Monday, 26 March 2012

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Burt Castle, Castle Hill, Co. Donegal
[you'll spot this castle from the N13, between Letterkenny & Derry/Londonderry]
County Donegal might be in the North of Ireland but it's actually in the South,  however  just 20 miles from Letterkenny 'in the South', is the city of Londonderry 'in the North', one of the most beautifully situated cities in Ireland, on a hilltop overlooking the River Foyle.   
Like Belfast,  Derry has also undergone incredible regeneration in recent years. 

For decades, Londonderry's name has been the source of deeply rooted divisions & in recent years the city has been referred to as Londonderry / Derry  or  'Stroke City'.    
Known to the Unionists side of the city as Londonderry and to the Nationalists side as Derry, it became common to refer to the city as 'Derry-Stroke-Londonderry' or Londonderry-Stroke-Derry', so as to avoid offending either party.   The use of the word 'stroke' stemmed from the use of the 'forward slash' to separate the two names.   Interestingly, some of the city's inhabitants have embraced the unofficial name Stroke City, circumventing the linguistic minefield of Derry vs. Londonderry.

A defaced Londonderry road sign
Driving from South of the border you follow the signs for 'Derry' but once you're in the North they disappear and you see only signs for 'Londonderry'.      It's not surprising that some tourists wonder if it's the same place.   Once in Northern Ireland though, we see the 'London' bit of Londonderry painted out on the road signs & occassionally see that 'Derry' has suffered the same fate.

I wanted to learn & understand more about Derry's tumultuous history  & decided on heading to the Tourist Information Office on Foyle Street for advice on where to start. 

The City of Londonderry/Derry, Co. Londonderry/Derry
Custom Hall & Guildhall, Derry
Within 20mins we were sitting in a City Taxi driven by Aidan for a one hour tour which stretched into 2½ hours!   What can I say...  this was a truly captivating tour which gave us so much more insight into Derry's political struggles.  Aidan's knowledge of Derry's long history was mind-boggling & so absorbing.  Whether you have been to Derry City before or not, this is a tour that will open your eyes. 

The Peace Bridge spanning the River Foyles
The first stop on Aidan's tour was a bird's eye view from Eskaheen View in Gobnascale over in Waterside on the east side of the River.  From this vantage point, you can understand why the Island of Derry was chosen as such a strategic site by monks, chieftains, merchants & the English Crown.

St Columb's Cathedral, Londonderry/Derry

Built in 1633, St Columb's Cathedral can be seen towering majestically in the centre of the city.   As well as regular church services, it serves as a museum of the Siege of Derry, telling the remarkable story of how the Republican defenders held out for 15 weeks after the  Loyalist 'Apprentice Boys' seized the city keys and locked the gates against the Catholic besiegers. By the time the siege was finally lifted, a quarter of the 30,000 citizens inside the walls lay dead of starvation, disease or wounds.

The Apprentice Boys Mural, Unionist area, Waterside, Londonderry
From the hill top, overlooking the city, Aidan gave us an abridged lesson about Unionist & Nationalist history including the system of Plantation [colonisation], the Seige of Derry, Partition [the division of the island of Ireland into the Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland], as well as the modern conflicts.    We learnt about the the Peace Process & some of the numerous events that have occurred since the late 1980's.

Lamp post painted in the colours of the Union Jack, Londonderry
From here we drove through Catholic & Protestant areas of the Waterside, many of which displayed the Republican Tricolours & the Union Jack colours painted on kerbs & lamp post.      These displays of Nationalism & Unionism were clearly positioned so as to be seen by those outside a particular area.  Aidan tells us however, that there is a restrained peace pervading these areas now.    Peace is built slowly here.    It will take a long time to complete the journey from armed conflict to reconciliation.    But in Derry at least, people believe that it is time to move on.

Republican Tricolours painted on Lamp posts, Derry
Still in the Waterside area of the city, we see another mural, this one commemorating the death of Cecil McKnight, a loyalist &  member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who while a member of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) was shot dead in 1991 by the IRA).

Unionist Mural, Waterside, Londonderry

Next we drove into the Derry City Cemetery in the Bogside.  This felt a little macabre  because we arrived just as mourners were leaving the Cemetery.   The cemetery is situated high on the hill overlooking the city.  

City Cemetery, Londonderry/Derry
Entering from the Lone Moor Road entrance at the bottom of the hill we see all the big old Victorian mausoleums of old Derry protestant families, then move up past the distinctive British and Commonwealth servicemen’s gravestones to the upper section of the graveyard where stands a statue of the Celtic hero Cuchulainn, an Irish mythical figure & fierce warrior who, upon being wounded in battle, tied himself to a standing stone so  as to die on his feet.   On both sides of the memorial are the graves of Derry IRA members who were killed during the conflicts.  
Republican Row, City Cemetery, Derry
'Free Marian Price' graffiti message on the 400yr old stone wall that surrounds the historic centre of Derry
Finally, we head over to Rossville Street, the location of the Battle of the Bogside & Bloody Sunday, two significant events of 'The Troubles'.   Once a street known for scenes of protest, riots, and violence between Catholic nationalists & Protestant unionists, it is now a gallery of murals which provide a narrative of 'the Troubles' & attracts people from far & wide.    It's a far cry from when a young Republican muralist was shot dead in 1980, police saying they mistook his paintbrush for a gun.
Rossville Street Mural, The Bogside, Derry City
The murals stand large and passionate in dark blue, grey and black -- Bernadette Devlin in tight jeans hollering into a megaphone, a boy in a gas-mask clutching a petrol bomb, figures running and choking in clouds of tear gas.   Aidan our tour guide had vivid stories of what it meant to be a Bogsider in the 1970s, he himself had grown up in these very streets. 
Masked Petrol Bomber, The Bogside, Derry
The Petrol Bomber mural depicts some scenes from the 'Battle of the Bogside' which took place around Rossville Street in August 1969. The mural shows a young boy holding a petrol bomb & wearing a gas mask to protect himself from the gas used by the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary]

Annette McGavigan Mural, The Bogside, Derry
'The Death of Innocence' Mural is a portrait of 14-year-old Annette McGavigan who was  killed on 6 September 1971, the first child casualty in Derry.  She was shot dead by a British soldier while standing on the street in which she lived. The mural is close to the site where she died.    Our tour guide Aidan, knew Annette.  She lived just around the corner from him & went to the same school.

Bernadette Delvin Mural, The Bogside, Derry
The mural of Bernadette Devlin pays homage to the women of the Republican movement. Devlin played a leading role in the Battle of the Bogside and recovered from seven gunshot wounds after she and her husband were gunned down outside their home.   The mural depicts some scenes from the 'Battle of the Bogside' which took place in August 1969.     Bernadette McAliskey (Devlin at the time)  is depicted addressing the crowds on the streets of the Bogside.   She later received a prison sentence for taking part in, and inciting a riot.   The bin lid in the foreground of the painting, was used by women and children in Catholic areas throughout Northern Ireland to alert people of an impending raid by the British Army.

Bloody Sunday Mural, The Bogside, Derry
Perhaps one of the most sobering images in the area is The Bloody Sunday mural depicting an event that took place in Derry on 30 January 1972.   On this day the British Army opened fire on a Civil Rights demonstration and killed 14 people, seven of whom were teenagers.   This mural shows a group of men, led by a local Catholic priest Father Daly, carrying the body of 17 year old Jackie Duddy from the scene of the shooting.

Bloody Sunday Victims Mural, The Bogside, Derry
The above mural commemorates the fourteen victims of Bloody Sunday who were killed by the British Army that day.   Forty years on, Britian's prime minister David Cameron last year said he was "deeply sorry" for the killings, which he described as both unjustified and unjustifiable. This followed publication of the Saville report, which concluded soldiers who killed these people and wounded almost 30 others had done so without provocation.

Hunger Striker Raymond McCartney Mural, The Bogside, Derry
The Hunger Striker mural depicts Raymond McCartney who took part in the hunger strike in the Maze Prison. The female figure represents the women who joined the strike.  The first of the two major hunger strikes began in October 1980 & ended on December 1980 after a period of 53 days. 

Spirit of Freedom Mural, the Bogside, Derry
Painted at the corner of Westland Street and Blucher, the Spirit of Freedom Mural features the faces of all those who died during the 1981 hunger strike.   Alongside the mural is a plaque commemorating the hunger strikers and all those who lost their lives on the streets during the period of the prison protests between 1980 & 1981.

Looking through H-Block Monument toward the 'You are now entering Free Derry' Wall
The Hunger Strike Memorial on Rossville Street is dedicated to the ten republican prisoners who died on hunger strike for political status.  This large stone memorial is in the shape of an ‘H’, to represent the H-Blocks in which the prisoners were held. The symbol of the dove and the barbed wire is apparently taken from one of Bobby Sands’s prison poems.
The H-Block Memorial, Rossville Road, Derry
But the most famous icon of Republican imagery you'll see in Northern Ireland may well be at the Free Derry Corner, where the slogan "You Are Now Entering Free Derry" which was painted in 1969, shortly after the Battle of the Bogside.   It used to be on the gable wall of a nearby house but now rests on the green area of the Rossville Street Square.   This part of the city was a no-go area & was once completely barricaded to keep police & soldiers out of the Bogside.
Rossville Street, Bogside, Derry
The Peace Dove Mural, Bogside, Derry
Bogside Mural, Derry
Within walking distance of the Rossville Street Murals is the Free Derry Museum.  As you walk through the door of the museum, it’s impossible to ignore the anguished screams & mournful wails from the live audio playing in the background, recorded during the civil rights march on Bloody Sunday.   It will give you chills.    The displays, the desperate newspaper headlines and   that soundtrack, continually playing as you walk around the museum, bring those dark days vividly to life  

And if you have time, have a chat with John Kelly, the museum's education & outreach officer.  John was 23 when his brother Michael was shot dead when a British parachute regiment opened fire on the civil rights march, now known worldwide as 'Bloody Sunday'.

It was here that we bid farewell to Aidan.  His tour had been well paced & thoughtfully put together.  And while, on reflection, his tour was probably more slanted toward the Nationalist side of the story, the overriding feeling he gave us was that Derry & it's people are gradually moving on.   

The Peace Bridge, Londonderry/Derry
The Peace Bridge, Londonderry/Derry

The River Foyle has in the past, not only been a physical dividing line but during hundreds of years of conflict by two opposing religions, it has been seen as a cultural divide as well.
Last year, a new state of the art curved suspension bridge spanning the Foyle & nicknamed 'The Peace Bridge', was opened to the public.   This new pathway over the River, links pedestrian & cycle traffic from the Guildhall Square, Cityside with the former Ebrington Barracks,  Waterside, creating an important new connection between these two communities.
Looking across the Peace Bridge of Derry City, Co. Londonderry
After the intensive history lesson of the last couple of hours, it was pleasantly relaxing taking a stroll across the bridge.   People were out in their droves enjoying & soaking up the rare warmth of the spring sun.
The bridge measures 235 feet from bank to bank with seating  at the middle of the bridge for those who just want to sit and take in the sights around them.  A busker entertained as we rested a while & it was all thoroughly enjoyable. 
The Guildhall, Derry
Derry had exceeded all of my expectations in so many ways not the least the weather, which had been warmer than any days we'd had so far.
Sadly, one thing we didn't get time to do while in the city, was to walk the 1.5km wall that surrounds the old part of the city, the only completely intact walled city in Ireland.   

Portstewart, Co. Antrim
Making a mental note to do the City Wall Tour next time I'm in Derry, we drive out of the city & head north via Portstewart to Portrush, where we find nice accommodation with ocean views, at the Ramada Inn where we'll be staying for the next two nights.
Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

The Ramada Inn, Portrush, Co. Antrim
As I relax at the end of a most interesting day & with the few hours we spent in Derry still crowding my mind, I remember a song I heard a few years ago, sung by one of my favourite female musicians, Cara Dillon, herself a County Londonderry girl.     Written by Tommy Sands of Co. Down, it's a story of two sectarian killings which happened in Newry in the 70's.  It's about Tommy's friend Allan Bell, a protestant, who was murdered &  how in the aftermath, a group of local protestants 'prowled round the Ryan Road' for a Catholic to kill in retaliaton;  ironically, the man they selected, Sean O'Malley, had been a good friend of the Protestant victim & also of Tommy Sands. 

I've played this song many time & I was tearful the first time I listened to it. Its story is one which etched itself in my brain & one that ultimately led me to Belfast & Derry to learn more about why conflict occurred here. I believe this song is about the yearning to end the violence between both parties, whether they be catholic or protestant, nationalist or unionist, republican or loyalist - and as sad as this story may be, it is ultimately a song for peace not war.


  1. Very Interesting :)

  2. Excellent read well done!

  3. Londonderry/Derry is the place of birth of my Great Great etc Grandfather whose name was Matthew Rogers approximately 1745. He came to America as part of the British Army during the American Revolution and stayed. He became a farmer and distiller in northern Pennsylvania. I have never been able to trace any information about his family in Ireland. Could anybody point me in a good direction.

  4. A few websites I found useful for searching my own Irish ancestry were:


    Public Records of Northern Ireland [PRONI]

    RootsWeb World Connect

    Ireland Reaching Out

    I hope these sites will be useful
    Good Luck

  5. Hi Paddy - if you can see my email address could you reply by email to me?

    I'm wondering if there's more at PRONI than the records they have online...just wondering whether to go there when in Belfast.

    Thanks, annie

  6. Annie, I don't have your email address, but if you post it in a reply to this comment, then I'll contact you. I won't post your comment with email address.