The history of conflict in Northern Ireland is such that there has been a long and bitter disagreement over the name of one of its historic cities. The locals, a majority of them Catholics and nationalists, call it Derry, while Protestants and British loyalists call it Londonderry, the name introduced when the Crown planted London merchants along with English and Scottish Protestant settlers in the city and region in the 1600s to gain control. There has even been a court case over the name which began in the 1980s and did not end until 2007. The British high court ruled that city’s official name remains Londonderry.
Tourists and the wall
As tourists, we have been attracted by the six-metre stone walls surrounding the old city and built between 1613 and 1619. They remain among the finest such examples anywhere in Europe. Our guide on a walking tour is a man named Diarmaid, who wears a bright yellow rain jacket and speaks in a thick brogue. He is fond of saying “Nae (now) do ye understand me?”
1998 peace accord
Diarmaid strives impressively to put the best face on the city and asks us to act as goodwill ambassadors when we leave the tour. Yes, he says, there has been conflict but that is in the past. He emphasizes the peace accord reached in 1998 while Tony Blair was Britain’s prime minister. The Irish Republican Army agreed to lay down their arms and the Protestant loyalists finally agreed to share power with Catholics in Northern Ireland, which remains a part of Great Britain.
Diarmaid tells us that while some call the city Derry and others Londonderry, he prefers the name “LegenDerry.” By this time our group of about 20 is walking on the wall and Diarmaid is telling us about nearby Saint Columb’s, the Church of Ireland cathedral. Below us, on the outer side of the wall is a row of tenement houses fronted by some murals and a low rise barrier containing a defiant message written in block lettering. It reads: “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists Still Under Siege NO SURRENDER.” Later, I read that No Surrender was the slogan used by Protestant boys during a deadly siege of the city by a Catholic army in 1689.
As we look down into the Protestant neighbourhood, we see young men piling up scrap lumber in a vacant lot directly across from the tenements. I ask Diarmaid what they are doing and he tells us, somewhat reluctantly, that they are stockpiling the wood for the bonfires which they will light on the following day, July 12. Diarmaid explains that the day is Northern Ireland’s national holiday and it celebrates the military victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which helped ensure Protestant supremacy in Ireland.
The Orangemen’s Day celebrations feature marching bands, flag draped streets, parades, and bonfires. There have been attempts in recent years to turn it into family and even tourist friendly events. We had earlier asked the owner at our bed and breakfast if he would recommend that we stay in the city for an extra day to observe the festivities. He discouraged us, saying that while the parades are usually peaceful, the chance for violence does exist. “It’s nay an event for tourists,” he said and we took his advice.
Back on the city walls, a short stroll takes us around to a panoramic view of Bogside, the predominantly Roman Catholic neighbourhood which has been the scene of so much violence, including Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972. On that day British paratroopers fired upon a Catholic civil rights demonstration killing 13 people and injuring 14 others, one of whom later died.
The incident remained a source of competing claims and controversy for years until an inquiry by the British government reported in 2010 that none of the victims had posed any threat to the soldiers and that their shooting was without justification. British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized and his government announced that it would offer financial compensation to relatives of the victims.
The tenement walls in Bogside are adorned with large murals depicting Bloody Sunday and other violent events that occurred during what people here refer to as “the troubles.” One mural shows a man battering down a door with a sledge hammer, another is a youth carrying a Molotov cocktail and wearing a gas mask. There are also more hopeful murals portraying Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King and one which is a large, stylized peace dove.
Diarmaid says that the murals were created by a group of local artists working on their own and without commission or financial support from local or national governments. He says that these murals replaced others that were paramilitary in nature and he looks upon this as another indication of evolving efforts toward peace and tolerance.
After the tour ends, we walk down into Bogside neighbourhood to take photographs of the murals and to visit a monument to the victims of Blood Sunday along with another commemorating five young IRA hunger strikers who died in May and July of 1981.
The Bogside Artists
Later in the day we locate the modest studio of the three artists who created the Bogside murals. The studio walls contain smaller replicas of the outdoor murals, including one of firebrand politician Bernadette Devlin. Another is of a young schoolgirl in uniform who was caught in crossfire and killed on her way home from classes.
We talk with one of the artists. Picking up on Diarmaid’s theme, I ask if, given the peace accord signed in the 1990s, Derry and Northern Ireland have been able to turn the corner on the history of exclusion and violence. He pauses for some time before saying that despite any agreement negotiated among politicians, it takes a long time for the attitudes of people to change.