For those who hadn't been to (London)Derry, it was an eye-opening experience. This town is decidedly working class. The people here are proud and tough. For outsiders, it can be intimidating. Of course, as soon as you get to know the locals, you realize that they are friendly and open; it is only the exterior that is, as one trip member put it, "rough."
The first thing to get out of the way is that when you pass into Northern Ireland, everything becomes a symbol. The roadways are a little wider, the roundabouts a bit fancier. Hedgerows are cropped a bit closer. Flags really mean something, as do the sports you follow and the teams you support. Even words are loaded. Thus, Derry is "Derry" to Nationalists and "Londonderry" to Protestants. I'm going to call it Derry not for any political reason but because I don't want to type the extra letters!
I'll start off with this photo simply because it is iconic. The Bogside was briefly "liberated" from English rule early on during the Troubles and the gable with "Free Derry" on it remains. Do not let it confuse you. I heard a story that some tourists recently arrived in Derry and would grab things in the shops and simply walk out. When questioned they said: "Isn't this 'Free' Derry?" They were soon put straight. Oh, and that group of tourists was NOT US.
Any road, we met our guide, Aiden, in the Bogside.
He was an excellent guide: knowledgeable and engaging. He was also a Nationalist with a capital "N." This was not an unbiased tour and Aiden hardly acknowledged the existence of one of the city's most prominent Loyalist groups—the Apprentice Boys.
We walked RIGHT past their lodge!
Now, here's the thing. I knew that we were going to get a Nationalist tour. Simply put, the Loyalists do not provide a handy tour that we could book and this tour was done through the Museum of Free Derry.
Aiden was clear that he wants peace. He was also clear that all of Ireland's problem are the fault of English rule. Loyalists did not really play a role in his narrative and we were left to think that they're simply a bunch of hapless victims.
The problem with this view is that Loyalists have very real fears, very real goals, very real traditions, and a distinctive culture. You cannot simply write them out of history and hope to ever truly attain peace. But I editorialize. Back to the tour.
We started by exploring the town wall. The above photo shows the view down the main street in the heart of the walled city. A World War I memorial sits at the center of things.
Aiden pointed out that unpleasant ideas still persist in Derry. The above graffiti says "Taig's Out." "Taig" is a derogative term for Catholics that is taken in much the same way that the "N-word" is in the United States.
Aiden did not similarly point out that RIRA is spray-painted in many places in the Bogside. The RIRA, or Real IRA, is (to the best of my knowledge) the only active paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. In recent months they've shot policemen, planted bombs, and murdered innocents. It struck me that some mention of them was called for, even if only to point out (as Aiden did when I asked) that their support is limited to a few pockets of die-hard Republicans.
After the wall, it was on to the Bogside where we learned about the on-set of the Troubles, the Battle of the Bogside (which established Free Derry), Bloody Sunday, and Operation Motorman. It was an impassioned presentation because, as a young boy, Aiden helped Bogside women make petrol bombs for use in the Battle of the Bogside. He lived events, lost friends. It is all very real to him still.
Our final stop was the City Cemetery. Aiden said he thought it strange that we wanted to visit, but I cannot think of a better place to better see the reality of the Troubles.
Take this Irish National Liberation Army monument at the top of the cemetery. Add to it row upon row of Republican graves, complete with Irish tri-color flags (not flying while we were there), each marked with "Died for Ireland" or "Died in Active Service." The Troubles is not some abstract bit of history stuck away in books. (Personally, of course, I don't think history is ever abstract or should ever be filed away and forgotten). It is incredibly real. Widows stopped at IRA graves while we stood there.
Tour complete we moved into museum mode. First stop: the Free Derry Museum. This site is extremely Republican and focuses on Bloody Sunday. Even recognizing the bias, it is a powerful site. Beyond mere text or video, there are bloody clothes, jackets riddled with bullet holes, rubber bullets, and other artifacts.
Finally, we finished the day with a whirlwind trip through the Tower Museum—the official city museum which negotiates much of the territory we'd seen earlier, but in a more even-handed fashion. It was disappointing that we only had a few minutes left in an action-packed day. This site deserves FAR more time.
Last but certainly not least, a complaint. Our entire trip has been seamless. Great hotels, good food, wonderful weather. Unfortunately our hotel this evening was not up to scratch. Nobody involved with our trip deserves blame--it was impossible to know plus we were acting with very tight budgetary and geographic limitations--but I very much want to let all of you reading this that the Travelodge in Derry is to be avoided at all costs. It is filthy, poorly kept, and over-priced for what you get. The bed springs poked through, the room stunk of old cigarettes, and the other guests were loud and drunken throughout the night. Everybody in our group weathered the storm with few complaints, but all of you should, once again, save yourself the hassle and avoid the Derry Travelodge.