Londonderry may be the most interesting city you’ve never heard of. Also known as Derry, especially if you’re Catholic or hate the English, Londonderry is best known for being the location of one of the flashpoints in the torrid history of Northern Ireland’s troubles. Over a three-decade-long period starting sometime in the mid-1960s, Northern Ireland was the victim of an ethnic and political conflict that split the island’s people down the middle and caused the death of over 3,500 civilians and armed forces.
Irish folk, on both sides of the border, still refer to this as The Troubles.
Fault line: The small town of Londonderry has been witness to some of the most violent incidents in Irish history.
Often the bloody conflict spilt over into the Republic of Ireland in the south and, across the Irish Sea, into the rest of the UK. And when it did, the world noticed. The Provisional Irish Republican Army, which fought against British forces in Northern Ireland and outside, was feared the world over for its brutal attacks and for its perfection in the art of bombings. Especially car bombs.
“Derry is a city with origins that dates back centuries. It is one of the oldest cities in all of Ireland. Yet you don’t see old buildings as you would in cities like London. Why do you think that is?” asks Garvin Kerr. “Because a third of all the buildings in all of Derry were destroyed by bombs during The Troubles.”
Kerr is a guide with a popular local outfit (www.derrycitytours.com) and is taking a group of us on a walking tour of the ancient walls of the city. Visitors to Derry are blessed with a continuous system of gates and walls that surround the city. This is rare, we are told, not just in Ireland but all across Europe where most cities burst through their walls as they grew. Derry managed to leave the walls standing.
The walls are in almost perfect structural condition and a slow circuit with a dramatic guide is the perfect way to experience and understand the outsized impact that this tiny city of less than 250,000 people has had on history. After a quick explanation of why it is called Derry—from the old Irish Daire, meaning oak grove—Kerr goes on to explain two pivotal incidents. The first is the Siege of Derry in 1689, and the other is 1972’s infamous Bloody Sunday, the flashpoint I referred to in the opening paragraph. Both incidents shape much of what modern Derry looks like.
Soldiering on: (clockwise from top left) Dublin at night; medals on display at Castle Leslie; and a panoramic view of Derry. Photographs: Sidin Vadukut
On 18 April 1689, in the aftermath of England’s Civil War and Glorious Revolution, deposed Catholic King James II and his forces made it all the way to the gates of Derry. The locals, however, remained fiercely loyal to the Protestant King William III. Just as James was about to enter, 13 young apprentice boys sealed the gates of the city. “And just before they closed them, the boys said two words to James’ army,” Kerr says holding up two fingers. “No surrender.”
Over the years it has become a slogan that has been adopted by Irish on every side of every conflict.
James laid siege to Derry for 105 days before the city was relieved. Almost one-fourth of the inhabitants died of disease. Many of them are buried under a huge unmarked grave in the courtyard of the cathedral that looms over the city.
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Almost three centuries later, Derry once again witnessed violence. On 30 January 1972, British forces opened fire on Irish civil rights marchers. Thirteen people died. The movement to unite the British-ruled north with the independent south dramatically picked up steam. Enrolment into the Provisional IRA soared. When Kerr is done talking about Bloody Sunday and the innocents who died, his eyes well up. More than one tourist is too choked to speak. After a moment of silence, Kerr moves on.
“That is where cannons from inside the city shot on James’ forces on the hill there,” points out Kerr before walking a few steps ahead backwards (he does this to maintain eye contact with us tourists. Kerr has it down to a fine art. Don’t try this at home).
And then he points down a road. The red building on the left, he says, was once the house of the bishop of Derry. And in that house lived the wife of one such bishop, Cecil Frances Alexander, who wrote the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. And right across the road is the courthouse, “the most bombed building in Derry”.
All this makes Derry sound like the dourest place in the world. Not so, but far otherwise.
Derry is a charming little place steeped in history old and new and full of the nicest people. Not to mention excellent shopping and some outstanding restaurants (in fact, all of Ireland is dotted with cafés, bistros and restaurants that offer superb local produce. A cold pint of Guinness is almost always available, and most chefs are more than happy to invent a few vegetarian options on the fly. No place on the emerald isle for MTR packets or frozen rotis).
Ideally located between the ancient Bishop’s Gate area, where the apprentice boys slammed the gates shut, and the slightly more modern Foyleside Shopping Centre is Halo Pantry and Grill. The eatery is highly rated in the city and I am treated to a great no-frills burger. Afterwards the manager shares his concern about recent economic developments. The Republic of Ireland, less than 16km away from Derry where the border came closest, is almost broke. “It’s been hard. We’re just three years old. We’ve seen nothing but a bad economy. I don’t know how we’re going to survive next year. A lot of people used to come from the Republic to shop here. Especially when the euro became very strong. They used to come in their cars and go back with the boot full of shopping bags. But now things look bad,” Kerr says.
Up in the north there is nothing but sympathy for the travails in the Republic. While the global slowdown has affected Northern Ireland as much as any other part of the UK, they’ve been spared the chaos down south. Each day the local papers talk of nothing but the crisis unfolding in the Republic.
“Like everywhere else they got done in by the banks.” Talking to me is Andrew Beggs. Beggs is a driver-guide, someone qualified to guide tourists around Ireland but also trained to drive large passenger vehicles. He is a short, stocky 60-year-old man with wisps of white hair on his head and a bottomless reservoir of trivia inside it. “But you know what,” Beggs tell me over coffee at a small café a few hours outside Derry, “we Irish have always been poor. This island never really had any money. We’ve had all the wars and then the famines and the great migrations. We’ve been poor before. We may become poor again. But we can deal with that. The Irish know how to be poor.”
Over the next few days we wind our way southwards, closer and closer to Dublin where the Irish government scrambles to stay afloat. En route we stop at Bushmills, a whiskey distillery. A Polish fellow from Gdansk takes us through a tasting session where we sample Irish and Scotch whiskies and American bourbon.
Then we stay for a night at Castle Leslie, a wonderfully preserved old castle property on sprawling grounds that is endowed with a few ghosts, some of the oldest flushing toilets in Ireland and a history of owners bestowed with eccentricity. The current owner, nonagenarian Sir John Leslie, is a connoisseur of loud thumping music and is a frequent visitor at the nightclub in nearby Monaghan Town. Sir John also occasionally conducts tours of the castle himself. Hearing him refer to an old British prime minister as “cousin Winston”, while energetically speeding up and down several flights of stairs, faster than much younger visitors, is quite remarkable. Castle Leslie is also where Paul McCartney got married to Heather Mills. The marriage, like Ireland’s brush with prosperity, was brief and ended expensively.
Once in Dublin, however, there is no mistaking the sense of embarrassment and anger that pervades the city. A scramble to visit the National Museum of History comes to nought as the gates are shut early. A watchman tells us that there was a protest outside the nearby office of Brian Cowen, Ireland’s Taoiseach or prime minister. Thousands of angry protesters flooded the streets. There was no violence but most nearby buildings were shut early.
The supermarkets and department stores are full of shoppers nevertheless. With Christmas shopping starting earlier each year, Dundrum Town Centre in Dublin is packed with families. Retailers such as Marks and Spencer and Harvey Nicols show no sign of an impending crisis that will, according to most newspaper editorials, make Republic of Ireland citizens service debt payments for years. Dundrum is a good showcase for the kind of Irish prosperity that made people call it the Celtic Tiger. The shopping centre is Ireland’s and one of Europe’s largest with a floor space of over 80,000 sq. ft. Some 70 million people have shopped here since its opening in 2005. “We can’t drop everything because of some stupid bankers, can we?” says a Marks and Spencer salesman when I ask him why so many people are still spending. His job that day was to hard-sell a Sony iPod dock at 30% discount. “Until Christmas people will buy. But after that I don’t know. Things will probably get very tough.”
Upstairs, in the Eason’s book store, things are much more obvious. Entire shelves are dedicated to books on the Irish crisis. One thing, however, stands out. The titles sound nothing like the sombre, serious books that came out from the US or UK. There is none of that grave, gloomy foreboding. One book by John Waters is called: Feckers: 50 People Who Fecked Up Ireland. There are quite a few books in that vein. Many covers have cartoons and caricatures. Yet they all convey a sense of collective throwing up of arms in disgust and frustration—how could this happen to us?
Bill Shipsey is still optimistic: “The Irish are resilient. We are still far better off than we ever were.” Shipsey is a well-known lawyer in Dublin whose clients include the bands U2 and The Cranberries (he was also recently in the news for a case about a businessman found sleepwalking in the nude. It makes for essential googling). He responded to a set of emailed questions. Shipsey says he got a sense that things were going downhill “when most of the commercial property deals in London involved Irish investors—outbidding Arab sheikhs”. What does this mean for him and his family? “Spending less. Paying off debt. Licking wounds. And being resigned to working for years longer than I would have wished.” But the true barometer of Irish sentiment, my guide Andrew Beggs tells me, is to be found in an Irish pub. There are at least 900 in Ireland. I manage to visit two. McDaids pub is outside the splendid Westbury Hotel, just off Grafton Street, a prime shopping area. Nearby is a famous statue of local boy and member of 1970s rockers Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott.
More than a hundred years old McDaid’s has a rich history, having at some point ejected such litterateurs as Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Liam O’Flaherty.
Shelf life: Relevant tomes on Irish history on sale in a local bookshop.
“When I was growing up being Irish was about family and neighbours. Those were our values,” explains a well-dressed man in a sweater vest and jeans. He has a Rolex on his watch and looks like he has taken many a ride on the Celtic Tiger. But he is very angry. “Bloody bankers blew it all away. How embarrassing is this? We are a country of just four and a half million people. Just four and a half million! And we can’t manage our own accounts!”
He asks me where I am from and how many people we have. I assure him that Gurgaon alone probably has more people than the Republic of Ireland.
“See. You guys manage things. We just fecked it up. But the good thing is we’ll go back to family. That is what is going to happen. If you have family and neighbours and hold tight to those people then you don’t need more than a penny in your pocket.”
Which is all good. But how will he manage with the economy crashing?
He staggers a little and leans on the counter for balance. And then he points at a pint of Guinness on the bar. “As long as I can afford one of those, there is no such thing as a recession.”
Further away from Grafton Street is the equally famous O’Donoghue’s Pub near St Stephen’s Green. The pub is famous for being old, for the atmosphere and for being one of the birthplaces of The Dubliners, an Irish folk band that once charted above the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Here I spoke to a man who sat huddled in a corner drinking both wine and beer simultaneously.
His first question was illuminating: “Why are you asking me about this? Are you from the World Bank?”
I assured him I was not. I asked him if he was angry.
“Aye. I am angry. But what can I do now? We’ve made fools of ourselves. I am never voting for the Fianna Fail (the Republican party) again. The prime minister is a buffoon. The whole world is laughing at us Irish. They think we are like the bloody Greeks!”
Will the Irish bounce back?
“Of course, we will. Of course. No surrender! No surrender!”
That night, as I run back to the hotel on frozen roads, I notice a snow man built into the corner between a wall and shuttered shopfront. The snow man looks like it has been decapitated and then trampled on. On the wall next to it someone has written with snow: “Cowen”, and then an arrow points downwards at the battered frozen carcass.
The next day images of prime minister Cowen flash on news channels as the European Union agrees to bail the Republic of Ireland out to the tune of €85 billion (around R5.1 trillion). The government has surrendered. But not the people.
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