After spending a few days hiking the Causeway Coast Way in Northern Ireland, I decided to spend a day in Derry. As I was in Portrush, it was pretty easy for me to take the train to the second largest city in Northern Ireland. And did not regretted it, because the city has a particular character and is worth discovering.
It must first be pointed out that the very name of the city can sometimes be confusing (and reflects the unique duality of Northern Ireland). Officially, it is called Londonderry, but across the border, in Ireland, the name Derry is used (which is also the name preferred by the Nationalists of Northern Ireland). In many places (such as public transport), the more neutral denomination of Derry/Londonderry is used.
So I arrived one morning in Derry/Londonderry with nearly 24 hours to spend in the city. As a good tourist, I first headed to the old walled city. Derry is the only town in Ireland that has preserved its walls and is one of the best examples of fortified city in all of Europe (oddly enough, it reminded me of Tallinn and its old town).
These fortifications were built between 1613 and 1619 and were crucial to the city during the Siege of Derry in 1688-1689. The city had then undergone the longest siege in British history (105 days!) when the Catholic forces of William of Orange attempted to subjugate the largely Protestant population. Nearly 4,000 people lost their lives, but Derry and its walls stood firm.
The walls remained largely intact and the four original gates of the walled city still exist (three others were added in the following centuries). And what makes the visit really great is that it is possible to walk over the walls that go around the old city for 1.5 kilometres. Interpretation signs give explanations on different sections of the walls, on the buildings that can be seen and on the history of the city. It is also possible to see closely (and touch!) the old cannons of the fortifications.
From the top of the walls, it is also possible to see the neighborhoods beyond the old fortified city. And there, as is the case in Belfast, it is possible to note that the Protestant and Catholic communities are still sharply divided. Derry/Londonderry also has its “Peace Line” separating neighborhoods, and there are many pro-nationalist murals on the Catholic side.
To see the murals more closely, I headed for the Bogside neighborhood after visiting the old city. Many believe that it was in Bogside that the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland really began. In 1969, residents of the Catholic District declared themselves independent and barricaded the streets to protect “Free Derry”. A few years later, 14 unarmed citizens were shot dead by British paratroopers during a peaceful march, an event later called “Bloody Sunday” that fueled tensions across the nation.
To walk in Bogside is therefore to plunge into this dark period of Northern Ireland. The murals are striking and illustrate some of the dark moments of the neighborhood’s history. And as was the case in Belfast, I was rather troubled to learn more about these tragic events that took place not that really long ago.
I left Derry the next day. I took the bus to Dublin, leaving behind Northern Ireland and its turbulent history. Passing by the city’s new Peace Bridge, which represents a symbolic handshake between communities, I could only hope for a rosier future for this nation of beautiful landscapes and wonderfully hospitable people.
Dear Northern Ireland, it’s just a goodbye. I’ll be back.