I arrived in Derry during a downpour, even though the sun was still peeking through the gathering storm clouds. By the end of the trip, I felt like the weather was a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Derry is rare. It is dark, but light pierces through it. It is grey but full of color. It is gathering and ready, but still and waiting. It is tragic and beautiful. Derry is a very special place.
Derry is one of the oldest settlements in Ireland, but it was mostly farmland and open space. It’s name is taken from the Irish word for Oak. The walls were raised in the late 17th century to keep the native Irish at bay while the English built and colonized the city, populating it with foreigners, Protestants, and England’s loyal supporters. The native Irish lost much of their land and sustenance, resulting in centuries of rebellion and a deep and lasting mistrust of England.
It is no surprise then, that Derry has always been a political challenge for the English. Partition set the borders of the country just a few miles outside the city and its proximity to the rest of Ireland made Derry a very unique place. After years and years of sectarian violence and discriminatory governments, it became the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. It also became a hotbed of paramilitary activity. It is the birthplace of the conflict known colloquially as the Troubles and the city suffered some of the worst atrocities of it too.
All of this I knew before entering the city, but nothing prepared me for being there. The iconic Free Derry corner stands proudly in the Bogside, surrounded by masterful murals designed to convey the history of the neighborhood in a harsh but palatable way for tourists. The Bloody Sunday and H block memorials are just steps away from the corner and both are tragic and beautiful. It is an area that has been carefully crafted to remember, to educate, and to tell the Bogside’s story. It is a powerful place. Standing on Free Derry Corner and watching an Irish Republic flag wave in the storm was an unforgettable experience.
The next day I went round to the Guildhall in order to meet up with the Bogside History Tour. While we waited for the walking tour to start, I got to chatting with Paul Doherty, the man who started these tours. His obvious passion for the city, his connection to Bloody Sunday, (his father was one of the innocent victims killed that day) and his gift of gab lured me into spontaneously signing up for a taxi tour scheduled after the walkabout ended. Walking in the steps of the anti-internment march that came to be forever known as Bloody Sunday and standing where so many were injured or killed is intense, especially when you’re about to take a long drive with one of their sons. Our tour guide explained the twelve murals that line the road, and pointed out some other plaques and memorials along the way, detailing many senseless tragedies of the area. I thought I might be wrung out by the time he was through, but I wasn’t done with the Bogside yet, and it wasn’t done with me. Paul picked me up in the cab and we were off.
I had scribbled in my notebook for the entire walk and I assumed I’d continue taking notes during the cab ride, but I failed again in being a good journalist and instead was an avid listener and an active participant in the journey. Paul and I talked almost the entire time because I was his only passenger. He quickly figured out that I was interested in the political past of Derry rather than the typical sights of it, and he tailored the ride to my preferences. Knowing I had just come from Belfast, he pointed out some of the other murals and memorials in the area and we talked about the long-standing rebelliousness of the city. As we drove through the hills, I couldn’t help but notice how much anti-English propaganda still remains, and how many Irish flags were flying. These increased even more as we got closer to the cemetery.
The cemetery might have the loudest voice in all of Derry, if you can hear it. It is full of fighters who participated in various uprisings and the Troubles, and countless others who paid the ultimate price during the long struggle for equality and identity. Hundreds of flagpoles stand throughout the cemetery, marking the graves of some who fought for Irish freedom. Still others are remembered in the Republican plot that fans out around a statue of Cú Chulainn, or in plots that don’t have obvious markings. Many innocent victims of the long years of unrest are buried here as well, including Paul’s father and others who were killed on Bloody Sunday. It is a cemetery that is militant and proud but still tragic and innocent. It is overwhelming and more than a little controversial. My new friend probably said it best after he explained the flagpoles on our walk and showed me the statues. “Hey, it’s controversial, but it’s who we are,” he said, with his hands out toward the cemetery. “You gotta own who you are.”
This is abundantly clear in Derry. They own who they are like nowhere else. There are memorials in every single neighborhood, either militant ones or those remembering loved ones who died innocently from a stray bullet or a brutal incident. The city’s long history has had lasting effects on the town itself and its strong population. It is a town of survivors, fighters, de facto educators, and wary compromise. It has had remarkable success in its transformation from Ground Zero of the Troubles to one of the lesser violent cities of the North, but the scars of that journey are everywhere. There’s no escaping the suffering that has occurred here, and perhaps because of those scars the fragile peace is sacred and celebrated.
The road has not been easy. The city is still licking its wounds and I get the distinct feeling that most in it are waiting for the other shoe to drop. I also get the feeling that they are more than ready for that to happen too. Derry has a stillness to it that is punctuated by the sound of flags waving, paint cans rattling, and the still echoing boots of the past. There’s a lot of noise and bustle in the city, but under it all, that silence and preparedness remains.
It hides its militarism somewhat well. There are no ugly peace walls and the readily-visible murals are brutal but educational. However, you don’t have to wander far on either side of the river Foyle (and the political divide) to find the others that are angry, sectarian, and what some would call dissident.
That said, Derry is tentatively and mostly peaceful. It has even tackled the parade season better than most – it comes off without as much retaliation, conflict, or damage as other areas of the North. But everything is relative and this is not to say that it doesn’t still have issues. I asked what would happen should a Protestant decide to move into Creggan or the Bogside and was answered with a very confused expression and a long pause, because the truth is that would simply not happen. The lines of segregation are still there in the city, even if they are more invisible than other cities in the region. The Peace bridge and the other cross-community sculptures are beautiful and indicate super positive steps but the underlying distrust remains, and it may not ever fade. Years of tragedy and unbalanced scales will do that to a place, and to its population.
Many guidebooks and tourism experts say that Derry can be done in a day, and I emphatically disagree. Sure, walking the walls can take only a few minutes, just like a stroll through the Bogside is quick, if all you want to do is snap a picture. The Tower Museum is not a great attention-grabber, but if you know nothing about the history of the town it is a good stop, and the Free Derry Museum will break your heart. You could do all of these things in a day, but you’d be cheating yourself. You’d get none of the amazing music at night and none of the nuance or the education that you can get just by walking or driving through the neighborhoods and the streets, especially if you do that with someone like Paul. If you want to get to know the town, Derry deserves a lot longer of a visit and it will likely steal a large part of your heart. It profoundly changed me and since the day I left I have felt a strange and stinging loss. There is only one thing that has rattled around in my head since that day and it’s a quote from the indomitable Bobby Sands who famously said, “Oh, I wish I was back home in Derry.”