Writing a blog is challenging because it requires a certain amount of downtime, but when you’re in a cool place for a short amount of time, downtime gets harder and harder to find. I’m sorry for the delay.
So on July 28, we took a field trip to Derry/Londonderry, which has recently been labeled “Stroke City” due to the way people pronounce Derry/Londonderry (Derry Stroke Londonderry). This has been a contested issue between nationalists and unionists – unionists typically preferring Londonderry and nationalists typically preferring Derry. Just a small disclaimer: in this blog post, I will be calling the city Derry because it is much shorter to type than Derry/Londonderry – not because I wish to join in on the naming dispute.
We started on the east side of the River Foyle, then crossed the Peace Bridge to the western part of the city.
In the early 1600s, the wall in Derry was built to protect from English and Scottish settlers, but the city is now much bigger than the confines of the wall. This is a picture that I found that shows the walled part of the city within the greater Derry area. I don’t know what the copyright laws are with a blog, but I found this picture on citysightseeingderry.com
We visited St. Columb’s Cathedral, which is the oldest remaining building in Derry; construction started in 1628. They have regimental flags hanging inside the cathedral. It is customary to leave the flags up until they drop, so some of the flags in there are from the 18th century, which was very surprising to me. It seems that preservation usually tops tradition.
After St. Columb’s, we walked along the wall for a little while, then down to the street where the march against internment from Bloody Sunday took place. The building structure and city layout has changed quite drastically, so it was hard to imagine what it would have looked like during the earlier parts of The Troubles. For example, we visited Free Derry corner where people often met for protests (including the one on Bloody Sunday), which used to be at the end of a big row of houses. Now the end wall is the only part still standing.
This is one of the most famous events from The Troubles because 13 people were killed and another 13 wounded by the British army during a civil rights march in 1972. At this time, there was a huge lack of trust between the police force in Northern Ireland (Royal Ulster Constabulary), British army, and Catholic population because members of the British Army and RUC were primarily protestant, so the validity of policing in Catholic areas was heavily questioned. IRA membership increased dramatically after Bloody Sunday. This is the event that inspired the famous U2 song Sunday Bloody Sunday
After Free Derry Corner, we went to the Free Derry Museum, which is all about Bloody Sunday. The man that showed us around the museum lost his brother on Bloody Sunday. It’s pretty well agreed that the British soldiers acted improperly, but the people running this museum feel that the soldiers should be tried for murder. That is why the museum is set up – to bring awareness to the misdeeds of the troops. I felt very strange at that museum because everyone felt so angry. The man who showed us around absolutely has the right to be upset, and I would be too if I were in his position, and I admire the fact that he is working hard for something that he believes in, but he was so, so angry. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone that was hurt during The Troubles just needs to get over it because grieving is necessary, but I think that the community of Northern Ireland needs to grieve together.
In Belfast at the Ulster Museum there is an incredible exhibit called Silent Testimony. This is a collection of 18 portraits of people who lost someone during The Troubles. The interesting part is that the descriptions next to each portrait don’t say who killed the person that they are grieving. It is 18 paintings of 18 people who are sad because they lost someone important to them, and I really think that is the only way that the peace process can move forward. There are protestant memorials for protestants who died during The Troubles and there are catholic memorials for catholics who died, but Silent Testimony is unique in that it reflects on people are still living, but have been affected by The Troubles without choosing a side. Until people can look at The Troubles as human loss, not protestant or catholic loss, I don’t know that anything will change. Here is a video that a friend of mine shared with me that shows the artist’s perspective on the exhibit
After lunch, we went to the Apprentice Boys Museum. The Apprentice Boys of Derry is an organization that every year commemorates how the Protestant Apprentice Boys closed the gates of Derry (then a Protestant stronghold) to protect themselves from a raid by Catholic King James II in 1689. Every year, the Apprentice Boys have a parade in Derry with lots of bands. It is sort of like the Orange Order parades in July in Belfast, but smaller and not as “troublesome.” It was an interesting museum. Very one-sided, just like the Free Derry Museum. What struck me about the irony of the Apprentice Boys organization was that technically the apprentice boys were committing an act of treason in 1689 by closing the gates on King James, but now they are loyal to the crown… One of the biggest questions now is how relevant are these parades? 1689 was over 300 years ago. Is it still relevant to celebrate these events? Some say no, but look at America. We still celebrate the 4th of July. France still celebrates Bastille Day, and to suggest that we should get rid of these celebrations would not go over well, but the U.S. and France don’t have the sharp divide that Northern Ireland does. It’s interesting to think about. Derry was a fascinating city, but I felt like we were quite rushed. I’d love to go back.