“Londonderry or Derry?,” asked a friend of mine when he was off to the North of Ireland. It’s an age old question and I found myself a little stuck when it came to answering. “That depends” seemed to be the safest bet at the time. However, the next time either of us visit, the question may no longer be an issue since last week Derry city and the Strabane District Council voted in favor of formally losing the London prefix.
Derry’s name is derived from the word Daire or Doire, which means Oak Grove in Irish. The change happened in 1613 due to a royal charter granted by King James so legally it has been named Londonderry ever since. Throughout the years, many efforts to change it back have failed but the vote last week means another attempt will be made. Loyalists and Unionists are already in a uproar over the possibility, labeling the name change as sectarian and disgusting, even though the city has been known by its shortened (and original) name of Derry for years.
So why the uproar? There’s power in a name, even when it’s subtle. Legally, there’s a connection to the English written right into the name of the city. The King who granted the name change was not a Catholic and he had many policies that directly discriminated against those who were. Presbyterians and Protestants in the region have historically enjoyed financial and political power over the Catholic population for centuries because of their ties to the Crown and the name Londonderry is a reminder of that historical bond and superiority. Of course, if you follow that train of logic, the argument could be made that the royal decree in 1613 was actually the sectarian move.
To be fair, Loyalists and Unionists actually have been getting what they would call the short end of the stick since the Good Friday agreement. They have “lost” the seat of power they enjoyed for many years as the laws and elections balance out. They’ve watched as Sinn Fein gained enough seats to become a real threat and as the population grew weary of the same old rhetoric and business as usual. In recent years, Catholics outnumber Protestants in some areas for the first time ever, and if they all voted according to sectarian stereotype, it’d be disastrous for the hardline Protestant/Unionist political factions. (Just ignore the fact that there are Protestants who are Republicans and the Catholics who aren’t for now.) These turns of events are all very scary and have caused paranoid, stubborn, and extremist mentalities to flourish. Many take any difference or change as a personal attack and claim that their heritage is being wiped out. They think their under siege.They will never see these changes as progress toward true power sharing because they feel like they’re the only side who seems to lose or give anything up. The fact that they were the only ones with anything to give for centuries is beside the point.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have vowed to fight against the name change every step of the way. This is not the first time it has been attempted and it may not be the last but the city’s original name was Derry and to quote a passage from a novel by Jodi Picoult, “Just because you didn’t put a name to something did not mean it wasn’t there.” To say the name change isn’t political may not be true, but returning Derry to its roots is not a sectarian move, nor is it disgusting. Those who see it as such would do well to look in the mirror.