The Rocky Road to Belfast: Back Home in (Free) Derry

The night was just getting started, but I knew it was time to start heading back. I was in South Belfast and my hostel was not particularly far from the pub, so I decided to walk. At some point I asked a few locals what the best route to get to Botanic Rd. would be, and they told me to just go with them since they were going in that direction too. The guys then asked where I was from, where I was going, and whether I wanted to go with them to another pub—an invitation I had to decline. “I’m just heading back to my hostel. I’ve got a busy day tomorrow and want to make sure I’m good in the morning.“ They then asked what my next destination would be. “Derry,” I told them. Being as interested as I am in the history of the Irish Conflict, going to Derry was an absolute must for me. “Derry is a very nice city,” one of them said, “but we call it Londonderry.”
We wished each other a good evening and went our separate ways.


Please note: This is the sixth installment of my series on Northern Ireland. If you’re not familiar with the particular context of the Irish Conflict please refer to part one for an outline of the history of Northern Ireland. For a more general picture of Belfast check out part two. To read about my experiences in the Republican parts of the city click here, and for an account of what I saw in the Loyalist parts of town click here. To read my account of the North Belfast Derby check out part five.

I woke up with a slight hangover the next day, but it was still nothing a good Irish breakfast couldn’t fix. After devouring my breakfast I started making my way down to the bus station. Coffee in hand, I walked up to the counter and asked for a one-way ticket to Derry. As it turns out, Ulster Bus offers day tickets, which are only nine pounds and allow you to travel anywhere in Northern Ireland.

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The Bogside.

I had originally planned to spend a few nights in Derry, but being that I still had a lot to see and do in Belfast, I decided to cut my visit to Northern Ireland’s second biggest city short and simply make a day trip out of it. The second largest city in Northern Ireland, Derry is still very small. A city of roughly 90,000 inhabitants close to the border with the Republic of Ireland, Derry is a staunch Republican stronghold. It is also a city that saw some of the most brutal violence during The Troubles, including the despicable murder of 14 unarmed civilians by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

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The road to Derry is quintessentially Irish: rolling emerald fields dotted with small towns for miles on end. It’s full of sheep, too. Some areas in the Northern Irish countryside are also divided, with towns flying either Union Jacks or Irish Tricolors. You will know when you’re about to enter a Republican town, for the “London” prefix before “Derry” on most street signs will be painted over. The skies were particularly overcast as I made my way to the Maiden City, as Derry is also known, so I decided to break out my headphones and listen to Mogwai for the short duration of the trip.

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Pic: Wikipedia

I arrived in Derry shortly before 11 a.m. The first building that caught my attention was the former Guild Hall. This magnificent building now has many uses, and also houses a small exhibition about British colonialism in Ireland—with a heavy emphasis on the Plantation of Ulster. British colonialism touched almost every region of the world, and that included the Isles themselves. In Ireland, the British colonial enterprise bore the name of Plantation of Ulster. A venture partially financed through private capital, the Plantation saw thousands of Protestant Scottish farmers and English landowners resettle in Ulster, taking land that had previously belonged to the local Gaelic-speaking populace. The venture was set in motion in 1609 and had the goal of breaking the most unruly province of Ireland.
While checking out the rest of the Guild Hall, I came across a guided group tour. I figured the guide was Paul Doherty, whose Bogside History Tours I had found online and thought about taking. Since he was just getting started I asked him if I could still join them, to which he obviously replied with a friendly yes.

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Paul is a guy who has researched the history of Derry during The Troubles and offers a daily tour of the city. When I joined the tour, he was outlining the tragic event that made Derry famous: the massacre of Bloody Sunday. In 1972, the British Army was sent to disperse a peaceful demonstration for civil rights that was taking place in the Bogside neighborhood—an Irish Republican stronghold. The British paramilitary troops did not act accordingly in this non-threatening situation and opened fire against the unarmed demonstrators. Thirteen people died on the spot, and a further person died of his injuries later. One of those killed was Patrick Doherty—Paul’s own father.

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A monument dedicated to Séan Ó Cianáin, an Irish Republican held in prison without charge for a total of 15 years.

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Though Paul volunteers that information on his website, I did not know that until we were walking around the areas where the shooting took place—which made the experience even more emotional. Paul narrates twice a day, every day, the story of the brutal and, as an investigation by the British government concluded, “unjustified” and “unjustifiable” murder of civilians by state forces, but knowing that one of them was his own father brought me closer to that dark day. Making clear that Protestants should not bear the blame for the actions of the British government, Paul stressed the importance of reconciliation and peace between the two communities—and that to me made the tour worth way more than the modest six pounds he took in exchange for two hours of his time.

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After the tour ended, the whole group headed back to the city center, but I didn’t. I wanted to explore the Bogside, and I now had the entire place all to myself. There were hardly any tourists walking about, and locals were nowhere to be seen. The Bogside is an area right outside Derry’s beautiful and imposing city center—an impeccably preserved walled fortress sitting atop a hill. And while for some people the walls might be the most attractive sight in the city, I was more interested in visiting the Bogside and seeing the murals of the Free Derry corner—at which I marveled like others do at statues in museums. Then again, the Free Derry corner is a museum, and being in front of the murals telling the story of the Bogside and of The Troubles after hearing about it was very powerful and moving.

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This mural is called “The Death of Innocence” and is dedicated to the memory of Annette McGavigan.

The streets were peppered with stickers, posters, Republican slogans, and IRA graffiti. Flags flew from every light post too—not only Irish Tricolors but also the Starry Plough, the Sunburst flag, and also the first flag of the Irish Republic.

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I arrived at the Bogside Inn and figured I would get me a pint of Guinness before exploring the inner areas of the neighborhood. Just like the streets, I had the pub all to myself. The only other patron in there simply sat in front of the video poker machine smoking and playing his money away. The bartender sat there looking at her phone and barely acknowledged me when I entered the place. It’s not like I expected the pub to be full or anything, though—after all, it was only about 1:30 p.m.

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The Battle of the Bogside.

The walls of the pub were covered with pictures from the Battle of the Bogside—an episode widely considered to mark the beginning of The Troubles.
The Battle of the Bogside was a large communal riot in 1969. Republican residents of the neighborhood battled the Royal Ulster Constabulary and managed to effectively wrest control over the Bogside, which became a no-go area until 1972. The beginning of the area was marked by a large painting on the side of a house that read “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY.” The house is now gone but the wall remains in place—and, as simple an object as it might be, seeing it was one of the highlights of my time in Northern Ireland. I finished my beer and continued walking around the Bogside. I could definitely tell that the area is a hotbed for dissident Republican activity.

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A mural dedicated to the blanket-women from Armagh.
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Portraits of the hunger strikers from 1981.

Someone in Belfast told me I should go for a stroll on Derry’s walls and stop in the part directly overlooking the Bogside. During The Troubles, that exact spot housed a British Army station. “If you stand there on the wall, you can see where the soldiers stood and fired their guns at the demonstrators,” said my interlocutor with an expression of disgust on his face. From that exact same spot, I saw someone had painted IRA/BRY on the roof of a house—BRY stands for Bogside Republican Youth, seen as a new generation of dissidents. I could also see the former station from the Bogside—its location highlighted by splashes of paint of different colors.

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I walked the whole length of the walls around the old city. At some point I saw Union Jacks behind a peace line, meaning I had reached the Loyalist enclave of The Fountain—also, funnily enough, called West Bank by its local residents.

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Before leaving the city I went into a pub right across the street from the headquarters of the Irish Republican Prisoner Welfare Association. I got me a pint and started talking to the older gentleman next to me. He asked where I was headed to next, and I told him I was going back to Belfast. “Oh, Belfast is not good. Too violent there. Crazy people in Belfast.” Derry is a city that saw a lot of violence in early to mid-days of The Troubles. However, in the nineties it was a relatively peaceful place.

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The flags of Hezbollah, the Basque Country, Palestine, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Derry is a city with a very different vibe than in Belfast. For one, Republicanism is much more militant there. While I didn’t see any menacing Republican murals in Belfast, I did come across militant murals in Derry that stand head-to-head with their Loyalist counterparts in terms of aggressiveness. Unlike Belfast, Derry is a rather homogeneous city—most of its residents are Irish, Republican, and Catholic. One thing you will notice is just how raw Bloody Sunday still is, and also how central the event is to the identity of the city.

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Derry is a must for anybody going to the Emerald Isle. You can do easily make a day trip out of it, like I did. Should you visit Derry, make sure to take Paul’s Bogside History Tour. I don’t do a lot of tours when I travel but this one I can wholeheartedly recommend.

I finished my beer and headed to the bus station. I got on the bus back to Belfast and rode through the rain—again listening to Mogwai.

Hope you enjoyed the read! Stay tuned for the next and final installment of this series!

Do me a favor and like my page on Facebook. Likewise, please like me on Instagram to help Between Distances grow. And if you liked this article, please share it your friends! Thanks for your support!

Seb

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4 Comments

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  1. coffeeandcleveland March 7, 2017 — 5:19 am

    I really want to go there. It’s hard for me to get a sense of the division just reading it. I’m so jealous that you talk to people so easily. I’m way too shy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just had quick look,well-done web.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for highlighting my beautiful city Derry in your trip to Ireland. The majority of people here are catholic but not all of us are Republican, we are a lovely friendly bunch and love to see people coming to our beautiful city.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey there, Sally!

      I had a great time not only in Derry but also in Belfast! Can’t wait to go back soon. There is definitely much more to Derry than the Bogside, so my apologies for only focusing on the city’s most recent history.

      Cheers for reading and greetings from Berlin, Seb

      Like

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