Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ireland - Northern Road Trip - Londonderry/Derry

With only one day in Londonderry and so much to see and learn about the turbulent history of this city, our best bet was to take a guided walking tour.  In our earlier travels, we had learned that Ireland had been the battleground between the Irish and the English for centuries.  Ever since the Norman invasion in 1169, the country has endured multiple wars, rebellions, and sieges.  The conflicts between the two sides were not just territorial and political, but also religious in nature as the British settlers were Protestants while the Irish were primarily Roman Catholic.

In 1921, ending several years of intense fighting, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty established the "Free Ireland State" or Republic of Ireland, which included 23 southern counties plus 3 northern counties.  The predominantly Protestant population in Northern Ireland voted to become a separate state that remained part of the United Kingdom, leading to the partition of Ireland. This did not sit well with the Catholic Irish Nationalists who longed for a reunified Ireland, free from British rule.  As a result, tensions and unrest were always simmering between the two groups through the years, culminating in the period of riots and violence known as "The Troubles" that lasted from the late 1960s through to the 1990s.

Londonderry was often right in the centre of these conflicts, as illustrated by the ongoing debate over the city's proper name.  Since the 6th Century, the city was named Derry (meaning oak grove) by the Irish.  When Derry was captured by the British in the early 1600s, it was renamed to Londonderry in honour of the wealthy London businessmen who paid 10,000 pounds to build defensive walls to surround the city.  It remains in dispute to this day which one is the true and proper name.  Despite the legal name of the city being Londonderry, many Irish Nationalists still refer to the city as Derry, as noted on some road signs, maps and other references including Wikipedia.

Londonderry is the only city in Ireland whose original city walls remain completely intact, forming a one mile walking path around the enclosed inner city.  There are four main gates (Butcher's Gate, Bishop's Gate, Ferryquay Gate and Shipquay Gate) lead in from the North, South, East and West ends of the outer city.  A road traverses from each gate into a central area called "The Diamond", which is considered the heart of the city.  Three additional gates (Castle, Magazine, and New Gates) were added in the late 1700 to mid 1800s.

The walled city is nicknamed the "Maiden City" because it is one of the few cities in Europe whose fortifications were never breached despite multiple sieges and attacks.  Sitting prominently on the wall is a cannon nicknamed "Roaring Meg" due to the ferocious sound made when it was fired during the Siege of Derry in 1689.  As the Catholic army supporting King James II (called the Jacobites) approached the city walls, 13 apprentice boys ran out and locked the doors at Bishop's Gate.  This led the Jacobites to lay an unsuccessful 105 day siege against William of Orange's Protestant defenders, who held steadfast with the battle cry "No Surrender".

The St. Columb Cathedral is an Anglican Protestant church that sits on the highest point within the city walls and was used as a base to defend the city during the Siege of Derry.  St. Columb still possesses documents dating back to that siege as well as the original keys to the city.  At the centre of "The Diamond", a war memorial was erected, dedicated to the citizens of Londonderry who lost their lives during World War I.  Across from it, the Edwardian-styled, five-storey Austins Department Store dates back to 1830 and is the world's oldest independent department store.
Just north of the Diamond is the Guildhall where elected members of the Derry City Council meet.  Built in 1890, it is noted for its beautiful facade and its clock tower.  The building was bombed several times in terror attacks in 1972 during the Troubles and was restored in 1977.

The most interesting part of the walking tour and the main reason to visit Derry/Londonderry was of course to hear about the Troubles and to see the famous murals.  We heard that while Northern Ireland is about 70% Protestant, the city of Londonderry is over 90% Catholic.  The Catholics mostly live on the west side of the River Foyne, called the "City Side" while most of the Protestants migrated to the east side of the river, called the "Water Side".  The one exception on the City Side is a small set of streets in an area known as "The Fountain" where a Protestant enclave resides.  The ancient city walls lie just north of the Fountain with no residential homes within the inner city.  Immediately north-east of the inner city is a Catholic area known as "The Bogside", which was ground-zero for the Troubles, and where the famous commemorative murals can be found today.

The Troubles began in October 1968 when the Catholics staged a peaceful march in Londonderry to protest discrimination against them in terms of public housing, jobs and votes.  It should have been 1 man-1 vote but through gerrymandering (political manipulation of boundaries), the Protestants kept power by linking votes to property, which the they held more of.  When the police officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) confronted the crowd of several hundred with batons and water cannons, this sparked riots and fighting that would continue through thirty years of conflict.  This violence would eventually involve the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and would spread across Northern Ireland, especially to Belfast which became another battle hotspot.  

Of historic note within Londonderry were the Battle of the Bogside, a 3 day riot in August 1969 between the Bogside residents and the RUC, resulting in the British Army intervening and leading to 38 years of British rule over Northern Ireland.  The other event of note in Londonderry was Bloody Sunday or the Bogside Massacre which occurred on January 30, 1972, where British soldiers shot 26 unarmed people during a protest march, killing 14.  Known as the "People's Gallery", giant murals painted on the sides of houses and buildings throughout the Bogside provide powerful and poignant reminders of the tragedies and travesties that happened there over the years.

The fighting intensified on both sides as the I.R.A. and Protestant paramilitary groups initiated bombings and other acts of terrorism.  Continuing until the 1990s, over 3000 people died as a result of this "civil war".  In the early 1990s the IRA called a ceasefire and allowed their political arm, the Sinn Fein, to join in peace talks with the British and Irish governments.  However because of mistrust and conflicting agendas on all sides, it took until 2010 before terms could be negotiated for an Independent Northern Ireland government that would be jointly run by Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists and Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Fein.  
Our tour guide tried to tell us how peace had finally been achieved and that Northern Ireland now was all one big happy family.  As proof, he told us the following points:  In 2010 after a second inquiry, it was concluded that the British killed innocent people during Bloody Sunday and Prime Minister Cameron apologized on behalf of the U.K., providing closure for the Bogside community.  At the reopening of the First Derry Presbyterian Church in 2011, both Irish Roman Catholic and Anglican Church of Ireland bishops (Seamus Hegarty and Ken Good respectively) attended the dedication ceremony in a show of religious harmony.  He pointed to the Bogside Murals and showed us the one of the "Dove of Peace" that was jointly inspired by Catholic and Protestant school children.  He also explained about the mural called "The Death of Innocence", of 14 year old Annette McGavigan who was caught in the crossfire, shot in the head and killed in 1971. The mural originally had an unfinished butterfly and a rifle.  In 2006, to signal that the peace talks were advancing, the artist coloured in the butterfly and redrew the rifle so that it was broken in two pieces.  And finally the tour guide described the "Hands Across the Divide" sculpture by Maurice Harron which depicts representatives of the two factions reaching out to each other in a gesture of conciliation.
After the walking tour, we wandered into the Protestant Fountain area and the Catholic Bogside. What we saw made us question how solid and lasting this peace actually was.  The Fountain streets flew flags of the British Union Jack, with the curbs and street posts painted in the red, white and blue colours of that flag.  The Protestants displayed their own version of protest murals including one that once again invoked the Siege of Derry battle cry "No Surrender".  In the Bogside, we found the Irish flag flying, utility boxes painted in the green, white and orange flag colours, graffiti hailing the I.R.A. and provocative signs declaring "End of British Internment" and "Ireland Unfree Shall Never Be At Peace".  

Tall green fencing, called "Peace Walls" were erected in 1969 during the Troubles and acted as border barriers to keep the warring sides apart.  It is interesting that they still stand today.  On part of the City Walls facing the Bogside neighbourhood, large graffiti scrawls declare "End British Internment".
It certainly doesn't seem like these two sides have come together in compromise and given up on their individual ideals.  This feels like a boiling pot whose lid is shaking and about to tip over and it would not take much to light a spark and have all the bad blood reignite.  In fact, I found a blog post from 2014 that described the Catholic and Anglican (Ken Good again!) bishops of Londonderry issuing a joint peace plea ... years after peace was supposedly already achieved!
Descending a steep grassy slope from the City Walls, we entered into the Bogside.  The first thing that we saw was a huge sign declaring "You Are Now Entering FREE DERRY", with an Irish flag flying on top of it.  Walking along Rossville Street, we were able to get a closer look at some of the murals that we spotted from up on the walls during our walking tour.  The twelve murals comprising the People's Gallery were painted between 1994 to 2008 by the "Bogside Artists", brothers Tom and William Kelly and their friend Kevin Hasson.  The Civil Rights mural commemorates the initial peaceful demonstration in October 1968, before the clashes with police started the Troubles.  The signs held in the mural read "One Man One Vote" and "Jobs Not Creed".  The Petro Bomber mural depicts a young Bogside boy wearing a gas mask while holding a petro bomb made from a milk bottle during the Battle of the Bogside.   

The Motorman mural recalls Operation Motorman, a British military operation that occurred in July 1972 when thousands of British troops in tanks, armoured cars and bulldozers descended upon the Bogside, tearing down barricades in an attempt to regain control of the territory.   The image of a soldier bashing down a door with a sledge hammer conveys the "ferocity of the onslaught".  The Runner mural shows youths running in panic after a cannister of CS gas was fired.  The Bloody Sunday mural depicts the events of January 30, 1972 when the British army killed 14 demonstrators. The mural shows a group of men carrying away a victim, while at their feet lies the bloodstained civil rights banner that the marchers were carrying.

Wandering further into the residential streets of the Bogside, we saw many other examples of murals and graffiti that were not officially part of the People's Gallery paintings.  A mural with the slogan "The Spirit of Freedom" depicts the Irish Republican prisoners who have participated in hunger strikes over the years, including ten who died in the Maze Prison.  A roughly drawn graffiti image shows a soldier with "Impunity" written on his back pointing a rifle at a blindfolded old woman with "Martyrs' Families" written across her chest.  There were also a couple of reproductions of famous paintings commenting on war, but with modern touches added to them including Francisco Goya's The 3rd of May. Pablo Picasso's Guernica is depicted with war planes flying overhead dropping bombs.

Our overnight accommodations in Londonderry was not quite as elegant and regal as our stay in Bantry House in Bantry, Ireland, and did not provide the spectacular view of the mountains and lake, but Troy Hall definitely ranked as number 2 in terms of places to stay.  Built in 1897, the Victorian-styled manor has a gorgeous red brick facade, decorative chimneys, large bay windows, balconies, gable details, and a turret.  The house was split into two halves with the East wing being a privately owned residence and the West wing has been converted into a Bed and Breakfast establishment.

Named the "Belmont Suite", our enormous room was originally the master bedroom of the house, with a king-sized bed, a small alcove with a desk facing a bay window and a larger alcove that was used to create a sitting area.  We were provided plush bathrobes and slippers as well as complimentary tea and cookies.  The ensuite bathroom had a huge walk-in shower with a rain shower head that was heavenly.

The view from our bedroom window overlooked the pretty garden and patio area.  At breakfast, we were seated in our own private nook that was probably part of the turret.  The best part of this stay was the extremely reasonable price of 82 pounds a night for the privilege of staying this such a beautiful place.  This was almost half the cost of one night at Bantry House, and would have been even cheaper in comparison if both accommodations had been in the same currency.

Our stay in Londonderry was extremely entertaining and informative, as we learned much more about the recent tumultuous history of Northern Ireland.  Being able to walk through both the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods gave us deeper insight into the mindsets of the two sides.  While Belfast would have provided a similar experience, I'm glad we chose Derry/Londonderry, where the Troubles first started.

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