Operation Motorman was the code name given to a mission carried out by the British Army in the North of Ireland on July 31st, 1972. The goal was to forcibly reassert control over the Nationalist and Republican areas where they were not welcome with a particular focus in the cities of Derry and Belfast. In these cities, nearly impenetrable barricades had been erected in many neighborhoods barring any soldiers from entering or policing the communities. When the Provisional Irish Republican Army detonated more than twenty bombs in Belfast on July 21st of that year, the English government decided that the “No-go” areas in these towns would no longer be tolerated and Operation Motorman was born.
Last year on International Women’s Day I was in Derry, exploring the murals that were off the beaten path. I found many honoring the women of the area – including one that was painted in honor of International Women’s day itself. I find that looking through my pictures of them now is just as inspiring as it was then, and I think sharing my favorites on both sides of the puddle is especially powerful on today of all days.
Annette McGavigan was only eleven years old when the Troubles erupted in the North of Ireland. Her home was in Derry, one of the major flashpoints of the Troubles and a stronghold of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. She and the other children of the area witnessed more conflict than any child should within those first few years. She would have seen the British Army rolling into her city, bringing CS gas, rubber bullets, violence and protest with them. Riot after riot broke out and civil rights marches, anti-internment protests, and anti-police incidents were frequent and violent. These things probably became rather commonplace over the next few years for Annette and the other children who were growing up in areas like Creggan, Little Diamond, and the Bogside.
On Sept. 6th, 1971, when Annette was only fourteen, Catholic schools were closed in Derry. Teachers were taking part in a week-long anti-internment program. This left the schoolchildren with free time. Some joined the protests and riots and others stayed in. Once a small riot had ended on the edge of the Bogside, Annette and her friends went out to collect the leftovers of the violence. Children regularly gathered rubber bullets, gas canisters and more after each riot in Derry and this day off from school gave Annette the perfect opportunity to hunt for these dangerous souvenirs. As the young girl in a school uniform picked up an empty cartridge, a shot rang out. She likely never knew what hit her.
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.
My trip to Derry can’t be put into one post. There’s just too much to the city to compress it into one little tale and it is too special to me. It started when I bought a ticket to ‘Derry’ and the bus driver said he didn’t know where that was, but that he’d be happy to drive me to ‘Londonderry.’ This city is a complicated place, full of pride and controversy. Unlike it’s neighbors in the north, it has no towering, man-made “peace” walls, but it remains segregated and even its name is still hotly contested, as I learned that day. Its Loyalist population feels like its culture is under attack and being stripped away, just as they do in other parts of the region. This post is about their side of the river Foyle, in the town that many of them still call Londonderry.
Today would be Nelson Mandela’s 96th birthday. Once a warrior branded a terrorist, he then became the leader of South Africa and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He died while I was in Belfast, and people were leaving fresh flowers under his mural. Here’s a lovely picture of the mural, with the flowers underneath to celebrate today which is Nelson Mandela day.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”