In July of 2014, I returned to my birthplace of Northern Ireland with my good friend Erik Brown. We encountered the divisions, memories and sentiments that divide the province. This is my attempt to make sense of the experience. At times, my memories written here are colored by the emotions that only history, politics and religion can draw out. Equally, these recollections are both tempered and enlivened by a bit of alcohol. What follows is that 24 hour period, in two parts, in the cities of Derry and Belfast.
“If these walls could talk, O the tales they would tell.”
Part I: Derry-Walls and Borders
Erik and I looked out across endless rows of drab housing blocks. The sky was heavy with clouds. Despite being mid-July, it was chilly and wet. “We need to go in that direction I think,” Erik said. The massive wall we stood atop surrounds the old city of Derry. Known officially as Londonderry, it’s name alone is a source of tension among its inhabitants. We were overlooking the working class Catholic neighborhood called the Bogside. Segregated since the 1920s, the Bogside is a place of triumph and tragedy. From 1969-1972, it was a self-declared Irish nationalist autonomous zone. It is also where the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre occurred. On that day in 1972, British paratroopers shot 26 unarmed men and boys, during a civil rights protest. Fourteen of them died.
It’s a strange phenomenon when you cross a border. Especially if the scenery stays the same but the political reality takes on serious weight. Erik and I were on our way to Belfast from Donegal. Derry was where we made our final bus transfer. We had finally crossed the line that separates the 26 southern counties from the 6 northern ones.
Nowadays, you hardly realize that you’re in a separate country. It’s a far cry from the roadblocks, manned by machine-gun toting soldiers, that I remember from childhood. Awarded the the title of UK City of Culture in 2010, Derry is enjoying a period of peace and transition. Part of that culture includes the politically-charged murals that adorn the walls of the Bogside and the stories that they tell.
We had a few hours before our departure to Belfast, so we paid a visit to the Museum of Free Derry. As we descended towards the site, we wondered aloud if we were in the right place. Erik, wearing his trademark baseball cap strode ahead. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said to himself. I had at least seen pictures of the area, but for him, this was all completely new. Although redeveloped today, the area still bears the scars of years of civil unrest. Burn marks and political graffiti decorate the walls and monumental murals cover entire buildings.
The small, red museum is a former apartment block. Murals cover the walls and bullet holes from Bloody Sunday are still visible on the premises. As I approached, one mural caught my eye. Iraqnica is a modern twist on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. His depiction of history’s first aerial saturation bombing of civilians captures the horror unleashed on the Basque village of Guernica.I felt overwhelmed by the painting. Trapped with the dead children, weeping women and dismembered animals, there was no escaping the sensation. Frenetic and haunting, it takes Picasso’s antiwar statement and updates it for our modern era.
Standing in front of the piece, a hollowness crept inside me. I have never known the violence of war… I hope never to know it firsthand, as the people of Guernica did. As the
people of Iraq do. As the people of Derry did. Lost in my thoughts, Erik opened the door and I came back to reality.
Upon entering, a friendly woman greeted us and asked where we were from.“Two for the museum then? Are ye’ interested in taking a tour as well?” she chirped in her thick northern accent. We paid for both the entrance and the tour and she ushered us into the museum. “Right, I’ll just make a few wee calls and find ye a guide.”
“I think I read that the tour guides are people who were at Bloody Sunday,” Erik whispered. While waiting for our guide we explored the exhibits.
The museum is straightforward in its approach: The main displays consist of informational text and photos, laid out in chronological order. There are also a fair share of items on display. Civil rights posters, police gas masks, and assorted weaponry sit beside blood-stained clothing. Poignant and powerful, the Bogsider’s story packs a powerful punch. As I read, the complexities of Northern Ireland came to life. I felt certain Erik would leave with a clearer perspective of the country.
King Billy and King James: A Short History Lesson
1689- The Siege of Londonderry
This event is essential to understanding the roots of the conflict. The forces of Catholic King James II, besieged the city for over 100 days. James promised religious tolerance in the British Isles. He enjoyed widespread support among the Irish, most of whom were Catholic. Skeptical of James’s promises, Protestants famously rebuffed his requests by shouting “No Surrender!” from the same walls that Erik and I stood atop earlier that day. This came at a heavy cost. An estimated 8,000 inhabitants died from starvation and disease inside the beleaguered city. Eventually, ships loyal to Protestant King William III of Orange aided the city. Did I mention that William was James’s son-in-law?
1690- The Battle of the Boyne
Affectionately known to Northern Irish Protestants as “King Billy”, William invaded Ireland. In an episode of extreme family dysfunction, he decisively defeated James at the Battle of the Boyne. William cemented Protestant domination throughout Ireland. Irish Catholics lost their lands, religious freedom and the right to hold political office. Speaking the Irish language, Gaelic, became a crime, as did owning weapons.
1919-1921-Irish War of Independence/ Partition
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought a guerrilla war against Great Britain. The South became known as the Irish Free State, and it broke free from the yoke of British imperialism. The Protestant majority in the northern six counties, or Ulster, stayed loyal to the British crown. Herein lie the seeds of the modern conflict. Irish nationalists on both sides favored eventual reunification and absolute independence from Britain. Their Protestant counterparts in the North, the Unionists, wanted a continued union with Great Britain.
1920s-1970s- Protestant Control of Northern Ireland
Unionists in Northern Ireland reinforced their domination of Ulster with a variety of measures. They created the Royal Ulster Constabulary, (RUC). This police force was 90% Protestant and criticized for sectarianism and police brutality. Catholics faced discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, and voting. The government used the Special Powers Act, banning parades and assemblies. This allowed for unwarranted searches, and arrests without trials and charges. Catholics in Northern Ireland lived as second class citizens. It was in this environment that things came to head in Derry.
The Battle of the Bogside
Erik sighed and shook his head. Photos showing the 1969 riot known as the Battle of the Bogside were on display in front of us. Residents of the Bogside fought pitched battles with the police for three days. The British army moved in to keep the peace. The Bogside became known as “Free Derry”. It became a no-go area for law enforcement for over two years. From here, Irish nationalist terrorist groups, like the IRA, launched deadly attacks on the police and army.
Erik intently read the notices and took in the displays. Often, my attempts to explain Northern Ireland’s history are met with confusion. I felt grateful to have a friend who took an interest in the history of my homeland.
We learned that as civil rights protests continued in the area, police violence intensified. On Sunday, January 30th, 1972, a massive demonstration ended in a bloodbath. Army paratroopers opened fire on unarmed protesters. The army claimed that they were fired upon and that they acted in self-defense. The official investigation sided with the soldiers. Yet, several later inquiries found no evidence that any victims were armed. In 2010, the Saville Report vindicated the fourteen victims of any wrongdoing. British Prime Minister David Cameron has since made a formal apology to the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday.
Erik and I stood in silence as we watched video footage of the carnage. The camera panned across the scene and bounced. Its owner turned to run from incoming shots… suddenly the camera fell to the ground…pavement…and then nothing. The scene looped again and again. The cameraman, William McKinney, lay dead as his camera continued to roll. Haunted and a bit shaken, we continued somberly through the museum. I think Erik shared my feeling of relief when we headed outside for the tour.
“The World Needs to Hear Our Story”
“How’re ye doin?” exclaimed our guide. “I’m Joe, and I’ll be tellin’ ye about our community and what we’ve experienced here.”
Cars honked and Joe waved and smiled as we walked. Well known in the area, he explained that he worked as a taxi driver, but gave tours for the museum whenever he could.
“It’s very important for us te’ be able te’ tell our story. The world needs te’ hear our story,” Joe continued.
We stood facing a mural of a British soldier, poised to batter down a door with a sledgehammer. The height of a three story home, the beret wearing soldier dominated the scene. Raids like this were commonplace during The Troubles. As they searched for IRA weapons, soldiers and police often beat the inhabitants of the homes, regardless of whether they found any arms. Joe recounted his experiences as a youth growing up in the Bogside. He reminded us that Derry was a predominantly Catholic city. Political gerrymandering ensured that Catholics had little power in the city up until relatively recently.
Joe directed our attention further down the street. He took us through the events of Bloody Sunday and showed us the route the protesters took. We were now facing an evocative mural of a young rioter during the Battle of the Bogside. His face distorted by a gas mask, the teenager clutches a molotov cocktail. Riot police and a burning home fill the background. The monochrome mural captures the severity and the bleakness of the situation in Derry. As I scanned the painting, I noticed a stop sign to my left with the infamous acronym, IRA scrawled across it. Although Joe spoke of past events, the political repercussions of Bloody Sunday continue to be felt.
Joe continued his account. Soldiers began firing when the marchers, blocked by army barricades, took an alternate route. A small group of youths began throwing stones at the army barricades. At about 4:00pm, the army began firing live ammunition. Joe spoke clearly and simply. I scanned the street and imagined the chaotic scene…the crack of automatic fire, people frantically ducking for cover, screams and cries of “Get Down!”. Joe pointed to a spot on the cracked asphalt.
“And that there…”
“That there is where my brother was shot…”
Erik and I stopped in our tracks.
“He was filming,” Joe continued “and when he heard the shots he turned ‘round to run and he was shot in the back.”
I thought back to the museum and the footage we had seen. Erik immediately offered his condolences to Joe McKinney. I was speechless. William McKinney, 26, was on the streets that day, documenting the events. He died on the scene.
The Battle for Memory
Now I understood why Joe volunteered to give tours at the museum. His story isn’t just about an unfortunate event that happened 30+ years earlier. It’s not enough just to remember. This was also about the way Bloody Sunday gets remembered.
Always in flux, history is painted with many different brushes. The truth is subjective. The dominant culture, often overtly, sometimes unconsciously, erases things that don’t fit into the heroic, civilized image they wish to project. This is nothing new of course. No civilization is exempt from the hijacking of memory and the shaping of perceptions. But when we accept this sort of narrative, we miss an opportunity. A richer, more relevant history is available.
Joe explained that since the vindication of the victims of Bloody Sunday, the families were now free to pursue legal action against the government of Great Britain. I’m not sure closure can ever come after an atrocity such as this. But at least the record shows the victims as human beings, not criminals.
We stopped near the Bloody Sunday Memorial, and I read the names of the deceased. I looked up at the city walls and the sky. Rain seemed imminent. Back at the entrance of the museum, we shook hands with Joe and thanked him for sharing his story with us. Our bus to Belfast was leaving soon. Joe smiled and wished us luck. We shook hands and headed up the stairs that led out of the Bogside.