Derry/Londonderry is a walled city and also a divided city. We know there are tours with strong political commentary but we chose to take a short walking tour of the city walls that we hoped would be neutral. As outsiders everywhere we go we often ask people we meet if they like their government, and it’s always interesting to hear how the grassroots perspective compares to what we read in the international press.
Northern Ireland is different. We learned right way that 25 years of negotiated peace has not dimmed the ancient conflict that still simmers just below the surface. I was having a friendly chat with the parking warden where we overnighted and casually asked if she’s originally from Derry. She stiffened, nearly imperceptibly, and said, “Yes, but I’m from Waterside,” letting me know she’s Protestant and I knew I should have said Londonderry, not Derry. It can be a linguistic minefield.
From atop the city walls we could see the high fence surrounding the last remaining Protestant enclave in the majority Catholic west bank of the city, where the curbs and streetlight poles are painted in the colors of the Union Jack and there’s no doubt which side they’re on.
The day after our city wall tour we walked to Bogside, the Catholic neighborhood that was the locus of the beginning of the Troubles, from the Battle of Bogside in 1969 to Bloody Sunday in 1972. Here the streetlight poles are painted in the colors of the Irish flag.
Walking along Rossville Street had a cumulative sobering effect and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the partisan fervor seeps into the consciousness of the children who live here. As much as I understand intellectually the nature of the political dispute, I’m at a loss to fully comprehend the depth of the hatred and distrust of each side for the other, framed as it is in sectarian terms. The five-part documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland (available on PBS or BBC iPlayer) captures the complexity and sometimes futility of the conflict, and the lingering after effects on those who were directly or indirectly caught up. It’s at once a vivid retelling of events and a thoughtful reflection on the fragile truce of today.
We turned to walk up William Street where a historical photo shows what happened on this spot fifty years ago, and more recent graffiti reminds us that the struggle for human rights isn’t over.
We walked up toward the walled city and back to Escape Velocity parked along the river, the dividing line between ideologies and for us, we hope, neutral territory.