No city is more defined, more defiant, than Derry. Ireland’s only city to retains its walls, maintaining a fortress that has guarded the Foyle estuary for three and a half centuries. Within that timespan is contained much of the weave of Irish history, a focal point for native and invader to generate modern myth and identity. In this place where the banners of the old jest were woven, colours were dyed that are still worn with pride, with belligerence even. Murals form a gallery from the gable ends of housing estates, slogans whisper and scream, flags proclaim sharp divisions, marking enclaves alongside more subtle imprecations, while canon, monuments and ancient buildings illustrate a colourful past. Such is the visible skin; meanwhile, beneath the city’s life and blood pulses, a palimpsest of possibilities.
From a distance Derry stretches like any large Irish town, a soft outline beyond a grey broadening river, two sharp spires to denote the Irish religious duality. This last distinction is no longer a pervasive or definitive line here in Ireland, but in Northern Ireland it matters a lot. The colour coding of flags and emblems, the red, white and blue painted kerbstones, serve to remind visitors of the identity long contested and jettisoned by most, but profoundly felt in the floating province. From the Waterside the bridge taking us west to the centre of the city is, appropriately, split level. Crossing to the west bank of the Foyle in part feels like a return to Ireland, but that would be putting things too simply.
The Guildhall is an impressive gothic pile, symbol of the burgeoning confidence of trade and dominion, English gothic in style and confidently placed just outside the main gate. Nearby, a market huddles in the lee of the walls, emphasising the medievalist notion of a city isolated from its hinterland behind fortifications. More precisely, the fortress is Early Modern, dating from the seventeenth century and employing a grid plan for its streets, a very modern notion in its day. Viewed as a plan, the two main streets, Shipquay Street and Ferryquay Street, form a cross to mimic the London coat of arms. That particular and contentious prefix gives rise to the joke that Londonderry is the only word in the English language with six silent letters.
The city centre is the Diamond, as definite a centre point as you could wish, on the highest elevation, its war monument the pin holding it in place, truly the city on the hill. Now the ornate consumer palace that is Austin’s dominates the square, a playful addition to the skyline. Across the street, Witherspoon’s pub has that quintessentially British air, elsewhere the bars are more native, particularly so on the outer edge of the wall in Waterloo Street. The diaspora is prominent too, one bar, Bound for Boston, is helpfully indicated by a large model of the Statue of Liberty. Well, it’s in the ballpark…
Derry was the focus of a different diaspora at its foundation. Early settlements sought to carve an English niche out of the Irish hinterland. It is said the first garrison so mistreated the locals that they were cursed by the spirit of St Columb, and so destroyed themselves by accidentally igniting their own gunpowder. Subsequent settlements were more organised and by the late 17th century the city was well established, staunchly Protestant and Parliamentarian.
The Siege is everpresent. The imminent capitulation of Lundy to Jacobite forces was averted by the action of the Apprentice Boys in 1690 Good King Billy relieved the siege and established the Protestant supremacy, still trumpeted on certain streetscapes throughout the province today.
The walls provide an elevated journey around the modern city and a window into its past. The Apprentice Boys Hall, the First Derry Presbyterian Church, St Columb’s Cathedral and the Verbal Arts Centre are amongst the distinguished buildings hugging the inside of the walls. Looking west over the parapets there is the Bogside. Its gable ends face the city walls with a certain acrimony. They have become a gallery of graphic murals, commemorating the likes of Bobby Sands and Bernadette Devlin, and more surprisingly Che Guevara. The paratroop killings are commemorated in the iconic shot of Fr Daly escorting a victim with a white handkerchief. But there is no surrender here either. The Bogside has slammed its own missiles and slogans against the towering walls.
Around the corner, The Fountain district lies beneath St Columb’s. Here the red white and blue prevail, King William still rides and the Union Jack flies. The dilemma is encapsulated in the phrase: We only have a siege mentality because we are under siege. Both supreme and surrounded, it is difficult to reconcile.
Yet, reconciliation is a major factor in Derry. How could a city thrive without some communality amongst its citizens? The citizens are as solid an entity as any edifice of bricks and mortar. Along the streets people throng the shops and pubs, the cafes and restaurants. As the markets melt into the dusk music beats out from the venues. Crowds flow across the curve of the pedestrian bridge to a concert on the Waterside. At the end, fireworks pummel the air above the Foyle. The smell of cordite flows into the city. There is a perverse echo of a city suspended in time. From its foundation there has been a pattern, from its formative gunpowder fiasco to the famous siege, on through the ages to petrol bombing youths and the shadows of various gunmen of various tribes. The walls survive and the people too. The spirit of Derry thrives, welcoming an uncertain future,