After my long post about the Conference on Divided Societies, I want to share my opinions on my time in Ireland. First, Ireland is a beautiful country. I have never seen such green grass in my life! The view from the airplane window revealed gently rolling hills covered in dark green fields- absolutely beautiful!
The city of Derry is also gorgeous. The second largest city in Northern Ireland, the city center is enclosed within four ancient, protective walls and is the only completely walled city remaining in Ireland and one of few in all of Europe. Derry was founded in the 6th century and was named Doire in Irish meaning “oak tree” since the site was covered by an oak grove. Today the name of the city is up for debate. In 1613, King James I added London to the name in order to represent the city’s link to the crown. Officially, Londonderry remains the name of the city. However, it is more commonly referred to as Derry because it favors the city’s Irish heritage. Even today, some Catholics/Republicans still get offended to hear the city referred to as Londonderry and will correct you if you call it that.
Derry has seen more than its fair share of conflict including one famous fight against King James. After William of Orange came from the Netherlands and took over England in the Glorious Revolution, James was obviously angry and decided to retake his kingdom starting with Derry. The Siege of Derry last for several months in 1689, but the town refused to surrender. The inhabitants sealed the gates to the city and remained locked and forced to live under terrible conditions. Disease was rampant and there was little food, so the people were forced to eat dogs that were fattened on dead bodies. I apologize for just ruining your appetite.
Most famously, Derry is known as the location of the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972. On January 30 of that year, there was a peaceful protest demanding civil rights in the town, and things quickly spiraled out of control when the British Army opened fire on the unarmed protestors. Thirteen people died that day and another died later from his injuries. Most were young boys around the age of 17. Immediately after the event, a tribunal investigated the situation but decided that the attack was justified. The verdict infuriated the Irish, and finally another tribunal began to reinvestigate the massacre in 1998. In 2010, the Saville Tribunal decided that the protesters were indeed innocent, and David Cameron finally apologized for the incident, closing this controversial and painful chapter of Irish history.
The massacre and many other violent acts took place in the Catholic neighborhood of Bogside. Today, there are many murals in the area that remember the Troubles and those who died. The most famous is the wall that reads “You are now entering free Derry.”
Completed earlier this year, the Peace Bridge is a pedestrian bridge that extends across the river. Many people moved across the river, outside of the main city during the Troubles in order to escape the violence. Now this area has a pretty balanced distribution of Protestant and Irish families. The bridge was built to link the two parts of the city and to represent unity.
The “Hands Across the Divide” sculpture was unveiled in 1992 on the twentieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It is supposed to represent reconciliation and hope for the future.
After learning about the Troubles, there is much to be said for the progress that Northern Ireland as made since the peace treaties were signed in 1998. The country is generally peaceful although there are still some acts of violence. However, the wounds inflicted by the Troubles are still apparent.
Even within the past few weeks, there has been unrest. For the year 2013, Derry has been named the UK City of Culture. This angered some Republicans because they do not believe Derry should be a part of the UK. In response, the Real IRA bombed the Cultural Center in Derry in October. Luckily no one was killed in the attack. Walking around the city one night, our group walked past a police checkpoint at one intersection. The conference organizers warned us that we might see large numbers of police out at night on patrol and helicopters often circle the city looking for signs of trouble.
Another contentious issue we witnessed during our stay revolved around Remembrance Sunday activities. Remembrance Sunday commemorates the end of World War II and honors the contributions of British soldiers. Red poppies are worn as a sign of remembrance. However, in Derry the commemoration and the wearing of poppies are seen as Protestant traditions, and some Irish disapprove because of their dislike of the British and because they feel that Irish contributions are generally ignored. During the panel discussion with the representatives of the integrated school, we learned that the school had problems last week because some Catholic students did not want anyone to be allowed to wear poppies at school because they were offensive.
During our guided tour of the city on Sunday, we walked past the ceremony and saw part of the parade, and of course the whole audience was wearing poppies proudly on their chests. I was a little nervous about going to the ceremony after hearing about the recent unrest and controversy surrounding Remembrance Sunday, but fortunately everything proceeded quietly and without incident.
After dinner every night, we had the evenings free, so we went out to pubs to enjoy some Guinness. The most memorable night was Saturday night when we wandered down to the city center and made out way into the bar named Tracy’s. We quickly discovered we were in a Republican pub, complete with teenaged boys selling posters of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution and drunk men yelling, “Vote IRA!”
Tired of drinking Guinness, I asked a man sitting at the bar for a beer recommendation. He recommended Smithwick’s, an Irish red ale, which was actually really good and I don’t even like beer that much. Anyway, this sparked conversation and he came over and joined our table. A little tipsy, he admitted to us that he was actually Protestant but didn’t want to advertise this fact in the Catholic bar. We talked to him about his experiences for a while, and as he was finally getting up to leave, he leaned in closer and said, “Now you all remember, there are two Irelands and there will always be two Irelands. I remember the Troubles, and I did some things that I wouldn’t do again…” With that he trailed off and said goodbye. The man was around 60, which would mean he could have been involved in the height of the violence, who knows. It was quite an interesting conversation, and I feel like we got a better idea of people’s real feelings about each other and about the conflict.
After getting a rather rosy view of the situation from the conference, it was interesting to see this side of Northern Ireland. The conference speakers didn’t by any means suggest that the conflict was completely over and the society was entirely reunified, but they did present, in my opinion, a more positive view than I saw when talking to people. This is not to say that I think the country is going to break out into civil war again at any minute because overall I felt safe and thought that the cultures were pretty well united for the short time since the conflict ended.
However, it’s clear that there is still a lot of work to be done before the divisions of the past can be put aside. In talking with the students from the integrated schools, it sounds like the younger generation is much more cohesive and committed to a united future. It was mainly out with the older generation that the prejudices are more apparent. I think is to be expected though. It always takes several generations to erase certain mindsets and to move past history. In the US, we’re not entirely over our own racial tensions, but with each generation, I think it gets better.
The most encouraging thing is that it looks like peace is on the horizon. Hopefully the country can keep moving forward peacefully towards a unified future. It will be interesting to see how things progress, and I plan to travel back to Ireland one day, both to visit more cities and to observe how relations and attitudes change overtime.
All in all, I cannot say enough great things about this weekend. The conference was a very refreshing and inspiring experience. After getting very burned out at school over the past few years, I had been very excited to graduate and put college behind me. I was opposed to going to grad school and was planning to put it off as long as absolutely possible. However after a weekend of engaging, thought-provoking debate and critical thinking, I am excited about continuing my education and going to grad school, even if I don’t start right after finishing my bachelors. The conference didn’t exactly narrow down my interests and help me decide what I want to pursue as a career, but it did get me thinking a lot more and reenergized me. I’m excited!
Merci mille fois to the staff at IAU for making this weekend possible! I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference!