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Published: February 18th 2018
And so here is my third and final blog entry on my amazing mid-winter trip to Northern Ireland in February. As mentioned, although the trip was only four days in length, I feel I packed so much into it, that I am so glad to be able to write three separate blog entries about it.
Upon booking my trip, it was quite easy for me to make the decision of spending one day in Belfast and one on the Causeway Coast. It was not so easy to decide what to do on my third day. My initial thoughts lay with visiting the nearby town of Antrim, which sits close to Lough Neagh, the largest lake both in the United Kingdom and also in Ireland. I could take a quick train trip down to the town, and somehow explore the shores of the lake from there. However, to really do the lake justice, a boat trip would surely have to be on the cards, and further investigations into the Lough Neagh Tours’ company website came up with the next two available tour dates in July and August. Hmmm, this seemed surprising considering the size of the lake, but
I guess also representative of both the comparative lack of tourism in Northern Ireland at the moment, as well as its potential for tourism in the future.
Whilst pondering this decision early in the New Year, I happened to attend a mass which was taken by a Franciscan Friar who was visiting from a friary in Northern Ireland, who spoke for around half his homily on life back in his parish in Derry-Londonderry. The sign was there, and the decision was made. My third full day would be spent exploring the fascinating, beautiful, though historically-troubled, second city of Northern Ireland.
On the Wednesday morning, I bought a very cheap return train ticket from the cutest of train stations called Great Victoria Street Station in Central Belfast, to take me two and a quarter hours firstly up northwest towards Coleraine, and then southwest along a spectacular stretch of the line, with the Atlantic coast and the northernmost tip of the Republic of Ireland jutting out into the sea to my right, and swathes of rural beauty and stark, rocky outcrops to my left. I thoroughly enjoyed the train trip indeed, both there and back, and was so amazed at
the cost of the ticket being just over £12. For a shorter return journey of two hours to Sheffield and back from London, I regularly part with around £40 if booked in advance, or around £80 booked on the day of travel (though of course I always book in advance!). The journey was well worth the money, I wonder why England can’t bring its rail fares down to such welcome rates…!
Now the city of Derry-Londonderry has its fair share of history during The Troubles, and its name alone causes particular issues here, which are interwoven with the town’s history and that of Northern Ireland as a whole, which date back 500 years ago, as far back as Henry VIII. I shall take the opportunity at this point to try to summarise in my own words the causes of the great problems which continue to exist in this beautiful little corner of the world.
When Henry VIII split England from the Catholic Church in Rome at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1534, his actions hit the very Catholic country of Ireland hard. His notorious dissolution of the monasteries throughout the country spread also to the island
Me, Peace Bridge
of Ireland, which had since the Anglo-Norman invasion of the country in 1169 been subject to English rule, and caused some local people to take arms up against the crown. Fearing rebellion, Henry confiscated the rebels’ lands, a policy which his daughter Elizabeth I continued uncompromisingly when she came to the throne in 1558. The Irish earls were defeated in 1603, and after Elizabeth’s death, many of the earls’ former lands were given over to new settlers from Britain, referred to today as the policy of Plantation. I believe it is this policy of Plantation, of encouraging Protestant settlers to arrive in historically Irish Catholic lands, particularly in the North of the country which was closest to the Scottish mainland, which sowed the original seeds of discontent in the country which still exist and affect the people to this day, 500 years later. With such a long history of conflict, one cannot but wonder whether peace and reconciliation can really happen so quickly and overnight once The Troubles supposedly ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
Greater anger towards the English Protestants was fomented when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649, but the city of Derry-Londonderry comes
into the picture during an event referred to as “The Siege of Derry” in 1688-89. Under Protestant King James I, the city of Derry was granted a Royal Charter in 1613, and fortified with the construction of solid walls 8m high and 9m thick completely surrounding the settlement. The fortification was carried out by a number of London trade guilds, and was thus renamed “Londonderry” in recognition of this. After Catholic King James II ascended the throne back in Britain, Londonderry remained loyal to its Protestant investments, and was thus besieged for 105 days by Catholic forces led by the Earl of Antrim camping out to the east of the settlement, across the River Foyle. A relief ship from Britain eventually burst through the siege and ended it, but not without significant loss of life on both the besieged and the sieging sides, from bombardment, disease and starvation. The Protestant battle cry of “No surrender” during the siege remains a Loyalist battle cry to this day, and resentments from both sides of the conflict still seem to fester in the city today.
It was actually an event which took place on Sunday 30th
January 1972 which appears to still
cause much angst today, not only in the city but throughout the country. It is also perhaps the events of this “Bloody Sunday” which is to blame for the escalation of The Troubles throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which only came to a semblance of an end in 1998.
The official creation of Northern Ireland happened in 1922, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed after civil war broke out upon Ireland’s declaration of independence during the Easter Rising of 1916. The Treaty gave 26 countries of Ireland independence as the Republic of Ireland, whilst the six largely Protestant counties of the North opted for continued union with Great Britain. The immediate decades following the Treaty saw discrimination of the minority Catholics by the majority Protestant decision makers. Years of discontent led to marches by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, often disrupted by Loyalist attacks and police action, towards the late 1960s. In the end, the citizens of the Catholic Bogside district, a working class area of small, tenement houses to the west of the walls of Derry-Londonderry took to the streets to promote a “Free Derry”, epitomised by the famous wall mural, photo included here. The 33,000 residents of
the Bogside and neighbouring Brandywell districts declared themselves independent of the civil authorities, and barricaded the streets to keep the security forces out. It was during this time that the events of Bloody Sunday occurred, in which 13 people were killed and a similar number were injured when British armed forces shot into the crowds of protesters and demonstrators on that fateful Sunday in January 1972. “Free Derry” ended with the notorious “Operation Motorman” on 31st
July 1972, when thousands of British troops and armoured cars moved in to occupy the Bogside.
It is believed to be these two particular incidents in Derry-Londonderry which is said to have sparked the most violent era of The Troubles during the 1970s and 1980s, and one in which I have clear memory of growing up with in fear as The Troubles spread to mainland Britain for most of my childhood.
It was thus to my mind a very important decision for me to have made, to visit Derry-Londonderry, in order to seek further understanding and make better sense of the events which have personally affected pretty much the whole population of Northern Ireland over the last 50 years, and which have
also touched upon my own personal experiences of growing up in the world.
As with Belfast, I sensed the feeling that the bitter scars and wounds from the past are still very much evident amongst the people of Derry-Londonderry. In fact, this is why I refer to the city in thus way – it is mainly the Catholic Nationalist population of the city who refer to it as Derry, and the Protestant Unionist population who refer to it as Londonderry. It has also been referred to generally in Britain as Londonderry, and I have always thought it to be named as such, until my visit to the city taught me otherwise. So, in order to avoid any potential stumbling blocks, during my time there, and in the writing up of this entry, I refer to the city as Derry-Londonderry.
Upon arrival, again at a very cute, toy-sized train station, on the east bank of the River Foyle, and in plain view of the beautifully sited fortifications to my right, I noted the sheer beauty of the city and its surroundings. My day began with a short walk across the river along the Craigavon Bridge, past the touching “Hands
Across the Divide” statue, showing two men reaching out to each other, and symbolic of the spirit of reconciliation and hope for a peaceful future. This, along with the nearby Peace Bridge, a pedestrian span across the River Foyle linking the traditionally Catholic westside to the Protestant eastside, demonstrated clear intentions that the city aims to look beyond its troubled past. This was very hopeful, and again seems to represent the many Northern Irish I spoke with who also wish to look towards a bright, positive, progressive and peaceful future. I sensed no animosity amongst the people during my walk around the city, but as with Belfast, I did get the feeling that bitterness and anger continue to linger on in parts of the city.
My explorations began with a circumnavigation of the amazing city walls, which still exist virtually intact today. The 1.5km pleasant walk was interrupted by a brief but heavy rain shower during which I ducked in to a nearby arts centre. From up on the walls, I was able to gaze down into the small Protestant enclave of the Fountain housing estate to the south-east of the city walls, a very raggedy British flag billowing
Across the River Foyle
in the wind, and a couple of wall messages demonstrating that the anger and bitterness in this part of the city is far from over: “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists still under siege no surrender”. Rounding a couple of corners, I was greeted with an actually quite jaw-dropping view down the sides of the fortifications towards the rather striking working-class terraces of the Bogside district to the west of the city centre. Quite an amazing photo opportunity, and I was very snap-happy looking down from the Double Bastion tower at the southwestern corner of the fortifications. From here, a short walk down from the central hill brought me into the famous Bogside district of the city, its main road of Rossville Street adorned with wall murals carrying Nationalist messages similar to those of the Falls Road in Belfast. These were very photogenic, the one of the gas-masked child in particular stirring up some kind of memory of seeing it somewhere in the news in the past. Most of the messages seemed to juxtapose the violence of The Troubles with the innocence of childhood, and were very striking and often quite hard-hitting. There was a particular mural which featured Che Guevara, which
made me realise the reasons behind a particular, seemingly quite disjointed but actually quite related, experience I had around 20 years ago on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Having been travelling for nearly two months around South America by this time, my passport cover was a little faded and worn, and only the “Northern Ireland” part of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” was visible. The border post guard took particular note of this, and asked me many questions about Northern Ireland, the IRA, and whether I was a member of the IRA. I felt quite intimidated at the time, but couldn’t quite figure out why this was of such interest to a border guard so far away from The Troubles. I see now that some Nationalists recognise the shared beliefs and values between the Republican cause and the cause of Che Guevara in Latin America. I see why now the border guard was particularly suspicious of me crossing into Bolivia, given the historical enmity between the Bolivian government and Che Guevara. I am very grateful now that I was somehow able to explain to him the (very complicated) official political name of my country, and
East side of the River Foyle
pass through freely into Bolivia (as my experiences there revealed to me a very beautiful country indeed!).
After a short walk amongst the very meaningful murals of the Bogside district, I returned to the city centre for a delicious Irish Stew lunch in a lovely little café, before making the short trek back across the River Foyle, this time across the stunning and recently-completed pedestrian Peace Bridge, and back to the toy-town train station for the equally stunning return train journey through once more the beautiful countryside of Northern Ireland.
The return journey was much busier than the outward journey, although on both trips I noted the hearty conversations which were going on between pretty much every single passenger as I walked through the train. In England, long-distance train journeys are generally quite quiet with people talking in hushed voices. It reminded me again of the Irish love of talking, and with the amount of laughter also going on, the evident Irish tradition of “craic”, roughly translated I believe as “having a good time”.
I thus returned for a final very pleasant night at the extremely cosy BnB, and a very pleasant return flight back to London
and my own dear home again on Thursday.
Indeed, what a wonderful four days I have had in Northern Ireland. I did not expect this visit to be so educational in terms of the background and history of The Troubles, and developing my own understanding of how such tensions have seemingly come to rise after centuries of simmering conflict beginning around the time of the Reformation. I had no idea that this event back in the 16th
century could still affect the ordinary lives of ordinary people today, but my trip taught me that indeed it does, sadly. I will pray for Northern Ireland, I understand now that the road ahead towards successful peace and reconciliation is really quite an enormous task indeed. The people I met on my journey, the positive atmosphere and vibe throughout the country, and the stunning, magical Irish landscape and potential for tourism, all seem to be able to confirm to me that there is some hope that a peaceful future in this beautiful little country can be achieved.
Thank you Northern Ireland.
All the best.
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