City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. Today’s story recounts my visit to Derry, Northern Ireland in early February 1998. If you want to read of my adventures as a child barfly in Brooklyn, check out City Stories #1 – The Pigeons.
In six weeks touring through Ireland and Britain, I travel via train, bus, ferry, bicycle, and often by foot. Uniquely, I arrive in Derry, Northern Ireland by car. John and Johanna, a couple I met at the hostel in Coleraine who invited me to join them on their outing to the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim Coast, generously offer to drive me to Derry as it is along their planned route into Donegal. I should be grateful, and I am, but there is a certain beauty to solo travel — setting your own pace, visiting the places only you want to see, and not having to yell directions over the sound of the radio to two people completely incompetent in the art of navigation.
I stew in the backseat, counting down the kilometers to Londonderry from the road signs. I can also tell we are getting closer by increasing displays of the symbols of sectarianism. We pass through villages painted entirely in blue and red along the curbs and up the light poles, letting us know that the residents are Unionists, the Protestants who prefer that Northern Ireland remain a province of the United Kingdom. Then we pass through villages of the Catholic Nationalists, who wish to unite the Six Counties with the Irish Republic and paint their curbs and lampposts in green and orange. The territories are well marked and grow increasingly so as we approach Derry, the hotbed of sectarian warfare. As the sun sets and the skies darken, the territorial colors are less noticeable, but as we pull into the city, I notice something else. All the windows on ground floors of the houses and businesses are covered with metal grates. I see only a few unprotected windows and without fail, they are shattered. The car pulls up to Steve’s Backpackers Hostel, my lodging for the next three nights.
Even after entering the hostel, I cannot rid myself of my generous yet irritating companions. John tags along with me and collars the hostel employee on duty for a lengthy discussion regarding directions to Donegal. It’s half and hour before I can even register at the hostel. Instead, in that time I sit in the cozy kitchen – which as in many hostels doubles as a reception area – sipping complimentary tea, and slowly realizing that all the decorations on the walls contain scenes of political violence. Newspaper clippings show Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) men leading baton charges against infuriated protesters, the wreckage of a burning bus, and lines of soldiers marching through otherwise peaceful suburban streets. Steve’s Backpackers evidently wishes to make it known that Derry is not a place travelers visit for Broadway shows, exotic scenery, or pink sand beaches. Which begs the question, why have I come to Derry?
Raised by my parents as a student of modern Irish history, Derry fascinates me as a the flashpoint of the Catholic civil rights struggle in the 1960’s and the ensuing decades of sectarian warfare understatedly termed “The Troubles.” By visiting Derry, I hoped to see the places I’d read about and somehow make them more tangible and see beyond the black-and-white of a Catholic struggle against British repression, perhaps even see other sides of the story beyond what I learned from my parents and from books. An additional motive is something of a false bravado. Part of me wants to see friends’ faces light up as they exclaim, “You went there!” I know full well that in the midst of cease-fires and peace talks, there was no safer time to be in the province. In fact, the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement would occur just months after my visit. Finally, I want to visit Derry for the snog. Despite all expectations to the contrary, Derry holds a reputation as a party town with a lively pub and nightclub scene. A sidebar in the 1998 Lets Go Ireland travel guide comically describes how at the end of the night, young men and women partner up on the sidewalks outside of Derry’s pubs for snog – the local slang for what Americans call necking. Being painfully shy and rarely fortunate in the arena of casual romance, I reckon it’s worth a shot.
John and Johanna finally depart, and Brett shows me around the hostel. Brett is a slender, clean-cut man of about the same height and age as myself, and like most of the people I meet in Ireland, he is from Australia. Steve’s Backpackers is another stop for Brett as he works his way across Europe. The hostel itself is no more than a couple of row houses joined together, the rooms filled with bunk beds. The rooms are cozy and cluttered, no attempts at making the sheets conform to a standard pattern, and there are raggedy curtains tacked back from the windows. The whole place exudes a comfy and casual atmosphere; well worn and comfy like an old shoe. I love it. The only single bed in the dorm room on the second floor is free, so I drop my bag on it to stake my claim.
In the hallway, a door is marked with a sign labeled “MAP OF BATHROOMDERRY,” the sociopolitical geography of Derry summed up in a lavatory. A hand-drawn map replicates the bathroom, marking the toilet as Bogside, a pun on the slang term for toilet as well as the name of the working class Catholic neighborhood where Steve’s Backpackers is located. The bathtub is marked Waterside, again a pun, as it is also the name of Derry’s largest Protestant district. The Craigavon Floor connects the toilet and the bathtub on the map just as the Craigavon Bridge crosses the River Foyle tying together Bogside and Waterside. In a bit of silliness, the mapmaker labeled other features of the bathroom as Sinkside and Doorside, although these lack parallels in the city of Derry.
Back downstairs, I sip another cup of tea and study my guidebook until interrupted by the hostel owner himself. Steve, a rosy-cheeked Scot with a cherubic smile, comments on the snog sidebar and asks with a gleam in his eye, “Do you think that’s a good way to market Derry to tourists?”
“Sure,” I reply, “Why not print pamphlets that say ‘Derry, the Snog Capital of the World.'” Together we create a marketing plan destined to draw legions of horny young adults on snog pilgrimages. Referring back to the description in the guide, I ask, “Is it really like that?”
Steve winks, and responds, “You’ll have to find out for yourself.”
He introduces me to some other guests and I accompany them to the Rivers Inn Cellars, an historic pub within the walls of Derry – and more importantly the place where one can get the cheapest pint of Guinness in town. My companions are Bailey, an art student from Northern California who is tall, slender and has a coif of black hair reminiscent of a New Wave rocker; Mickey Murphy of Portadown, Northern Ireland who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic Rowan Atkinson, so much so that some of our group take to calling him the “Irish Mr. Bean;” and a petite, dark-haired German woman named Jutta, an activist in the Nationalist cause making an extended residence at the hostel.
As fellow travelers to Derry, we all know a friend or family member who warned us against traveling in Northern Ireland. We agree that it’s safer to be in a city in Northern Ireland than one in America. The elevated police and military presence due to the Trouble make ordinary crimes less common. Bailey declares, “No tourist has been killed here in over thirty years.” As it to defend the reputation of his homeland for violent behavior, Mickey counters with a story of a riot he experienced the previous summer. A French photographer, fresh from the battlefields of Bosnia, told Mickey that that violence in Derry was worse than any he’d seen in the Balkans.
“When they riot in Derry,” comments Mickey with a touch of pride, “they know how to do it. They plan ahead!”
I ask if the snog scene in Derry is for real. Bailey is not impressed. “The pick-up scene is easy here, but its weird. The other night I was snogging this Derry girl, and she kept stopping me, saying ‘Please don’t stick your tongue in my mouth,’ and ‘Please don’t put your hand on my ass.'” Apparently, one can find snog in Derry, but will be disappointed if you want something more.
I enjoy the convivial atmosphere of the Rivers Inn Cellars with my new friends, listening to Mickey tell an amusing story about Ireland’s Gaelic Football All-Star Team’s drunken and destructive tour of America, or agreeing that “The Simpson” are the perfect representation of the American family. Then begins the typical hipster-traveler talk that stirs my dread and envy. Bailey tells of smoking pot and playing chess in a café in Amsterdam, and then he and Mickey compare the best cities in Europe to buy and sell drugs. I feel relieved when someone says it’s time to move on to the Strand Bar for live Irish music, so I won’t have to discuss or defend my drug-free existence.
We exit through the main gates in the city walls into the car-free zone of the city center, a pedestrian strip lined with pubs, clubs, and shops. As in Belfast and other Northern Ireland cities, driving in the center city is restricted to prevent car bombings. The resulting pedestrian area is a lively place for shopping by and for partying by night, and the Strand is one of the many businesses that benefits. This popular bar and nightclub – a “throbbing, pumping madhouse,” as Brett describes it to me the next day – contains four floors of entertainment. We head to the basement where a band called Against the Grain plays to a throng of Derry youth. Like many bar bands, Against the Grain draws on an arsenal of classic rock covers and traditional Irish standards, but this being Derry, their set list also includes a number of political tunes, or “Republican songs” as Jutia terms them. A song about Joe McDonnell, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who died in prison during the hunger strikes of 1981, particularly stirs up the audience. Sung in first person, the song relates a litany of abuses by Britain and the Unionists that McDonnell believes justify his actions in striking back. The kicker comes in the chorus:
“And you dare to call me a terrorist
while you looked down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you have done
You have plundered many nations divided many lands
You have terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”
As these words are sung, the crowd surges toward the stage, singing in unison, and pumping their fists in the air. The transformation from carefree youth dancing and swaying to this demonstration of political unity is disjointing. Even though I’d heard “Joe McDonnell” played before in America, I find myself pondering the lyrics with new insight, unable to let go of the fear and horror I find within the words even as Against the Grain and the audience swing back to happy sing-a-longs of love songs by Van Morrison.
Last call comes shortly afterwards, and we find ourselves pouring out into the street, mingling with the multitudes from the other floors of the Strand and the neighboring pubs. This is the time to match up for snog, should Let’s Go be believed. Still overwhelmed from the performance at the Strand, and exhausted from a day of traveling, I’m more interested in going to bed, alone, at the hostel. That is if I can find the hostel. I am able to pick out Jutta from the boisterous multitudes and she agrees to lead me back to the hostel. Jutta tells me she accidentally left her jacket behind at the Strand, but the doors are locked and she can’t get back in to get it.
“I’m so angry I lost my jacket,” she says. She speaks English with a German accent, but I can also hear an Irish lilt in her voice.
I try to be encouraging. “You can go back in the morning, it will probably still be there, don’t you think.”
“I don’t care about the jacket! I just want the Bloody Sunday pin that’s on my coat. It was given to me by Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin at the Bloody Sunday rally. If anyone touches that pin…”
“Who’s Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin?”
“She’s the wife of Mitchell McLaughlin, the party chairman for the Sinn Fein in Derry. I met her at the rally and she gave me a pin.”
“Oh,” I said dumbly, feeling amazed that I am walking with someone who has connections with the political wing of the IRA. We walked along in silence a bit as Jutta’s anger simmered down.
“You like that band?” She asks.
“Yeah, they were pretty good…”
“I see them quite a bit. I’m disappointed they didn’t play my favorite song, ‘Sean South of Garryowen,’ do you know that song?”
“Of course.” I heard “Sean South of Garryowen,” a Nationalist anthem, numerous times at the Irish folk concerts my parents took me to as a kid.
“This band usually plays that song, but they set the words to a Protestant song, ‘The Sash.’ A Republican song to Protestant music, it’s pretty cool.” I thank her for explaining that to me, and share her disappointment in not hearing the song, although I probably would not have recognized the irony had I heard it played without an explanation.
The next morning I set out to explore the city so nice they named it twice, Derry or more officially (depending on your religiosociopolitical leaning) Londonderry. Doire is the name given to the area by the city’s patron St. Colmcille, named for the oak groves of his beloved home. In the seventeenth century, under British colonialism, the capital of England was granted control of Derry adding London to the city’s name. Today, Catholics still refer to the city only as Derry, and while some Protestants may insist on calling it Londonderry, pretty much everyone ends up calling it Derry for short. I walk along the fortified walls of the city, never once breached in battle, granting Derry the nickname “The Maiden City.” A lot of local lore and the ancient root of the Troubles date to 1689 when the city’s Loyalist population defended itself against a siege by James II’s Catholic forces, until finally they were relieved by the armies of King William III.
A portion of the walls are open to pedestrians and I am able to go out as far as the west wall to look out over the Bogside, gazing uphill towards the neat lines of nearly identical row houses covered with a faint haze of smoke from the coal fires that heat the homes and give so many Irish cities a perpetual scent of sulfur. In the foreground, the words “NO SECTARIAN MARCHES” are spelled out across the balconies of a modern, concrete apartment block. The pedestrian pathway along the top of the wall ends where a metal-frame tower stands fitted with close circuit cameras to keep an eye on the Bogside. This tower and an adjacent barracks, Bailey informs me later, stand in violation of the Geneva Accords ruling regarding the proximity of military installations to schools. An elementary school lies a hundred feet away below the city walls.
Heading back toward the main gate, I enter the ancient defensive tower of the city of Derry, today home to the Tower Museum. Through engaging audiovisual and interactive displays, the museum traces the history of Derry from it’s founding by St. Colmcille to The Troubles of today. I’m impressed that a section on 18th-century emigration discusses Irish Protestants sailing from Derry to settle in colonial Virginia, my hometown of Williamsburg getting a mention. The museum does not shy away from current history as an entire gallery is given over to a street scene much like those I saw on the drive to Derry with the curbs and light posts painted in tribal colors. The exhibit explains the symbolism of sectarianism and oral history videos show local residents speaking candidly of their experiences during the Troubles.
Outside the walls I explore what Steve describes as Derry’s outdoor folk art museum – the murals of Free Derry Corner. The name comes from a famed sign painted on the end of a row of houses (the rest of the houses are now demolished, but the one gable wall still stands) that states “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY.” The signs dates to the early 1970’s when the Bogside was a “No-Go Zone,” completely under the control of the IRA, the British military unable to break through for three years. Political murals decorate much of the city’s working class neighborhoods, and Free Derry Corner is home to the most artistic murals, which cover the entire sides of three-story high buildings. A pair of striking murals use photographic realism to show scenes from Bogside riots: a man in a gas mask holding a Molotov cocktail and women banging trash can lids on the pavement to warn of approaching police. Many of the murals commemorate Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972 when British paratroopers opened fire on Catholic demonstrators, killing fourteen, sealing the end of the peaceful civil rights movement and the birth of the modern IRA. These range from portraits of the dead accompanied by calls for justice, to the more subtle mural which pictures two children running around the Bloody Sunday memorial, blissfully ignorant of their home city’s tumultuous past. Other murals that depict a more hopeful future contain pastoral scenes, a symbol of the peace that nationalists believe will come from unification with the Irish Republic.
I walk along the River Foyle to the foot of the Craigavon Bridge that crosses over to the Protestant Waterside on the east bank. Here stands a statue of two children reaching out across a gap, a symbol of a hoped-for peace and unity between Derry’s Protestants and Catholics. I don’t cross the bridge but explore the murals of The Fountain, a small Protestant neighborhood on the west bank of the Foyle. The mural tradition in Derry actually began among the Protestant community nearly a century earlier, and here I see one of the oldest surviving murals, a tribute to King William III, as always depicted riding a white horse. Several Fountain murals contain the ubiquitous Red Hand of Ulster, a hand that in both gesture and color screams “Stop!” usually accompanied by the slogan “No Surrender.” The murals of the Fountain reflect the siege mentality ingrained in the Protestant community (a minority among the larger Catholic population of Derry) since the actual Siege of 1690. One mural even carries the legend,
“For as long as one hundred of us remain alive we will never, never in any way consent to the rule of the irish. For it is not for glory we fight, nor riches, nor honours — but for freedom alone, which no man should lose but with his life.”
Tributes to the Loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) picture a man in full military dress, rifle-raised in a threatening posture. Judging by the murals, the Fountain seems to be saluting a military operation as opposed to the more community-minded efforts of the Bogside. I find no murals in the Fountain with images of a peaceful future, just remnants of a strife-torn past. I try to look at these murals with an open mind, but they just creep me out, and so I decide to call an end to my tour.
Back at the hostel, I discuss the murals with Brett and Mickey, and look at Brett’s photo collection of the murals. When we get to a picture of the King William III mural I saw in The Fountain, Mickey makes the sound and gesture of spitting on King Billy. Wondering what reaction I’d get, I tell Mickey that I actually live in a town named after King William III. “What do they call it?” he exclaims, “Bastardsville?” No, they don’t actually, but when I get home and tell my friends this story, the new nickname gains currency quickly. I decide to refrain from informing him that I also graduated from the College of William & Mary.
That evening I go out to Peadar O’Donnell’s, a pub known for good traditional music. While sitting at the bar, a short, burly man in his fifties with wisps of gray-blond hair covering his bald pate stumbles in and looks about trying to locate the toilets. I point him in the direction of the sign that read Fir Leithras (Irish for men’s restroom). Returning from the toilets, the man claps me on the shoulder, thanks me for saving his life, and buys me a pint of Guinness. He introduces himself as Joren from Sweden. I tell him my name and that I am from Virginia. Neither of these seemed to make an impression on him. Instead he takes to calling me “Wyoming,” and begins telling me about his one visit to the United States for an anti-nuclear demonstration in Washington, DC twenty-five years earlier, repeating several times “You were not even born!” I try to correct him on my name and home state, but am met only by reiterations of his trip to Washington.
The third telling of this story is interrupted when the door opens again and two young women enter the pub. I’m stunned because they are the most beautiful women I’ve seen since arriving in Derry, and even more stunned when the race to bar and embrace Joren.
“There you are! We’ve been looking all over for you!” they exclaim. My appreciation of Joren grows as he introduces me to Olivia and Elaine, both students at the local university.
“This is Wyoming, he saved my life!” The three had met earlier in the day at the Strand, and somehow became separated. Olivia with short, black hair and a bewitching gleam in her eye tells me that they are from County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, and explains to me the reason why they look so different.
“We’re not like these Derry girls. You see them with their hair all sprayed up and a lot of makeup caked on. They like to wear clothes that show a lot of skin.” While Olivia catches up with Joren, I switch to talking with Elaine, who has long, curly brunette hair and a captivating smile. When she learns that I am from America she tells me she’ll be studying abroad in Boston next year. I tell her that I’m planning to move to Boston, I am hopeful that we will meet again. As the band strikes up the opening chords of a song, Olivia interrupts our conversation.
“I love this song,” she whispers reverently.
“What song is it?” I ask.
“‘Ride On,’ Christy Moore.” she replies. I shake my head, not recognizing the song title. She looks me in the eyes and sings, her own eyes reflecting the glow of the peat fire. ” Ride on, see you, I could never go with you, / No matter how I wanted to.” I am transfixed, feeling for the moment as if she sings just for me.
The four of us emerge from Peadar O’Donnell’s laughing and capering across the pedestrian zone as Elaine and Olivia demonstrate their Irish step-dancing skills. We return to The Strand, continuing our conversation at the bar on the lower level (much less crowded and noisy than the night before as no band is playing). Joren takes his leave for the night, thanking me profusely one last time and acknowledging me as a Rocky Mountain state I’ve never been to. Olivia and Elaine tell me they’re going upstairs to meet a friend, but ask me to wait down below. I wait for a long time, and finally getting frustrated I head upstairs and find them in animated conversation with their friend. I try to get their attention, but my efforts fail, and feeling rejected, I storm out of the pub. I walk home to the hostel feeling drunk, lonely, and depressed.
The next day I take a day-trip to the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh. I enjoy the museum, but being the off-season the grounds are mostly devoid of people, emphasizing my feeling of loneliness from the night before. It feels good to return to the vibrant authenticity of Derry. At the hostel I find most of the hostel staff and guests gathered in the TV lounge watching a fast-cut British program where ordinary men and women comment about members of the opposite sex. One of the men on the show expresses his frustration at how another man at his university proclaimed that he would have sex with every woman in the residence and had women lining up at his door, and he wonders why women went for these bad guys. Brett commented, “Women show respect for men by not having sex with them,” adding “I’m the most respected man in the world when it comes to women.”
Cheered by the companionship and silly conversation, I am ready to go out for the night. After all, I came to Derry partly for the nightlife not to watch television. I am unable to interest anyone in joining me, as they prefer to lounge about at the hostel. I return to Peadar O’Donnell’s, half-hoping to find a Swedish matchmaker who will introduce me to Irish women. Instead I meet Brooke, the Australian woman I’d met previously in Killarney and Dingle, freshly arrived in Derry. We take a table and catch up on our respective travels. Like Brett and nearly every other Australian traveler I meet, Brooke is working part-time and taking long breaks to travel around Europe. She tells me when she finishes her circuit around Ireland she will return to London where she has a job lined up.
“Next year, I want to go to America,” she says.
“Really, which parts?” I ask, offering my assistance.
“I’d like to go to New York and the West Coast, and maybe a side trip to Atlanta.”
“A side trip to Atlanta?” I ask puzzled. I pull out my pocket address book that has a tiny map of the United States. Unfortunately, it’s so tiny that Atlanta really does look close to New York, so I have to find other ways to convince her. “They don’t have good trains or buses like they do in Europe. It will probably take you at least a day to get there from New York. You’re going to want to fly if you really want to go from New York to Atlanta.”
A woman at the next table introduces herself into the conversation. Her name is Carmel, a Derry resident, and despite her bleach blonde hair and an excess of make up, she is quite attractive. Her sister and boyfriend, a tough looking gent from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, soon join her. I tell him that I might stop in Newcastle later in my holiday, an he takes it upon himself to educate me in the ways of the Geordies (the nickname for Newcastle’s blue collar residents), which seem mostly to involve sprinkling one’s sentence with profanity.
“I love the American accent,” Carmel tells me flirtatiously (I swear she even bats her eyelashes), but due to the looming presence of her spit-and-sawdust boyfriend, I decide not to use that too my advantage. Instead I decide to call it an early night, my last night in Derry, not once having “caught snog,” but still feeling happy. I walk home to the hostel, which now does feel like home, or more so since I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve felt so at ease after three days as I do here. And the warmth and generosity of Steve’s Backpackers makes the biggest difference.
Over breakfast, Steve tells me a story about Halloween in Derry. Everyone in town dressed up in costumes and hit the pubs and clubs. A group of men entered one bar costumed as terrorists, but it turned out they actually were terrorists, shooting several people. A riot ensued, and Steve describes witnessing the surreal scene of the RUC clubbing Elvis Presley and chasing Batman down the street. The story seems to sum up Derry: funny, a bit bizarre, and terrifying all at once. Outdoing themselves in hospitality, both Steve and Brett load me up with advice of what do on my next stop in Belfast and then walk me to the door of the hostel. We pose for a picture together under the hostel sign. I find it really hard to leave, and begin making plans to return.
(NOTE: 20 years later and still haven’t made it back).