Today was a difficult day for me, and not because of the ever-present Northern Irish rain that has insisted on following most of my trip here. I am in Derry (also called Londonderry, but more on that in a few moments), the second largest city in Northern Ireland. It is a beautiful town, the best-preserved walled city on the island, a mile circumference stone defensive wall enclosing a small and shockingly hilly area. It is also home to some pretty terrible history.
But that history, while truly disturbing, also isn’t the reason today has been one of the more troubling ones in my recent travels, let alone on this trip. No, today has been difficult because it has taken something that should bring people together – speaking out against violence against innocents – and turned it into something that simply reinforces generations of hatred in a cynical spiral. But first some background.
Originally a monastic settlement, Derry is one of the oldest towns in Ireland, but the history that is relevant to my experience today begins in the 17th century with the Plantation of Ulster, which refers not to planting crops but to supplanting people. Specifically, Catholics were forced out of parts of Ulster, the northern portion of Ireland, by a deliberate colonization by Protestants from England and Scotland at the behest of a now-Protestant English monarchy who had controlled the island since the 12th century. A walled city was constructed in Derry (the same one that still exists today) in 1619, and Catholics were forbidden from residing inside. They were forced inland (Derry sits along the River Foyle) to an area in the marshes that would become known as Bogside. The “new” Derry was renamed Londonderry to show its Englishness and loyalty to the crown.
Bogside was a rough, dense neighborhood and over the centuries was subjected to periodic violence by the larger Protestant majority in the walled city and across the river in Waterside. After Irish independence in 1921, Derry remained part of the United Kingdom, part of six (of nine) Ulster counties on that side of the partition. While Catholics had basic rights, discriminatory housing policy kept them in the South Ward (centered around Bogside) to make sure only one town alderman was able to represent them, ensuring Protestant domination of all political sectors.
In the 1960s, the success of the US civil rights movement would bring a similar movement here to Northern Ireland and to Derry specifically. Needless to say, it was not looked upon well by those in power, and police responses to demonstrations were often violent. In 1969, during the midst of one of these violent crackdowns, Bogside’s largely-Catholic Nationalists barricaded their neighborhood, and declared themselves autonomous. Free Derry was born.
My morning in Derry is spent at the Museum of Free Derry, which honors this moment and those that would come after. The museum is situated in Bogside, still a predominantly Catholic Nationalist (you’ll remember the terms from our look at the Troubles from Belfast, and can click here to read that and refresh yourself) neighborhood where the Irish tricolor is flown rather than the Union Jack. The museum traces the civil rights movement here from its infancy, through Free Derry, to Bloody Sunday (on January 30, 1972 fourteen unarmed protesters were killed by the British Army, who had taken over for the local police, officially marking the start of the Troubles), and ultimately to the much delayed 2010 official apology from the UK.
Those are things I want to see, to read, and to experience. However, despite such a good cause of remembrance of partisan violence against civilians, the Museum of Free Derry – and especially the neighborhood around it – devolves into hatred. Violence is glorified, and not just here, but Palestinian (the cause du jour of the movement, apparently) violence against Jews. All those who support Northern Ireland being part of the UK are referred to as colonizers, despite so many of them tracing their roots back hundreds of years, and propaganda would make them seem unwelcome here in Bogside or in a unified Ireland should that happen.
(It is important to note that from what I have been told, similar – but opposite – propaganda exists in other neighborhoods, with Protestant-backed causes and their own violence being celebrated, not to mention the annual July 12 parades celebrating the hundreds of years old victory of Protestants over Catholics that still sometimes sparks violence.)
Life is nuanced. Hatred is nuanced. The history of the Catholics of Derry is a terrible one. But to honor it with violent propaganda against others does more harm than good, as exampled by my walking out of a talk given to my group here at the museum. That tone and rhetoric becomes my takeaway from a morning that should have been spent in solidarity with others who, like me, believe in the value of all people. Instead, I felt personally attacked as a Jew, not safe to be here, and afraid to speak up on behalf of either myself or the what I assume is an overwhelming percentage of those of Protestant backgrounds who desire nothing but peace and happiness here in Northern Ireland.
Fortunately, my day doesn’t end at the Museum of Free Derry. A local guide, Ronan, meets my group to guide us through the walled city. Ronan is from a mixed heritage, and he is someone who would not have come into this part of Derry during the Troubles. But after the peace agreement in 1998, one he admits is both highly flawed and incredibly beautiful, he has seen his city rebuilt and rejuvenated. The stunning Guild Hall, once the place where Catholics were not represented by the city, is now home to an exhibition on the Good Friday Agreement and to the Nobel Peace Prize so deservingly won by those responsible for it. He points to that with pride.
Ronan tells us that he is confident in peace, but only after we reach the other side of the hatred I witnessed this morning. Schools here are still segregated, and many neighborhoods are as well, though unlike schools it is more by tradition than lack of reasonable alternatives. So many of those who survived the Troubles and were so traumatized by the violence on all sides are still alive, and it is hard to move on when you are a witness to such events. But he assures me that, although our tour group doesn’t visit, the majority of Derry is not what I experienced earlier. Such hateful propaganda is gradually – perhaps too gradually for most people – being replaced by the symbology of peace and togetherness.
One such emblem sits across the street from the Guild Hall. Here, connecting a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in the shadows of Derry’s walls with the historically Protestant Waterside, is the Peace Bridge. Opened in 2011, it is made to resemble hands coming together. Now all we need is for those hands to come together in human form.
Today was a difficult day for me. Today, I was expecting to learn about a tough (to say the least) period of an interesting city. Instead, I experienced the nuances of hatred and it’s perpetuation here in Derry by those who just can’t recognize that other communities also have the right to live in peace. But I also experienced hope in the form of a Chinese-Irish tour guide and the new reality he represents, one that I so desperately wish to see in a beautiful place like this.
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