break the news to their parents that we had lost them? Should we call the police? It’s worth remembering that these events happened before mobile phone became popular so we had no way of contacting the students.
What could we do but return to Castlecourt again, urging the bus driver to keep all his passengers on the bus till we came back. How could this be happening to us? The younger staff members were frightened. Where were these thirteen-year olds?
Now a new problem arose. Castlecourt was being closed and sealed off for the night. We found a security guard who was about to lock up. “Did you see 2 girls?” we asked. “Oh yes” he replied “I found 2 wee, frightened young ones at the back entrance. They were very upset. Something about not being able to find their bus”. “So where are they?” I asked. “Gone off with the RUC. I called the police and they took them off in the back of one of them armed Land Rovers.”
Our relief was palpable. Gerry Adams and his Armalite friends might not be fond of the RUC but at that moment they were our saviours. So we headed back to the bus once again and just as we rounded the corner we saw the police Land Rover pull away. Two tearful girls told us of their ordeal, how they had left Castlecourt from a back entrance, had walked in the wrong direction and realising that the bus was nowhere in sight retraced their footsteps back to Castlecourt where the 2 kind policemen had driven them around the streets until they finally located the “Irish” bus. All our anger and annoyance dissipated in their tears. They had been even more frightened than we were.
As we set off on our long journey home the atmosphere on the bus was very subdued. By the time we recrossed the border most of the students were fast asleep clutching the momentos of our day out in Belfast. The following year we decided to go to the Cliffs of Moher. Nothing could go wrong there – or could it?