Ireland - Derry - The Troubles
Jul 5, 2004
|If we covered it at all in school, then I must have been snoozing through Irish history. Since arriving in Ireland I've heard stories from locals and tour guides, I've skimmed through numerous history books, read every available travel book written on Ireland, and blatantly copied bits and pieces from various publications to try to piece this article together, but still I fear I may have gotten it wrong. But at least I can say one thing with certainty ... Ireland has had its share of troubles in the past - oh aye!
First of all, starting in around 300 BC, their land was under invasion ... Celtic Warriors, Norse Vikings, and Anglo Normans (who, if I understand correctly, were just an earlier version of the Bloody Brits!). Then, in the early 16th century the Protestant Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, began the oppression of Irish Catholics by confiscating their land and giving it to Protestant settlers, an act that's suspected of starting the division of Ireland that exists today. Catholics became tenants of what had been their own land, living in wretched conditions. They were denied education, and their language and music was banned ... imagine, there was almost no "Lord of the Dance" or "Riverdance" (gasp!). In the 17th century a Catholic rebellion led to violent massacres of Protestant settlers, and back and forth it went.
Then came the Great Famine from 1845 to 1851. Failure of the potato crop, the staple food for the poor Irish population, resulted in the loss of around 3 million people, either from diseased death and starvation or, for the lucky ones, emigration from Ireland ... although maybe they weren't so lucky after all as many emigrants sailing on the "coffin ships" as they became known never made it alive to the Americas.
The Anglo-Irish War in the early 1900's was a fight for Irish independence. If you've heard of Michael Collins, he surfaced around this time masterminding the campaign of violence against the British. 2-1/2 years later a truce was agreed and a treaty signed giving independence to 26 mostly-Catholic counties of Ireland, and allowing 6 mostly-Protestant counties to stay under British rule. And thus the division of North and South Ireland was made.
I'll never understand the violence and atrocities that went on between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland from the 1960's to 1990's, a period known as the "Troubles". Marches and hunger strikes took place, bombings were a regular occurrence, British police and IRA met violence with violence, fighting continued between Catholics and Protestants, and innocent people were killed. I'll also never understand how all the fighting and violence finally ended, but eventually in 1998 a ceasefire agreement was signed and a time of peace began.
I've been to Ireland before. Northern Ireland. Belfast. 20 years ago during the Troubles. I remember being frisked before boarding the ferry. I also remember seeing boarded up windows, fences topped with rolls of barbed wire, and security scanners and armed guards at entrances to shops in downtown Belfast. In all honesty, I was quite terrified the whole time I was there, imagining a bomb under every car I travelled in, or an IRA gunman lurking around every corner. Thankfully I didn't see any violence, but my nerves didn't settle down until I was safely back in England.
Now, 20 years later, I chose to return to Northern Ireland. To be fair, I should have returned to Belfast to see what changes have occurred in the last 20 years ... but I didn't. Instead I landed in Derry, a city that quite honestly I knew little about, other than: (i) it was in the North near the coast I wanted to visit, and (ii) it wasn't Belfast.
If I was hoping to start my Ireland travels in a city without a bloody past, well then Derry was definitely not the best pick. Even its name remains controversial. Originally called Derry, it was changed to Londonderry at the time when British/Protestant settlers arrived. Unionists still insist on Londonderry, nationalists still call it Derry. To be politically correct one should refer to it as "Derry Stroke Londonderry". I was bold and daring and simply called it Derry.
Located pretty much in the middle of the north coast, Derry is kind of a dreary old place and not particularly interesting to snoop around. My investigative talents, however, did uncover a few claims to fame: (i) it's the only city in Ireland to have completely intact walls encircling its old city area despite 3 major sieges in the 17th century, (ii) it was one of the most important embarkation points for Irish emigrants setting off for America in the 18th & 19th centuries, and (iii) let's not forget that Amelia Earhart made an unexpected landing just north of Derry in 1932 on her historic solo flight across the Atlantic.
But, sadly, Derry received much more notoriety for its activities during the Troubles.
I was walking around the city walls when I saw them ... the murals. Very powerful, large house murals, painted between 1997 and 2001 to commemorate key events that occurred in Derry during the Troubles.
For those of you who are politically/historically challenged like me, here's a little idea of what went on.
In the 1960's, the Bogside district in Derry (where I now stood) was a working class Catholic ghetto filled with poverty, unemployment and discontent. In the late 1960's, civil rights marches by Catholics took place, which led to attacks on the Bogside district by Protestants. British troops were sent in, days of rioting followed, Bogside residents declared themselves independent of civil authority and "Free Derry", as the area became known, was barricaded against police and army and patrolled by IRA volunteers. This event became known as the "Battle of the Bogside".
A few years later, on 30 January 1972 to be exact, the date known as "Bloody Sunday", 20,000 civilians marched through Derry's Bogside area protesting against internment without trial. Soldiers opened fire on unarmed marchers. 14 were shot dead, some shot in the back, and some just 17 year old lads. Although investigations are still ongoing (yeah, right), none of those who opened fire nor the officers in charge were ever brought to trial or even disciplined, and records and weapons have long since disappeared ... do we smell a "cover-up" perhaps?
Finally, in 1981, republican prisoners in Derry went on a Hunger Strike demanding the right to be recognized as political prisoners. 10 people fasted to death.
I'm sure there were many more terrible things that occurred during the Troubles, but these are the main events depicted on the wall murals in Free Derry Corner. The Bogside area has now been completely redeveloped, and all that remains to remind us of its troubled past are the murals, a striking "Free Derry" sign, and a few small memorial plaques.
Now, to leave the doom and gloom behind and end on a happier note ... it's great to be back in an English speaking country again. Well, I think they're speaking English but with this lovely Irish lilt I sometimes have problems understanding what comes out of their mouths too! The Irish people have been wonderfully friendly, always quick to offer assistance with a smile and a good sense of humor ... and quite often with a touch of the famous Irish blarney as well.
Cheers for now everyone! Connie