Where Irish 'Troubles' Began, the Arts Heal

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

"SUPPORT OUR POWS. END TORTURE IN MAGHABERRY. RELEASE MARIAN PRICE," scream the block-letter graffiti messages lining the 400-year-old stone walls that surround the historic center of Derry in Northern Ireland. Ascending the long staircase leading to the walls, I paused and looked back down the hill at a sign reading, "You Are Now Entering Free Derry." Behind it, a somber mural depicted a gas mask-clad young man enveloped in a battle scene. At a glance, one might think I had stepped into a war zone.

In fact, this once hotly contested city is far from it. As I wandered under an archway and into the walled city, I was a bit taken aback by just how far.

The notes of a classical piano piece rang out from the First Derry Presbyterian Church, the clomps of an Irish step-dancing class echoed loudly through the narrow streets, and a chorus of enthusiastic buskers belted out tunes for passing shoppers. A rainbow-colored tourist trolley swung a busload of photo-snappers around the corner.

If you have heard of Derry (or Londonderry, as it is alternately known; the prefix was added by 17th-century British transplants), the image that comes to mind is most likely a rather stark one. It is the birthplace of the Troubles, the three-decade-long struggle between Irish nationalists, mostly Catholics, who fought for full independence from Britain, and Protestant "loyalists," who sought to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom, which it is today. Several violent clashes broke out in Derry, including on "Bloody Sunday," Jan. 30, 1972, when British soldiers shot 26 people.

As Northern Ireland's conflict died down following the peace agreement of 1998, Derry found a measure of calm. (Though the very name of the city remains unresolved, with road signs in the Republic of Ireland pointing to Derry, and in the North to Londonderry.)

Over the next year, the city is poised to make more positive headlines. Derry won a bid to be the first United Kingdom City of Culture in 2013, a designation that will bring a year's-plus worth of marquee events showcasing both British and Irish culture.

"This has always been a city that has a very strong cultural thread running through it," said Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of Culture Company 2013, which is overseeing the year of events. "Some incredible artistic responses came out of the Troubles -- from visual artists like Willie Doherty to writers like Seamus Heaney and the punk music of the Undertones. People are excited for the chance to showcase that."

Derry now attracts more than 500,000 visitors annually, and officials say that number could double because of the City of Culture program. Field Day, the theater company founded in Derry by the playwright Brian Friel and the actor and director Stephen Rea, will present several new plays as part of the festivities, starting this month.

Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli-born rock choreographer in London, has been working with young musicians here to create a localized version of his "Political Mother" dance piece for next spring. Come summer, the enormously popular traditional music competition Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann will be held in the north for the first time. Next fall, Derry plays host to the Turner Prize, one of the United Kingdom's highest-profile contemporary art events, marking the first time it has crossed the Irish Sea.

In preparation, the city has received a makeover, the centerpiece of which is the soaring new Peace Bridge that opened over the River Foyle last summer, making it much easier for pedestrians to journey between the Catholic-dominated center city on the west bank and the historically Protestant east side. A former military barracks and parade ground on the east bank has become Ebrington Square, a 26-acre concert and event venue.

"This is a city that is physically transforming itself," Ms. McCarthy said. "Had you been here five years ago, you would have seen a dramatically different city. Ebrington Square was surrounded by barbed wire and closed off to view from all sides. This transformation is changing how the people of Derry see and experience their city."

While the physical changes to the city have come quickly, the cultural scene has been simmering for some time. On any given weekend, traditional Irish music and modern rock bands fill the city's pubs, while a diverse array of performing arts can be found on stage at sites like the Playhouse theater, Waterside Theater and Irish-language cultural hub Culturlann Ui Chanain. One of Northern Ireland's premier international cinema showcases, the Foyle Film Festival, will mark its 25th year here when it starts on Nov. 21.

"The interesting thing is that the arts scene here is grass roots; people really wanted it to happen," said Maoliosa Boyle, the manager of the Void, an artist-led contemporary gallery that opened in the basement of a former shirt factory in 2005. "A lot of this was born during the conflict, and now it's getting a chance to grow."

Beyond the artistic venues, Derry's prime attraction is the historic walled city itself. Built in the early 17th century as a defense by Protestant settlers, it's one of the only remaining examples of an intact walled town in Ireland. The curving cobblestone streets present a dichotomy as they wind from historic sites like the recently restored St. Columb's Cathedral, past a row of cannons that once protected the city, and on to bustling avenues lined with modern cafes and shops.

Just outside the walls is an area that became known as "Free Derry" when Catholic protesters occupied it during the Troubles. Those events, as well as the quest for peace, are commemorated in the Bogside murals, 12 oversize street paintings by artists from this community. On the other side of the river are a second set of street murals, painted by loyalists who fought to remain part of the United Kingdom. They depict scenes of British pride and battlefield victories, in some instances with gruesome detail.

The intensity of both sets of murals serves as a reminder that while Derry is now a peaceful city, the conflict did not disappear overnight. Peace, I realize while walking through each of these neighborhoods, signifies a cessation of violence, but is not synonymous with happiness or forgiveness. While most residents of Northern Ireland support the peace agreement, centuries of clashes and appalling acts of violence perpetrated by both sides have left scars that will not soon heal.

While there have been scattered episodes of violence here in recent years, and some nationalist groups have protested the "U.K." part of the City of Culture designation as an affront to Irish sovereignty, leaders on both sides of the divide have welcomed the event as a chance to boost the local economy.

By this summer a verifiable buzz had already settled onto both sides of the River Foyle. Thousands of young people filled Ebrington Square in June for a "Peace One Day" concert whose host was the English actor Jude Law. A few weeks later, crowds mobbed the rehabbed Queens Quay waterfront across the river to take in a segment of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.

But despite the international attention, the aspect of Derry that quickly becomes most apparent to visitors is that this once-scarred city is a place now reveling in its sense of normalcy.

On my last evening in town, after sampling local duck confit at the elegant Browns Restaurant on the river's east bank, I walked back to my hotel across the Peace Bridge, packed with romantic couples lingering in the twilight, and took a detour for a last stroll along the inside of the walled city. Looking down on the town now, after spending a few days here, the murals no longer looked so confrontational. Neither did the high-flying Union Jack flags waving over the houses of a predominantly Protestant area nearby. While tensions from the past clearly remain, it's evident everywhere that Derry, or Londonderry -- however you choose to call it -- is a city most eager to move forward.

IF YOU GO

WHERE TO STAY

A few blocks from the walled historic area of Derry, Northern Ireland, and adjacent to the Peace Bridge, the modern City Hotel (Queens Quay; 44-28-7136-5800; cityhotelderry.com; rooms from £60, or $96 at $1.60 to the pound) is within walking distance of most of the City of Culture venues and offers riverfront views from many of its 146 guest rooms.

The only hotel inside the walled area is the Tower Hotel (Butcher Street; 44-28-7137-1000; towerhotelderry.com; rooms from £58), a stylish boutique property where many of the guest rooms overlook the walls.

WHAT TO DO

Consult the City of Culture Web site (cityofculture2013.com) for an updated schedule of events happening now through the end of 2013.

The Foyle Film Festival (foylefilmfestival.org) runs Nov. 21 to 25 in several downtown venues, premiering documentaries, feature films and shorts from Irish and international filmmakers.

The Museum of Free Derry (55 Glenfada Park; 44-28-7136-0880; museumoffreederry.org) tells the history of the Troubles and offers informative tours of the Free Derry area, including the Bogside murals.

WHERE TO EAT

Behind a no-frills exterior on the east side of the river, Browns Restaurant and Champagne Lounge (1 Bonds Hill, Waterside; 44-28-7134-5180; brownsrestaurant.com) has an Art Deco dining room where dishes like a lamb bacon salad topped with pine nuts and warm garlic dressing are served.

Set in a building dating to 1876, Custom House Restaurant and Wine Bar (Custom House Street, Queens Quay; 44-28-7137-3366; customhouserestaurant.com) serves hearty fare like roast Irish quail with mushroom risotto, leeks and celeriac.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here