I’m coming to Derry the Irish way with a coach (the railways are not very extended in Ireland) for the week end with an Irish friend who A ist always in a good mood (like most irish btw.) and B understands the Northern Irish dialect way better than me. Without her, I’d never made it to Derry as we had unexpectedly to change coaches on a roadside in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t understand the last minute announcement.
Derry who freshly became attractive thank to the Derry girls serie is at the first sight a pretty intact walled city (note to historians), crossed by the Foyle river. There is a numerous and active youth (we even saw a young couple in a very explicit posture at the foot of the walls), a well know mall, crowded restaurants, pubs full with people in high spirits until closure (Guinness is one thing everybody agrees on here),a warm welcome for visitors ; in short Derry doesnt look pathetic.
Once you walk in Derry with open eyes though, one is struck by the traces of the combats and deads the city keeps tracks of with all the crosses, memorials, stones and markers at every corner. Furthermore, the numerous biased painting on the walls constantly remind the residents and visitors that one has to take side in Derry.
We begin our visit at the cemetery, quite full of celtic crosses. The old part clearly shows a dichotomy, even among the dead, that is then brought to life on certain days with an Irish flags raised on one side and a British ones on the other. The victims of Bloody Sunday rest here next to each other, and the inscription on their tombstone is unambiguous: „murder“. The recent part of the cemetery wants to be more consensual, since the inhabitants have the right to eternal rest next to each other regardless their side. Even if the only inscription on the grave of John Hume (one of the maker of the Good Friday Agreements and recently deceased Nobel Peace Prize winner) is the word „peace“ yes, but in Gaelic. Not only are the present locals not offended by the presence of two foreigners looking for John Hume’s tomb, but also, during our quest which lasts almost 1 hour, we can even strike up a conversation with some of them. Death is part of social life in Ireland.
We spend the night in a Bed&Breakfast, it seemed more authentic to us than a hotel chain. This allows us to stay in the heart of the Bogside and have an excellent and friendly breakfast the next day next to a Virgin Mary, under the Irish flag. The die is cast.
We are then very lucky to visit the Bogside with Mickey, local leader of Sinn Fein, who did not skimp on his time, even though there were only two of us, the Pandemic and not the Troubles, hindering visitors.
Derry, January 30, 1972, 50 years ago to the day. This Bloody Sunday, had started with a demonstration against imprisonment without trial, made legal in view of the situation in Northern Ireland, but which strangely involved only Irish Catholics. The demonstration had been announced, banned and then approved, in a context where many demonstrations went wrong, many buildings were destroyed with explosives, etc., that is to say in a context where the British authorities wanted to strike hard against the so called « hooligans » to break the movement. So, a lot of resistance, activism, attacks etc. on the Irish side, the British want to hit hard to calm things down. All the demonstrations were supervised by the local authorities but for this particular one, paratroopers were brought in especially for the occasion, who then left the next day. This battalion had already been involved in nefarious fightings in Belfast without legal consequences, and therefore according to our guide knew the feeling of impunity. Mickey was adamant about this and I have since found other sources that corroborate those two informations.
It was a question of arresting the leaders, which can be understood. Yes, but on D-Day the demonstration didn’t get out of hand more than usual, insults and throwing stones at the police (I never said that the activists were altar boys, huh, I’m being ironic here sorry), but nothing that justified opening fire on the crowd. And then, at some point, either things got out of hand or the paratroopers had received instructions. Still, they went to the Bogside and started opening fire on the crowd. 14 dead, 15 injured. Many 17-year-old boys among the dead, who will never become vindictive adults. A hundred bullets fired. Looking twice, the number of casualties is surprisingly low, considering that the shooters were well trained and well armed paratroopers. This calls out: were they asked to deliberately kill a few people? Especially young boys?
Worse still than Bloody Sunday was the commission of inquiry, the famous Widgery report, which concluded in April 1972 already that the shooters were only defending themselves, thereby criminalizing the victims (again, a strategy regularly adopted by the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland), and killing them a second time, crucifying their families for life.
If they were really in self-defense, according to the official version of the Widgery report, logically the day should have ended up way more deadly. The version of self-defense is all the less valid since the paratroopers had zero deaths and zero injuries. It was only the 2010 Saville report that definitively established the innocence of the victims and the absence of danger for the paratroopers. It was a historic moment for the families of the victims.
And what about 50 years later? Derry in 2022, it’s again and again like in the song « no need to choose your side, we did it for you a long time ago » („Romeo and Julia, the musical“). Many residents would like to turn the page, and are considering a reunited Ireland, which is possible by referendum at any time: if the majority of Northern Irish people ask to join the republic, the British constitution guarantees them this right. Except that the inhabitants of the Bogside do not venture across the River Foyle, and those of the Protestant quarters still consider themselves besieged. By the way, at the end of the visit, Mickey does not want to go into the Protestant neighborhoods with us, arguing that he is a well-known figure, but assuring us that as visitors, we risk nothing. Ha. So we cross the courageously named „peace bridge“ alone.
Anyway, who would want to be the first to go live on the other side of the Foyle River, isolated among the others? On top of that, you have to add the fact that Derry has the highest unemployment rate in the United Kingdom and that many Irish people in the Republic consider that including Northern Ireland would be an economic and social burden more than a family reunion. Therefore, between the painted walls that keep the wounds alive and the voluntary ghettoization of its inhabitants, one can wonder if Derry is really out of the woods. The way out is certainly in the training of youth and economic opportunities. This fight is a working class fight. Middle class people are already hanging out at the golf club. In short, all this to tell you that « the day is near when the Irish will make peace around the cross » (M. Sardou), yes perhaps, since the Good Friday agreements, but unification will not happen unanimously.
After seeing the unionist walls on our own, my friend, who is a pragmatic like all Irish people, explains to me that the best way to metabolize the aftermath of an Irish evening in the pubs is to eat greasy food. So, we end our visit with one of the best burgers of our life… We enjoy it in a pub full of Halloween decorations, reminding us that we are still in the United Kingdom and not in the Republic of Ireland. And don’t even try to pay in euros.
One last look at the magnificent Guildhall, and we get back on the coach in silence, laden with history and remembrance, hoping that in Ireland one day the future will overcome the past.