PAMELA WADE DISCOVERS DERRY IS A CITY STEEPED IN HISTORY
It’s an odd thing, to arrive in a city and not know what to call it. Derry? Londonderry? Derry/Londonderry? Each option is so steeped in political and religious resonance that for many it feels easier to use the neutral nickname of Stroke City.
Sprawled across the mouth of the River Foyle in Northern Ireland, it’s a city with a long and eventful history, right up to the recent past of The Troubles, when Catholic nationalists were in pitched battle against unionist Protestants.
One of the best ways to get a handle on it all is to take a guided walk around the city walls, which are unique in being still complete after more than 400 years and despite a siege in 1689 that lasted 105 days. From here it’s all visible − the cathedral, cannons, the impressive Guildhall, the river, the elegant modern Peace Bridge, the city and suburbs, and all of it steeped in stories.
To the west, rows of terraced houses look neat and tidy − but this is the Catholic suburb of Bogside. It’s where some of the most violent events during The Troubles took place, including the Battle of Bogside in 1969 and Bloody Sunday in 1972.
On the end walls of the terraces colourful murals make strong and very visible statements. On a bus tour through here, the guide points out the Peace Walls between the Catholic and Protestant suburbs. They are covered in slogans and tagged symbols as high as
people can reach, but that is scarcely a quarter of their total height, a towering eight metres. At night, the gates are still locked, our guide tells us.
We are shocked, because coming into the city across the river the first thing we saw was the Hands Across the Divide statue, with two men reaching over a wall towards each other.
The city is peaceful now, and no-one wants to return to those days. Certainly, everyone we meet is keen to put it all behind them, but the big new mural beside the city wall of the current, and brilliant, Netflix series Derry Girls is proof that The Troubles are still a part of everyone’s personal history.
It’s an ancient land, but not all of Ireland’s history is violent. Driving away from the city, we pass through green countryside on the way to the coast. There, perched dramatically on the edge of a cliff, are the pretty ruins of medieval Dunluce Castle. There’s been a castle here for 800 years, but even that is only yesterday compared with what’s further along the coast.
Fifty to 60 million years ago, molten lava oozed up to the surface, cooled and then cracked, forming the remarkable construction known as the Giant’s Causeway. Here, around 40,000 mostly hexagonal basalt columns sit snugly fitted together, sweeping in a neat curve from high on a hillside down to the water’s edge, where the waves break white over the shiny black rock.
This is Ireland, so of course there’s a story about its origin. It was built by the Irish giant Finn McCool as a bridge for him to cross the sea to challenge Scotland’s giant, Benandonner, but he turned out to be much bigger than Finn. The Irish giant was saved from a painful defeat only by the quick thinking of his wife, Oonagh, who disguised him so he could escape.
Returning to Derry, we stop at one of the possible sources for stories such as this − Bushmills whiskey distillery. It’s the oldest in Ireland, loosening tongues and lubricating the imagination for more than 400 years. It’s a perfect end to the tour. Sláinte!
The Peace Bridge is well worth a look, especially at night. The Hands Across the Divide sculpture is a reminder of the peaceful times Derry now lives in. The Guildhall suffered during The Troubles, but has since been restored.