Derry – Free of Prefix (2012)

Derry – Free of Prefix (2012)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.



It took just one little word to salve our wound, aye sir, that’s what it takes to heal,” says Martin McPherson, our tour guide, his voice choking with emotion. We are standing on the ramparts of the city walls overlooking the Bogside, the exclusively Catholic neighbourhood of Derry in Northern Ireland. Hitherto known as Londonderry, to reiterate London’s stronghold over this quintessentially Irish town, Derry today is shrugging off that prefix.

Derry is the second largest town in Northern Ireland, in the province of Ulster, which is part of the United Kingdom. The town leads a somewhat schizophrenic existence. A majority-Catholic town in a Protestant nation, Derry is independent enough to maintain its Irish and religious identity while being practical enough to belong politically to the U.K.

But this balancing act, which it seems to have accomplished, has not been easy. For an entire generation, Londonderry and the whole province of Ulster in which it is situated witnessed bitter and often violent political conflict between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government. The IRA had set its sights on an independent Irish state encompassing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but for the majority of the Catholic population, it was a struggle for basic civil rights.

The Northern Irelanders were splintered into many groups – the nationalists who wanted Ulster to join the Republic of Ireland, the Unionists who were happy to remain loyal to the British monarch, and those who wanted independence from both. Many lives were lost and much blood flowed down the Foyle, the river that runs through Derry. To a visitor, it is evident that the Irish identity is non-negotiable and Irish pride implacable. But political identity is another matter. Surely, the city seems to have made peace with its Janus-faced existence of retaining its Irish identity within a historical political legacy that hitched it to the U.K.

Martin is not the usual type who merely reels off anecdotes and statistics with mechanical precision. His narratives are drenched with emotion, his anecdotes often personalised, and his words measured. Like other Derriers, he knows what peace means to his beleaguered city; he knows the value of that single healing word, the harbinger of normality and stability to his people, who until recently knew only strife. The word he was referring to is “sorry”, uttered by British Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit to Belfast in June this year. Queen Elizabeth, who came a few days before Cameron, was the first British monarch to visit Northern Ireland. She too knew the value of reaching out. In a symbolic gesture, she made it a point to shake hands with Martin McGuinness, the rebel hero of the IRA, and set in motion the process of mending torn relations.

The apology was to the families of the 13 persons martyred in an incident that has since come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Protesting against discrimination based on faith and demanding civil rights, a group of unarmed young people marched through the streets of Derry on January 30, 1972, only to be felled as canon fodder. Derry has since remained implacable. You cannot go to Derry without being constantly reminded of Bloody Sunday. Its walls and ramparts are splattered with murals and posters depicting scenes from that Sunday. Bloody Sunday has been seared into the collective soul and memory of the city. A poignant mural that is visible from almost everywhere is that of a young girl in her school uniform gunned down in cold blood on that day. Two reports based on official inquiries into the incident failed to nail the culprits who shot at the crowd. Now a third inquiry has been ordered.

Meanwhile, Derry moves on. The town is strategically located on the Foyle, which joins the Atlantic a few kilometres downstream. It is a recessed port that became a vantage location in successive wars for stationing troops, submarines and warships. The name Derry, derived from the Gaelic word doire meaning oak grove, became Londonderry when King James I granted the city a royal charter in 1613 and built a protective wall around it. Successive British governments began the task of populating this entirely Catholic country with Protestants, a process that came to be known as the Plantation of Ulster. Very soon, the planted Protestants began to dominate all walks of political and professional life. It drove the Catholics to the Bogside, a term used to denote the poorer neighbourhood across the river, leaving them to scrounge for a livelihood.

Tower Museum

The Tower Museum in Derry is a delight, a fascinating detour of the history of Derry right up to the present day. The town once used to be the shirt-making capital of the world. My guide tells me his mother used to have one of those hand-operated sewing machines, which she worked late into the night to churn out perfectly sewn uniform shirts for soldiers during the Second World War. She would do this after feeding all her 10 children and husband and after finishing all the household chores. No wonder, Derry has infamously found its way into Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for being a sweatshop where women worked long and hard hours in shirt-making.

But the most interesting story that the museum tells is that of the successive waves of migration from Derry and the rest of Northern Ireland. The first wave was prompted by the potato famine from 1845 to 1852 that killed at least a million people. Subsequently, political strife and religious discrimination also sent people in droves to the shores of America. Today, there are 41 million citizens of Irish extraction in the United States; the latest wave is still on, thanks to the slowdown of the Celtic Tiger. The migrants and their descendants from this part of the world produced several American Presidents, starting from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. Martin proudly announces that at least six of them were from Ulster.

But Northern Ireland bucked the economic boom enjoyed by the Republic. In fact, while Dublin is now multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual, Northern Ireland remains all Irish. Signboards are in Gaelic as well as in English, but generations of Northern Irelanders never learnt their own language. It is only now that schools have made Gaelic part of the curriculum.

As you step out of the museum, you are attracted to the carnival-like atmosphere along the Foyle. Festoons and bunting are fluttering everywhere, there is toe-tapping music blaring out of loudspeakers, folks have turned out in their finery, the quay is lined with elegant yachts and boats, and the marina is packed with stalls selling everything from confectionery to cheeses. The occasion is the annual Clipper Festival.
The festival heralds the return of 14 ocean-going yachts that raced around the world. This year the yachts stop in Derry for a few days before they continue their journey across the globe because there is a yacht from Derry as well as a Derrier in the group. The route covers 15 legs that include all the continents and oceans. Clipper is raced by people from all walks of life. One does not need to be a swimmer or have previous sailing experience to join the Clipper race. Once you are selected to join, you will be trained for 32 days to equip you for the challenging voyage. Each yacht proudly announces its nationality. I spy a Chinese yacht from Qingdao, but alas, there is none from the Indian subcontinent.

We climb aboard the Londonderry yacht to meet 54-year-old Orla Quigley, who joined the Atlantic leg of the journey from New York to Derry, a very turbulent stretch. “You have to do everything on board from trimming the sails to cleaning out bilges to cooking and cleaning toilets. It’s a tough trip but very rewarding because it brings out all your reserves and shows you how far you can push the limits of your body. Besides, the kind of marine wildlife you get to see on the trip is something unique. I am richer for having done it – mentally, emotionally and experientially,” she says with apparent satisfaction.

We do the rounds of the yacht, which can carry 16 persons. The living quarters are cramped and spartan, but even on the high seas you can be connected to the world – there is a cubicle with a computer and Internet connection.

All of Derry seems to have assembled on the marina to welcome the Clipper crews. Suddenly, a street market has sprung up, its wares enticing local people and visitors alike. But make no mistake, this is a novel experience for Derriers. Things that are taken for granted elsewhere, such as street markets and music concerts in a park, are all very special events. After all, such normal events were unthinkable until a year ago.

But now, a British parade ground has metamorphosed into a concert park. Where once canons used to boom and reports of rifles ring out, loudspeakers have been set up in preparation for the evening’s concert. There is an air of expectation and rejoicing.

The peace bridge, a powerful symbol that links the Bogside to the predominantly Protestant part of Derry, was built only a year ago but has already witnessed millions of footfalls – no mean feat for a tucked-away town like Derry.

The city has finally managed to emerge like a butterfly out of its blood-encrusted chrysalis. The year 2013 will see Derry playing host as the U.K’s City of Culture, an honour it won in a closely fought contest with other cities. A variety of events ranging from music, drama, carnival, films and theatre to poetry, art and games have been lined up to spice up the year.

I wander off to St. Columb’s Church. St. Columb was the missionary who persuaded heathen Irishmen and women to the Catholic faith and holds a special place in the Irish heart. Cross the river and go to the Bogside, which is a virtual open-air gallery of Republican murals depicting scenes from “The Troubles”, as the last few decades are called. They are a constant reminder to the local people of the troubled past that makes the peaceful present so much more precious.

Ulster, of course, is much more than Derry. We drive off into a Constable countryside where placid cattle graze on velvety slopes and quaint cottages are strewn like confetti on the green expanse. We are headed to the Mellon family residence, which has been turned into a museum. It is the same Andrew W. Mellon who went on to become a very successful banker, but is better known for the Carnegie Mellon University he set up in Pittsburgh, U.S.

After three delightful days in Derry, I am off to Belfast from where I catch a train to Dublin. There are no borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The only tell-tale marks to remind you that you are in the Republic are the signposts that speak of distances in kilometres and shops that accept only the euro and not the British pound sterling.

(Published in Frontline dated Aug 25, 2012)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *