Delving into Derry

Conflict is only one dimension of (London-) Derry...
...but the dramatic and emotional artwork you’ll encounter here will likely be one of your trip's most enduring travel memories.
By Rick Steves and Pat O'Connor

Smaller and prettier than Belfast, and with a richer history, the historically pivotal city of Derry offers a compelling glimpse at Northern Ireland, past and present.

The town of Derry (to Nationalists) or Londonderry (to Unionists) is the mecca of Ulster Unionism. When Ireland was being divvied up, the River Foyle was the logical border between the North and the Republic. But, for sentimental and economic reasons, the North kept Derry, which is on the Republic's side of the river — a setup, as you might imagine, that led to years of tumultuous dispute.

Still, the conflict is only one dimension of Derry; Derry was a vibrant city back when Belfast was just a mudflat. With a quarter of Belfast's population (85,000), Derry feels more welcoming and manageable to visitors — and most of the sights of this compact city can be covered easily on foot.

Start a Derry visit by clambering 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. You'll also pass the site of the former British Army base that kept watch here until 2006, and an Anglican church that's become a sign of reconciliation after it was restored following years of Republican firebombing.

Make time to visit the Tower Museum Derry, a well-organized museum that provides an excellent introduction to the city. Combining modern audiovisual displays with historical artifacts, the exhibits tell the story of the city from a skillfully unbiased viewpoint, sorting out some of the tangled historical roots of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Perhaps most fascinating is a stroll through the Catholic Bogside neighborhood itself, the tinderbox of the modern Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was here that the tragic events of Bloody Sunday took place in 1972. It began with about 10,000 people holding an illegal march to protest the internment without trial of pro-Catholic activists. British Army barricades kept them from the center of Derry — so they marched through Bogside instead.

That afternoon, some youths rioted on the fringe of the march. An British parachute regiment had orders to move in and make arrests, and shooting broke out. After 25 minutes, 13 marchers were dead and 13 were wounded (one of the wounded later died). The soldiers claimed they came under attack from gunfire and nail-bombs. The marchers said the army shot indiscriminately at unarmed civilians.

The clash sparked a sectarian inferno, and the ashes have not yet fully cooled. Today, a stroll through Bogside gives visitors an accessible glimpse of this community's passionate perception of those events, memorialized in 12 murals painted on the ends of apartment buildings along a 300-yard stretch of road where the march took place. These days, this neighborhood is gritty, but quiet and safe.

While these murals preserve the struggles of the late 20th century, today sectarian violence has given way to negotiations and a settlement that seems to be working. The city has agreed to alternate Nationalist and Unionist mayors, and citizens seem filled with a cautious optimism. British Prime Minister David Cameron's 2010 apology for the Bloody Sunday shootings was a huge step forward. Nationalist leader John Hume, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with Unionist leader David Trimble, still has a house in Bogside. He once borrowed a quote from Gandhi to explain his nonviolent approach to the peace process: "An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

Pat O'Connor is the co-author of the Rick Steves Ireland guidebook.