Six months after our visit to Belfast to see the Queen of Scowls, we were again going over the border into a contentious city in Northern Ireland. The disagreement begins with the name of the city (and the county it’s in).
Derry comes from the Irish doire, meaning “oak”—the traditional oak leaf symbol of the county is still used on posters, murals, and athletic team logos on both sides of the divide. In the seventeenth century, the Brits stuck a big fat “London” on the name to further claim control over the wild Ulster natives.
But disputes in Derry are much older and much deeper than simple road sign names; the city has long been divided between the Unionists (pro-British rule) and Republicans (pro-Irish rule). After centuries of tension, political disagreements have led to a geographical division; with mainly Protestant Unionists living on one side of the River Foyle and the largely Catholic Republican neighborhoods on the other.
One such Republican neighborhood is called the “Bogside,” and when seen from the top of the still-standing city walls, the origin of its name is clear: the streets and houses are in a low wetland, built on the poor soil of a drained bog. Today, this neighborhood is most famous—or infamous—for the events of January 30, 1972: Ireland’s second Bloody Sunday. (The first was in 1920, in Dublin’s Croke Park.)
On that day, a Republican protest march in the Bogside turned into a violent confrontation between civilian demonstrators and armed British military forces. Official eyewitness reports vary as to just how things escalated so quickly, but after a vicious ten-minute clash, fourteen protesters were mortally wounded on the streets of the Bogside neighborhood. In the wake of the tragedy, divisions deepened, inquiries were made, and blame was (and continues to be) tossed around between the two sides.
From the ashes of this long, painful conflict, the tradition of the political mural emerged, and artists from both sides were able to peacefully—but firmly—express their political point of view in public spaces.
On the Bogside’s Rossville Street, a series of murals by Republican artists depict scenes from Bloody Sunday and its impact on the Catholic Bogside community.Some of the Rossville Street murals have been vandalized—and re-vandalized—by those who disagree with their message; most of these are thought to be radicalized young members of political activist groups. It is jarring and sad to see the peaceful message of these murals destroyed by those wishing to disrupt the progress of the still-young peace process. Political murals and messages aren’t limited to the Bogside neighborhood—or the Republican side of the divide. Unionist images and veiled threats around the city—particularly in neighborhoods surrounded by concrete-and-barbed-wire “peace walls”— make it clear that this city still has a long way to go to before its wounds are fully healed. But hope is not lost. Amid the sectarian, hard-line propaganda of the two conflicting sides, supporters of the peace process have made their own artistic statements. Relying on symbols that speak to both communities, they encourage tolerance, understanding, and unity. This mosaic (made of thousands of community-sourced Facebook photos) depicts the oak leaf and the city’s Peace Bridge, literally and metaphorically connecting the two traditional rivals. Other works like the “Hands Across the Divide” sculpture gently nudge the two sides nearer to a lasting peace.
Painful politics and troubled history aside, Derry is a beautiful and worthwhile city to visit and explore. While things are tense, violence is rare—although locals advise visitors to stay away from police stations and other potential terror targets as a precaution. We found the people of Derry to be welcoming and thrilled to see foreign visitors enjoying their city and getting a better understanding of their story.