By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor
Smaller and prettier than Belfast, and with a richer history, the pivotal city of Derry offers a compelling glimpse at Northern Ireland, past and present.
When most of Ireland became the Republic of Ireland in 1921, the Foyle River was the logical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But, for sentimental and economic reasons, the North kept the flourishing Derry, even though it sprawled over onto the Republic side of the river. Consequently, this predominately Catholic city has been much contested throughout the Troubles. But the conflict is only one dimension of underappreciated Derry (called Londonderry by Unionists who want to maintain their union with Britain).
Most of the sights of this compact city can be covered easily on foot. Clamber up on the squat old city walls for a walk through Derry's history. The English, who brought English settlers to Derry in the early 17th century, built the walls to protect their settlers and keep out the native Irish. The Irish ended up with the less desirable rocky or boggy land (sowing the seeds of the modern-day Troubles).
The walls, almost 20 feet high and at least as thick, form a mile-long oval loop covering Derry's highlights. Start at the Tower Museum Derry, built inside the walls near Magazine Gate. The museum is divided into two sections: The Story of Derry (on the ground floor) and the Spanish Armada (on the four floors of the tower). Start with the Story of Derry, which explains the city's monastic origins 1,500 years ago. It moves through pivotal events, such as the 1688–1689 siege, as well as unexpected blips, including Amelia Earhart's emergency landing. Catch the thought-provoking 14-minute film in the small theater, which gives an evenhanded local perspective on the tragic events of the modern sectarian conflict, giving you a better handle on what makes this unique city tick.
As you exit the small theater, scan the displays of paramilitary paraphernalia in the hallway lined with colored curbstones — red, white, and blue Union Jack colors for Loyalists; and green, white, and orange Irish tricolor for Republicans. There, you'll also find tiny notes written by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, which were smuggled out of the Maze prison. The tower section holds the Spanish Armada exhibits, filled with items taken from the wreck of the La Trinidad Valencera, which sunk offshore in 1588.
From Magazine Gate, walk the wall as it heads uphill, snaking along the earth's contours like a mini–Great Wall of China. In the row of buildings on the left (just before crossing over Castle Gate), you'll see an arch entry into the Craft Village, an alley lined with a cluster of cute shops that showcase the recent economic rejuvenation of Derry.
As you walk ahead, you'll pass (on the left) the site of a British Army surveillance tower that stood here until 2006. It was situated here for the bird's-eye view of the once-turbulent Catholic Bogside district below. Its recent dismantlement — as well as the removal of the British Army from Northern Ireland — is another positive sign in cautiously optimistic Derry.
Stop at the Double Bastion fortified platform that occupies this corner of the city walls. The old cannon is nicknamed "Roaring Meg" for the fury of its firing during the siege.
From here, you can see across the Catholic Bogside area to the not-so-far-away hills of County Donegal in the Republic. Derry was once an island, but as the Foyle River gradually changed its course, the area you see below the wall began to drain. Over time, and especially after the Potato Famine (1845-1849), Catholic peasants from rural Donegal began to move into Derry to find work and settled on this least desirable land... on the soggy, bog side of the city.
The Bogside area was the tinderbox of the modern Troubles in Northern Ireland. A terrible confrontation almost 40 years ago sparked a sectarian inferno, and the ashes have not yet fully cooled. Today, the murals of the Bogside give visitors an accessible glimpse of this community's passionate perception of those events.
Inspired by civil rights marches in America in the mid-1960s and the 1968 Prague Spring uprising, civil rights groups began to protest in Northern Ireland. Initially, their goals were to gain better housing, secure fair voting rights, and end employment discrimination for Catholics in the North. Tensions mounted, and clashes with the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary police force became frequent. Eventually, the British Army was called in to keep the peace.
On January 30, 1972, a group protesting internment without trial held an illegal march through the Bogside neighborhood. They were fired upon by members of a British regiment, who claimed that snipers had fired on them first. The tragic result of the clash, now remembered as Bloody Sunday, caused the death of 14 civilians and led to a flood of fresh IRA volunteers.
The events are memorialized in 12 murals painted on the ends of residential flats along a 300-yard stretch of Rossville Street and Lecky Road, where the march took place. You can reach them from Waterloo Place via William Street, from the old city walls at Butcher's Gate via the long set of stairs extending below Fahan Street on the grassy hillside, or by the stairs leading down from the Long Tower Church. These days, this neighborhood is gritty but quiet and safe.
Today, life has stabilized in Derry, and the population has increased by 25 percent in the last 30 years, to about 84,000. The modern Foyleside Shopping Centre, bankrolled by investors from Boston, was completed in 1995. The 1998 Good Friday Peace Accord has provided two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress toward peace, and the British Army withdrew withdrew 90 percent of its troops in mid-2007. With a population that is 70 percent Catholic, the city has agreed to alternate Nationalist and Unionist mayors. There is a feeling of cautious optimism as Derry — the epicenter of bombs and bloody conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s — now boasts a history museum that airs all viewpoints.
Nationalist leader John Hume, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 with Unionist leader David Trimble, still has a house in the Bogside. He once borrowed a quote from Gandhi to explain his non-violent approach to the peace process: "An eye for an eye just ends up leaving everyone blind."
Pat O'Connor is the co-author of Rick Steves' Ireland guidebook.