Legendary Derry

Last Updated 11 December 2010, 09:33 IST

The famous song — Danny Boy  —originated in this county of Northern Ireland when a local woman heard a tune played by a wandering musician and penned it. It is the place of many defining moments in the dramatic history of Northern Ireland. It has so many names like Derry, Londonderry, Maiden city, etc, that the local joke is that it’s now Legenderry! The name Derry is probably derived from the Irish word Doire (meaning an oak grove) where Saint Columba founded a monastery in 546 AD.

Derry is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited places in Ireland and is the only completely walled city dating back to the 1600s. King James I gave the city a royal charter in the year 1613 and gave some trade guilds the task of fortifying Derry and planting the county with Protestant settlers. 

Reliving historical events

We join our guide from Martin Mc Crossan City Tours for a walking tour of the impregnable walls built by the London guilds. It’s a walk through centuries of poignant history. These walls provide a panoramic view of the city. Our guide does a fantastic job talking about the city’s present and acknowledging its troubled past. We start at the Ferry Quay Gate. Here, in 1688-89, when Catholic forces arrived to seize the city, 13 apprentice boys closed the city gates against Jacobite forces, coining the famous war cry, “No Surrender!”

In the 20th century, this battle cry was adopted by the Protestants to conflict with Irish Catholics. The Protestant garrison held out for months in terrible conditions and the ‘Siege menu’ even had cats, dogs and rats until three ships came across the River Foyle with a cargo of food. There were four original gates to which three more have been added; there are cannons mounted on the walls and they still stand like faithful sentinels.

There are signs of modern conflict everywhere. From the Bishop’s Gate, we see remnants of a wall topped by a high mesh fence called the Peace Wall, which divided the Protestant and Catholic communities. From the Grand Parade section of the wall planted with oak trees, we see the Bog Side, which was a predominantly Catholic working class district. This used to be a hotbed of the civil rights movement. There is a sign saying ‘Free Derry’, which used to be out of bounds for the police and the army and patrolled by the IRA.

Our guide tells us about the infamous Bloody Sunday incident in 1972 when Catholic civil rights activists marched through Derry protesting against internment without trial by the British Government and were shot at by British soldiers. The peace process started with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 though the two populations still live on different sides of the city. Today, the country’s history of war and violence is simply called ‘the troubles’.

There are mammoth political murals — a mix of art and propaganda — on the walls of buildings along Rosville Street, which are now a part of the urban landscape. They are the work of  ‘The Bog Side Artists’ who lived through the ‘troubles’. There is the moving image of a 14 year old schoolgirl, killed in the crossfire between the British Army and the IRA. A small butterfly has been painted on top, symbolising the vitality of life.

What appeals to me the most is the mural of the silhouette of a dove against a backdrop of coloured squares designed by school children. Historic buildings inside the walls include the Gothic Cathedral of St Columb, which was the first Protestant church in Britain after the Reformation. The widest part of the walkway on the walls is where the term catwalk originated! In the early 1900s, the well-heeled residents would walk on this stretch to show off their finery and the less well- off residents would say, “Look at those cats!”

Derry used to have a thriving shirt industry, employing about 15,000 people in its heyday, and till very recently used to present 12 linen shirts to the American president every year.

Penchant for the arts

Derry is also the centre of Irish music and culture. Many musicians like Phil Coulter, Dana and the composer of the famous hymn ‘All things bright and wonderful’, Cecil Frances Alexander, hail from Derry. We have a session of Irish music by two talented youngsters playing the ivory flute and the guitar at the Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin Centre, a gleaming new language arts and cultural centre, which has won international awards for its architecture.

Ciara, who teaches us some survival Irish, talks about their efforts to revive this dying language. We stay at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel, an 18th century home with chintz-covered sofas, memorabilia on walls and landscaped gardens. This used to be the haunt of the  Clintons on their many visits to Northern Ireland during the peace process. It’s set on 32 acres of gorgeous countryside and a great place to relax after a tour through the fraught political past of Derry.

Patsy O’Kane, the friendly owner, calls it a ‘labour of love’. Come 2013, Derry will be the European capital of culture, opening its doors to a year-long celebration of music, dance, verbal arts and history.

As we drive out of Derry, we see the ‘Hands across the Divide’, a bronze sculpture of two men reaching out to each other, but not touching.

This is a depiction of the spirit of reconciliation in a city which was torn with tumultous strife for years. In Derry, the city with incurable optimism and a predominantly young population, the party’s just beginning!

(Published 11 December 2010, 09:18 IST)

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