Derry, an ancient and storied town on the extreme western edge of County Derry, Northern Ireland is a border town with a border mentality.
I love Derry because of its literary and historical position on this island, and I think that if you really want to understand Ireland you have to, in some way, come to understand Derry.
Back in the U.S. I teach a course on the literary responses to the Irish Troubles with my friend and colleague, David Hicks. Derry, because of its literary and political history, plays a significant role in the course so I was excited last weekend to take the Regis students and my family to Derry for the weekend.
The old city of Derry sits on a high hill overlooking the River Foyle and its seventeenth-century walls are still intact, so you can walk the perimeter of the old city and gaze down at the picturesque Foyle river valley below the city.
Derry is a plantation city that was established by James I in 1613 to essentially provide London with a plentitude of Northern Ireland’s natural resources like salmon and timber. James called the town Londonderry and if you are loyal or sympathetic to the Crown you would, to this day, refer to Derry as Londonderry. If you are Catholic or a nationalist you drop the London and call it Derry. The road signs outside of the city read “Londonderry” although, as is the case with many of the signs, they have been defaced so they read “Londonderry.”
Two years ago, when David Hicks and I took the train from Belfast to Derry, the conductor would switch back and forth between saying, “This is the train for Derry,” and “This is the train for Londonderry.” Even the train tables referred to the town as both Derry and Londonderry. That’s just to say that the city is so politically and culturally fraught that even the name illustrates its conflicted past.
In 1689, one of the more dramatic scenes of Irish history (and there are many) took place here in Derry. James II, a Catholic, took over the English throne and subsequently invaded Ireland. This was good news for the Catholics, who were a political minority on the island and very bad news for the Protestants, who controlled the island. James’ forces sailed down the Lough Foyle and laid siege to Derry. The gates of the city were shut in December of 1688, the siege began in earnest in April of 1689 and it was finally broken in July of 1689.
The breaking of the siege of Derry is to (some) Protestants in Northern Ireland as the battle of Gettysburg was to the Union army in the American Civil War and the battle of Stalingrad was to the Russians in WWII and the end of the siege of Derry is still celebrated every August in Northern Ireland.
The best way, perhaps, for an American to understand the modern town of Derry in Northern Ireland is to imagine this scenario.
It’s April 1865 and you are one of the many abolitionists living in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Confederacy has won the Civil War and the new political border that’s been drawn to separate the United States from the Confederacy runs west along the Ohio River and then just a before Cincinnati, the border juts northward and wraps around the northern side of the city and then continues westward. Cincinnati, a solidly Union town during the war, becomes a Confederate city and you find yourself a member of a nation to which you are radically opposed.
What’s more, the town of Cincinnati remains solidly supportive of the Union. A full 2/3 of the citizens of Cincinnati remain loyal to the Union. However, the new Confederate government redraws the district voting lines so that that Union supporters can never win back political control of the city. As a result, the 1/3 of the population of the city loyal to the Confederacy controls the judicial, legislative and executive decisions for years to come.
This fictional scenario is not dissimilar to what actually happened to Derry.
In 1920, a year before the end of the Irish War for Independence, the Government of Ireland Act created a political border in Ireland that separated the six northern counties from the other 26 counties on the island. (See the map below for the full visual effect.) This didn’t cause too much of a stir until after the Irish won the War for Independence and the six northern counties were given the choice of joining the Irish Free State or aligning themselves with Great Britain. They chose the latter, of course, and set in motion a century’s worth of trouble and conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the six northern counties.
The six northern counties choose to go with Britain because the majority of its citizens were loyal to the Crown. This was not the case, though, in Derry, where 2/3 of the inhabitants were Catholic and would have preferred to align with the Irish Free State. To make matters worse, the Unionists in Derry (who made up less than 1/3 of the population of the city) set up judicial, administrative and legislative norms and practices that discriminated against Catholics who, as a result of the institutional discrimination, found it difficult to find housing, jobs and a decent education.
I should say, too, that it’s easy to characterize the Protestants of Northern Ireland as intolerant and unjust but that position it mostly unfair. Protestants in Northern Ireland aren’t any better or worse than people anywhere else. Their loyalties and their culture has, for centuries, been associated with Great Britain so it makes sense that a majority of them chose to maintain those ties. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland some very bad actors on both sides had their way and basically held the entire region under the sway of their cultural and ideological demands.
When you stand on the west side of the old city of Derry, you can look across the Foyle River onto the green, rolling hills of County Donegal, the extreme northwest county of the Republic of Ireland. For centuries Counties Donegal and Derry had more in common than not and aside from the political border that separates them, they are still nearly indistinguishable. Imagine, if you can, what it might have felt like to be a Catholic and a supporter of a united Ireland and to stand on those ancient walls realizing that your gaze fell on soil that didn’t discriminate against you because of your faith tradition. It wouldn’t have been unlike the fictional abolitionists of my scenario above looking across the Ohio River at the Union state of Ohio.
Things simmered in Derry throughout the 40s and 50s and then at the end of the 1960s, they came to a boil. The situation for Catholics in Derry for most of the twentieth century was not much different from that of blacks in the American south prior to (and after) the American Civil Rights movement.
Catholics and Protestants in Derry and Belfast joined together to begin a civil rights movement modeled after the American Civil Rights movement, but violence erupted on the streets pretty consistently and it all culminating in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1972 (the historical basis of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday). At that point, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement effectively died and the militant wing of the IRA, the Provos, basically took over. The whole country, then, devolved into 25 years of communal and state-sponsored violence that simply devastated Northern Ireland.
Nothing good came of all this violence (nothing ever does). Even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the IRA didn’t secure a united Ireland–the very thing it had been waging war for 30 years. But, there were a number of literary figures that chronicled these dark times in thoughtful and lucid ways. Ireland’s greatest poet, Seamus Heaney, hailed from County Derry and attended St. Columb’s College (it’s a high school) in Derry city. Many of Heaney’s most profound poems use the Troubles as foreground and background and it’s safe to say that reading Heaney’s generous and humanistic poetry about the Troubles is one of the best ways to understand that dark period. One of Northern Ireland’s greatest politicians, John Hume, is a Derry man as is the writer and critic Seamus Deane. The same goes for the great Irish playwright, Brian Friel, who was born in County Donegal and who wrote a number of plays that take up the topic of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Deane and Friel were the creative forces behind the Field Day project, a literary and historical movement committed to viewing the Troubles through a nationalistic and post-colonial framework.
Halfway between the old city walls and the River Foyle is a neighborhood called the Bogside, so named because the land was reclaimed from the Foyle before houses began cropping up in the area. The Bogside is the working class, Catholic and nationalist neighborhood of Derry where much of the communal and State-sponsored trouble took place in the later part of the twentieth century. The Bogside is unique for its many public murals which have become sites of public memory regarding the Troubles and the 30 years of conflict that transpired there.
If you ever have a chance to visit Derry, you must visit the Free Derry Museum. When we visited Derry last weekend, the museum had just opened so I was excited to be one of the first patrons. I’ve visited a lot of museums over the course of our past ten months of our journey and I’d say the Free Derry Museum was one of my favorite. It’s collection mostly commemorates the horrible events of 30 January 1972, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday and there are artifacts and video footage of the massacre that I had never seen so I found the whole experience moving.
Derry is a complicated city and in a short blog post I can’t do justice to the historical and cultural circumstances that have gone into making it the city it is today. If you are interested in learning more about Derry, I suggest reading Eamon McCann’s War in an Irish Town, Seamus Heaney’s early poems, my friend Andrew Auge’s very good book on Irish poetry, A Chastened Communion or Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows On Our Skin. And, by all means, if you ever find yourself in Ireland, take the time to visit Derry.
On our final day in Derry, we woke up early and walked the perimeter of the old city walls. The children brought along the kites they made the previous day and flew them as they walked the walls. Children flying kites on militarized walls. I can’t think of a better image.