If we’d planned in advance to go on the Bogside walking tour, we almost certainly would have had a less memorable experience. We would at least have had a better idea of what we were signing up for, and who our guide might be. We would have found the website and set our expectations accordingly.
But my sister Angie and I had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to ditch our traveling companions and spend that September day in Derry City, in Northern Ireland. Halfway through a ten-day organized tour of some of Ireland’s ancient, mystical places, we were a bit weary of long bus rides. On our itinerary, Derry was just a two-night stay in a nice hotel and a jumping-off point for venturing into the countryside. The places we’d visited had been fascinating, but I’d started to think I needed some city time.
In addition, for Angie and me, Derry held much more meaning than it did for the others in our group. It was “home,” in a way. Derry—the county, though not the city—is where our mother’s parents both were born: she in Draperstown, he in Magherafelt. On my first trip to Ireland 20 years earlier, I had been to both of those towns with my parents, and we’d even been inside the homes where my grandparents were born and raised. On this trip, we had no way to get to those places; Derry City would have to do.
That morning, as our group of about 20 Americans had taken a brief, drizzly walking tour atop Derry’s 400-year-old, still-intact city walls, learning about local history and being reminded of the long-running tensions between the Irish and the British, the Catholics and the Protestants, I’d told Angie I was thinking of skipping the day’s bus trip. We’d only been in town since late on the previous afternoon. We’d discovered upon our arrival that Derry was the 2013 U.K. City of Culture, with special events and exhibitions at every turn. We’d dashed out of the hotel as soon as we’d made that discovery, knowing we had just a little time to explore before dinner. It had been well worth it—we’d squeezed in a visit to The Shirt Factory, an arts installation that celebrated Derry’s “legendary shirt-making heritage.” We’d been happy for a chance to remember our oh-so-dear Great Aunt Susie, our grandmother’s sister, who had worked in one of those Derry shirt factories before she left for America in the 1920s.
At the time of our trip, I worked in the arts community in Philadelphia—the city all four of our grandparents had emigrated to from Ireland (two from the North, two from the Republic)—and I couldn’t believe we’d stumbled into this cultural bonanza. I wanted to see as much as I could. I also knew that on the other side of Derry’s famous walls, in the Bogside neighborhood where Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” (at least the modern ones) officially began, a series of murals from the 1990s told the story of Irish Catholic Derry’s struggles for freedom from oppression. As a big fan of world-renowned Mural Arts Philadelphia, I was eager to see Derry’s murals, also known as “The People’s Gallery.” We would be leaving town early the next morning, so I knew this was my only chance to explore the city. I thought Angie would opt to stay with the group, and I would be the one playing hooky. But she quickly decided to stay behind with me.
We found our way to the visitor center and asked if any tours of the Bogside were available. One quick phone call later, we were told we’d be met by a guide in the city’s main square outside the Guildhall at 11 a.m. By the time we got there, it was raining steadily. We were greeted by a ruddy-faced, middle-aged man with a thick, well-worn binder tucked under one arm. He introduced himself as Michael. We introduced ourselves, too. And, as if to establish our credentials—or at least our willingness to slog through Derry in the rain, Angie and I explained our familial connections to his corner of the world. Michael smiled at our enthusiasm, then led us into the Guildhall and upstairs to a large room, where our second history lesson of the day began.
We heard a condensed history of the long-running conflict between the Irish and the British over the ancient province of Ulster and its nine counties, six of which comprise present-day Northern Ireland. Michael efficiently talked us through a few centuries—beginning with the period of British “plantation” of new landowners on Irish land in the 17th century and ending with the 1968 onset of the period known as “The Troubles”—in about ten minutes. At that point his narration slowed, as he provided the context for what happened in the Bogside on January 30, 1972—known ever since as Bloody Sunday—when fourteen unarmed Irish Catholic civil rights marchers, including several teenagers—were shot and killed by British soldiers. (Thirteen died that day, one died five months later from his wounds; another 17 people were injured.)
The 15,000 marchers who showed up that day were protesting the British government’s policy of internment, or imprisonment without trial, a policy that had first gone into effect in Northern Ireland in 1922 as part of the Special Powers Act, but had not been enforced in decades; the previous August, as conflict simmered across Northern Ireland, the internment policy had been reactivated. The march that January day was intended to be peaceful. Michael explained that an initial inquiry into what happened determined that the soldiers had acted in self-defense, a finding that roiled the already-agitated Catholic population of the North, and contributed to the ensuing decades of sectarian violence and civil unrest throughout Ireland. Michael told us the findings were considered to be a government-sanctioned whitewash of what had really happened in the Bogside, where many of the victims had been shot from behind as they fled, and an insult to the memory of those who had died. And although some British officials later made statements that challenged the findings and the British government made “goodwill” payments to the families of those who died, the conclusions from the initial inquiry stood as the official record of what happened in 1972 right up until 2010—a mere three years before Angie and I visited.
Michael became more animated as he described Bloody Sunday and its aftermath. The reason he liked to begin his tours in this location, he explained, was because the second inquiry into Bloody Sunday began and ended in Derry’s Guildhall, in this very room. In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the British government would undertake a second inquiry into Bloody Sunday, to be headed by Lord Saville. Michael said the Good Friday Agreement of 1998—which finally was reached one week after Blair’s announcement of the second inquiry—would not have been possible otherwise. The Saville Inquiry officially began in 2000 and lasted nearly five years, with more than 900 people testifying over 444 days of live sessions—some in Derry, some in London. The final report—more than 5,000 pages long—was at long last released at the Guildhall in June 2010, and completely vindicated the marchers who had been killed and injured. It prompted newly elected British Prime Minister David Cameron to make a statement to Parliament that “what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable.”
By this point, Angie and I had spent nearly half an hour with Michael. We were attentive, and although we understood that our mother’s parents had left their homes in Northern Ireland because as Catholics they’d had so few opportunities, we’d been surprised to learn just how deeply oppressed Irish Catholics had been in Northern Ireland throughout the 20th century: they’d had limited opportunities for education, which led to limited opportunities for good jobs, which led to slim chances of ever owning property. And, since only property owners had the right to vote, they had been backed into poorer areas like Derry’s Bogside, where the mostly Protestant landlords got one vote for each property they owned, while their tenants got none. We’d also learned that “The Troubles” began in 1968 as peaceful protests modeled on the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, and only later escalated into sectarian violence.
Michael led us down the steps and back into the square, ready to march us through town and into the Bogside. For the first time, he opened his binder, which was filled with old news stories and black-and-white photographs documenting what had happened on Bloody Sunday, and after. As he flipped to the first page in his book, he told us—solemnly, and yet almost matter-of-factly—that his father, Patrick Doherty, aged 31, had been one of the fourteen victims of Bloody Sunday.
Angie and I were speechless. How do you react to that kind of dreadful, intimate news, coming from a stranger? Michael didn’t dwell on what he’d just told us. He gave us a few minutes to absorb this new information—under the cover of our umbrellas—as we headed off toward the Bogside.
We’d already learned that while the worst of the conflicts had now settled down in and around Derry, there were still a few highly partisan neighborhoods, with occasional flare-ups between Protestants and Catholics. (A few days later, in Belfast, we’d come to understand that Derry was probably ten years ahead of Belfast in its relative state of peacefulness.) We’d heard about how in the past the curfew bells used to toll each morning and evening to admit and then to expel the Irish Catholics and Scotch Presbyterians who worked within those walls, but who had to leave every night. We’d seen the soaring Peace Bridge and the hopeful “Hands Across the Divide” monument at the Craigavon Bridge, near the entrance to the walled part of the city, both of which are meant to symbolize improving relations between Derry’s Protestants and Catholics. These relations have again been strained through the long saga of “Brexit,” although what that new European reality will mean for Northern Ireland and the Republic remains to be seen. There will be no return to a hard border—all parties agreed that would invite new hostilities. In addition, as trade agreements are finalized between Europe and the United Kingdom, allowances will be made to protect existing trade between the North and the Republic; since 1998, the two Irish economies (despite different currencies) have become so closely entwined that great damage would be done to both without these allowances.
When we’d arrived in Derry, our traveling group had been told to be careful what we called the city—Derry, versus Londonderry—if we spoke to strangers, because to use one name or the other was to tip one’s hand as to which “side” you were on. I didn’t think I’d get myself in trouble in the short time I’d be in the city, but I knew I would never utter “Londonderry,” with its colonizing prefix, while I was there.
It was hard to imagine how it would feel to have to dance around the name of your own town, and to have to size up who you were talking to—at home or elsewhere in Ireland or England—before you named the place you came from. For centuries, Derry and its residents have been struggling with this double identity. During times of conflict, calling the town by the wrong name when speaking to the wrong person—accidentally or by design—could have dire consequences. Today, it’s fairly common to see the name written as “Derry/Londonderry” or the more tongue-in-cheek “Stroke City” for the stroke mark used between the two alternative names. Local businesses mostly avoid using the town’s name, but frequently incorporate “Foyle”—the name of the river that bisects the town—to provide local, but neutral, flavor.
My mother has told me that her parents only ever thought of themselves as Irish. They were born in 1906 (she) and 1907 (he), and grew up in the years before Partition, when all of Ireland was under British rule, as a single entity. They were children in 1916, during the failed Easter Rising in Dublin, when Ireland tried for its independence from British Rule. They were teenagers in the latter half of that decade as the compromise position of Home Rule was debated, then as Partition was formalized in the early 1920s, creating what some have called the “northern statelet,” and when violence erupted in 1922 and Catholics in the north began to be actively persecuted and denied opportunities for education, jobs, housing, and basic civil rights. They each sailed from Belfast—Mary Donnelly in 1928, Michael Joseph Henry in 1929—with passports I now possess that identified them in meticulously handwritten script as “British Subject by Birth,” with place of birth listed as “County Londonderry” and domicile as “Northern Ireland.” She was identified as a “shop assistant,” he as a “labourer”—as much as either might have aspired to, had they stayed. There was no asterisk to explain that being a “British Subject by Birth” meant one thing if you were a Protestant in Northern Ireland, and something quite different if you were a Catholic.
If we’d been old enough to understand all this and to ask him before he died in 1978, what might our Derry-born grandfather have told Angie and me about his years growing up in a divided Ireland, one with a make-believe border that was enforced in very real ways? Would he have told us about the Special Powers Act of 1922 that gave British security forces in Northern Ireland the right to arrest without warrant, to detain without trial, to search homes without warrants, to prohibit meetings and processions, and to hang and whip offenders? Surely he knew people who had been subjected to such treatment. How familiar and how dreadful “The Troubles” must have felt to him from afar in the late 1960s and the 1970s. How familiar the American civil rights movement must have seemed to him in his adopted country.
I wonder now, would he have been pleased or appalled to see me stopped by a young soldier with a rifle at a checkpoint in 1993, on that first trip to Ireland with my parents, as I drove us across the border and into Northern Ireland so we could visit the place he came from? Maybe a little of each, I think. I do believe he would have wept tears of joy along with me when, five years later, the Good Friday Peace Accord was announced.
In January 1972, when Bloody Sunday occurred, I was an eighth grader at a Catholic school in suburban Philadelphia. Angie was a sixth grader. We lived with our parents and our five younger siblings, as well as our grandfather, who’d been a widower for more than a decade. I knew, in a vague way, about “The Troubles.” I understood bad things were happening in the part of Ireland my mother’s parents came from, and that the news my grandfather heard from home worried him. I don’t recall knowing about Bloody Sunday back then, or any other specific events in Northern Ireland, at least not in any detail. Growing up, I was proud of my Irish Catholic heritage, and fortunate, I now know, not to be denied opportunities because of it. But I was too young to understand—or even to ask—what had driven my mother’s parents to leave home and sail to America more than four decades earlier. What little I understood about “The Troubles” back then made me feel ashamed of Ireland, in a way; and confused about how to reconcile my romanticized images of a lush green countryside full of friendly people with reports of bombs and urban guerilla warfare.
And then all these years later, here Angie and I stood with this man from Derry, Michael, who as a boy had lost his father to that violence—as had his five siblings. He was about to help us understand how it felt to live in Derry City during “The Troubles,” and since. And while he clearly had a deeply personal stake in the story—and in it how it was received by visitors—he didn’t dwell on his loss. He was almost business-like in how he delivered his lines, sometimes adding humor as he related local lore or described people he’d known over the years. That is, until we reached the spot where the first marchers had been shot on Bloody Sunday. From that point on, for nearly an hour, Michael was deeply focused on what he was telling us, serious about every word he uttered. Frequently, he turned to a photograph or an article in his binder—each one in a plastic sleeve—to reinforce what he was describing, as if he needed to prove that what he said was true, that it all had been documented by legitimate sources.
We had no reason to doubt what he told us; but it wasn’t hard to understand that, since the truth about Bloody Sunday had only been officially sanctioned a few years earlier, and he had spent a lifetime defending this truth, insisting upon it, and waiting for the official record to be set straight, he wanted to leave us with no room for doubt.
It dawned on me only gradually that Michael was stopping in every spot where a protester had fallen on that terrible day in 1972. He was bearing witness to each of the lives lost, each of the stories cut short or forever altered. He was naming every victim’s name. But he was doing it in a subtle way, providing other information as we walked and he talked, pointing out the murals I’d asked about, and leaving us to discern the pattern of our path.
Angie and I hung on his every word, and occasionally reacted to what he said, but we could only look at each other as we followed him; to interrupt his narrative would have felt disrespectful. It was almost as if we were following a kind of Stations of the Cross, pausing at specific places to mark what had happened at each. Not that Michael suggested any such comparison; he was serious, even solemn—but never maudlin, and never overly emotional, even when we reached the spot where his own father had been shot in the back, while attempting to crawl away from the violence that had erupted around him. In case we had any doubt about that, he told us that if we visited the nearby Museum of Free Derry, we could see the very belt his father had been wearing that day, with a hole in the back made by a bullet. Later, we did visit the museum, where one of the first images we spotted was of Rosa Parks, and one of the most chilling artifacts we saw was Patrick Doherty’s belt.
When we reached the official end of the tour and Michael closed his binder for the last time, the three of us stood on a corner at the edge of a tiny park for a few minutes longer. Angie and I thanked him for the time we had spent together, for the gift of his candid and oh-so-personal account of Bloody Sunday and all that had happened before and after that day. I asked him how he managed to tell that story over and over again. Michael explained that this was his way of honoring the memory of his father, and of the others who died that day. He told us that one of his brothers, and another friend who had lost his father on Bloody Sunday, also took turns giving these tours. He didn’t do it all the time; he also drove a cab to earn a living. But bearing witness in this way clearly mattered to his sense of justice. We did our best to convey to him how very much it had mattered to us, too.
Postscript, June 2020
This month, to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Saville Inquiry report, the Museum of Free Derry (which has greatly expanded both its physical footprint and its programming since Angie and I were there in 2013) posted a series of YouTube videos featuring interviews with relatives of Bloody Sunday victims, as well as local activists and politicians. Each person interviewed was asked to recall what it felt like to be anticipating the report, nearly four decades after the events of that dreadful Sunday. Some said they were hopeful or guardedly optimistic; most did not expect complete vindication for the victims, even if they felt certain that was the only right outcome. Virtually no one expected that the British government would formally apologize.
As Derry recalls that moment of vindication in 2010, the world is convulsing with protests—most peaceful, some not. I hear echoes in these times of those earlier struggles in Derry—although, of course, there are important differences. Across the United States and around the globe, people are protesting, hoping for justice for men and women of color who have died senseless, violent deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials. Men and women like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rayshard Brooks, Justin Howell, Sean Monterrosa, Jamel Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile. I’ve listed fourteen names (from what is, sadly, a much longer list), as a nod to the people of Derry, and how much they had to endure before the truth they always knew became the truth the world acknowledged.
It makes my heart happy that Derry has found ways to share lessons learned over the last decades with the rest of the world—through the Bloody Sunday Trust and its Derry Model, a four-year Conflict Transformation & Peacebuilding Project launched in 2018. Leaders of these initiatives were involved with a virtual Black Lives Matter event in Detroit this summer; they were interviewed for a New York Times article about autonomous zones, like the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area in Seattle. The people of Derry have been there, and done that. They have much wisdom to share.
Black Lives Matter. Say Their Names.
Eileen Cunniffe explores identity and experience through the lenses of travel, family, and work. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. Four of her essays—including “Bogside Tutorial”—have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards. Eileen also writes about arts and culture in the context of civil society for Nonprofit Quarterly. She believes artists, even in isolation, will continue to help the world make sense of and heal from the many upheavals of 2020. Read more at www.eileencunniffe.com.