If this sounds like it came from a Tourist Information PR department, that’s because it did! One of the first things that one learns in Derry, Ireland is that there is some sensitivity around its name. The city, whose history goes back to the 6th century, was initially named Derry, but was later changed to Londonderry in the 17th century by the invading British. These days, driving into Derry, you are sure to see signs saying ‘Londonderry’ with the ‘London’ part covered with spray paint, a message from disgruntled Catholics.
Baby Boomers like me remember hearing about the conflict in Northern Ireland on the news on a daily basis for years. The situation never made any sense to me. Why would Protestants and Catholics be at war? Aren’t we all Christians? It took a visit to Ireland to put it all together.
In Dublin, we learned about the Easter 1916 uprising when a handful of patriots prepared a declaration of independence from England, not dissimilar from our American one in its intent. The patriots’ effort lacked sufficient support, leading to a failure of the uprising and executions of the ringleaders. It was their executions and subsequent martyrdom that created more widespread support, which led to a quest for independence from England and resulted in the Irish Civil War, between those who were in favor of a treaty of independence versus those who were not. The treaty eventually passed in 1922 and it declared all of Ireland, except six northern counties – who opposed the treaty — as a free state, eventually leading to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
The Siege and The Troubles – history brought to life in Derry
The polarized situation in Northern Ireland, long called “The Troubles” were not so clear in Dublin but made sense once we got to Derry and began to learn more. The roots of the twentieth century conflicts we know about go back to the early 17th century when the English defeated Gaelic (Irish) chieftains and took advantage of the power vacuum to create a plantation in the fertile grounds of Ireland’s north by sending Scots and Englishmen to settle there. The native Irish Catholics were banished to less fertile rocky and boggy lands farther south, while the Protestant residents built a city wall in Derry. The wall came in handy in December 1688 when the city was put under siege by Catholic King James II, a situation that continued until the following August when William of Orange was successful in liberating the city, eventually defeating James II for good at the Battle of Boyne near Dublin. Many legends of the victory of William of Orange over the James II and the Catholics continue to this day, including the Protestant rallying cry of ‘No Surrender’ and homage to the quick-thinking apprentices of the city’s guildsmen who locked the city gates to keep out the Catholics at the start of the 1688-89 siege. A thriving group of more than 8,000 Protestants in the area who call themselves The Apprentice Boys of Derry still parade every year in December to commemorate the locking of the gates and again in August celebrating the Relief from the Siege.
So, what happened to the native Irish Catholics after the British victory? With the country firmly under England’s control, their lives were difficult. Land was divided up among English favored by the throne, and the Irish farmed plots of land for exorbitant fees paid to British landowners. The Irish potato famine of 1846 to 1851 created a disaster for the Irish, who received little assistance from the landowners. At least a million Irish left the country by the boatful for America, Australia, and England on so-called “coffin ships”; many did not survive the journey.
Fast forward to the mid twentieth century. The Catholic Irish in Northern Ireland still struggled. They faced clear discrimination in access to education, housing, jobs, and voting rights. Over time, the Catholics became a majority of the population, but had little ability to improve their standing because the power still lay in the hands of the Protestant “Loyalists,” so called for their loyalty to the British throne.
In the mid-1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the Catholics in Derry asked the city council for permission to stage a peaceful demonstration. The request was denied. The demonstration went on as scheduled but was immediately stopped by the police, who arrested the protesters. Over time, more protests ensued with skirmishes between protesters and police erupting regularly. As the situation escalated, British military were brought in to keep the peace. Tension built and reached the boiling point on January 30, 1972, or Bloody Sunday, when 14 protesters were killed by British soldiers and 13 more were wounded. A subsequent inquiry by the British government that exonerated the soldiers was widely condemned as a whitewash by the families of the Bloody Sunday victims who continued to defend the innocence of their slain loved ones.
Finally, in 1998 the Good Friday Peace Agreement was reached, embracing a commitment to “the mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community.” A new inquiry into Bloody Sunday was launched, eventually resulting in a public apology in 2010 from British Prime Minister, David Cameron, calling the events of Bloody Sunday “unjustified and unjustifiable.” A healing process could begin.
Derry is now home to a thriving tourist trade which, several people told us, did not exist fifteen years ago. Much of the tourism in the city is focused on the city’s long and difficult history. The bogside has memorials to Bloody Sunday and a series of murals depicting events during The Troubles. Inside the city wall, St. Columb’s Cathedral and the Tower Museum focus more on the Protestant side.
Relief from the Siege Parade
We happened to be in town on the second Saturday in August, which is the day that The Apprentice Boys of Derry stage their annual Relief from the Siege parade. John and I went downtown and watched for a while as chapters of the group from various cities in the area marched in drum and fife bands, along with members who merely marched. More than 145 groups and an estimated 8,000 people participated. The parade we witnessed marked the 50th anniversary of the 1969 event when rioting erupted in “The Battle of the Bogside.” The parade we witnessed seemed peaceful enough, however, we later learned that there was one chapter of The Apprentice Boys who drew criticism for wearing armbands for “Soldier F”, an unnamed former British Army soldier who will face court hearings next month for killings on Bloody Sunday. This resulted in petrol bombs being thrown at police on Derry’s walls later that evening. We were still in town at the time but had no awareness of the bombings until after we left.
An afternoon at the pub
An old friend from my Atlanta years, Erin Johnston, was born in Derry, but has lived most of her life in the U.S. Her mom, Sadie, also a Derry native, moved back to Derry in the 1990s. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, John and I got together with Sadie, along with Marlon and Thomas, Sadie’s sister and brother-in-law, in the historic Paeder O’Donnell’s Pub. We had a wonderful time, sipping beer and visiting with them, learning more about Derry and laughing a lot. All three of them have lots of firsthand knowledge of the difficult years in Derry. Sadie participated in the Bloody Sunday demonstration, the precursor to the riots and shootings in January 1972, but left before the violence erupted. She also told us about a nephew, eleven years old at the time, who was killed by a buried landmine when he jumped out of a tree in his backyard, the landmine presumably left by the IRA. As she put it, no one was unaffected by the years of violence.
All three of these folks have a great sense of humor and joked about everything. Of the Derry coat of arms, which has an image of a skeleton on it to represent a Norman knight who was starved to death in a castle dungeon, Sadie’s comment was that it really represents a Catholic waiting to be given a job.
As I write this, there are more news reports of trouble in Northern Ireland related to support of “Soldier F,” creating distress for families of the Bloody Sunday victims. And what about Brexit? What effect will the eventual Brexit agreements have on Ireland? Only time will tell.