Derry enjoys a revival after years of strife in Northern Ireland
Cannons sit above an old garrison in Derry, Northern Ireland. Once the center of strife and violence, Derry is rebranding itself as a cultural, historic and tourist destination.
This slogan marks Free Derry Corner in the Bogside neighborhood of Derry, where Catholic residents rioted against police in 1969 at the start of a decades-long stretch of sectarian violence known as "The Troubles."
Tourists walk along the circumference of Derry's walled city, the only remaining completely intact walled city in Ireland. Built in the early 1600s, it was blocked only two decades ago by barbed wire and British soldiers.
The old British army garrison of Ebrington -- site of the infamous Bloody Sunday shootings of protesters in 1972 -- was, for the next 30 years, a place where British troops lived under siege. Today, it is an open air performance space.
The First Derry Presbyterian Church dates to 1780, when an earlier church had been built as a reward for the bravery of the Presbyterians during the Siege of Derry in 1689. It was almost burned to the ground during "The Troubles" in 1984.
A mural on what is known as Free Derry Corner of a young boy with a gas mask and petrol bomb at the height of 1969 riots between Catholic residents and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
New hotels, cafes and businesses are cropping up in Derry's historic city center.
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DERRY, Northern Ireland -- Two decades ago, the wide, cobbled walls circling this city's ancient core bristled with barbed wire and British soldiers.
Today, tourists prowl the ramparts, peering across the valley at the brick row houses once commandeered by IRA sharpshooters aiming just where they stand today -- before heading over to the Cafe del Mondo for a mocha latte.
Once synonymous with sectarian violence, Northern Ireland's second city is experiencing a remarkable revival as it prepares to be the first "UK City of Culture" in 2013 -- a yearlong series of events tapping into Derry's deep, rich reservoirs of artistic, musical and intellectual talent.
With London preparing to host the Olympics next month, however, Derry (officially Londonderry, but even many pro-British Protestant residents join in using the common, shorter designation) isn't waiting until 2013 to get started.
"This is a pivotal, transitional moment for us," said Frank Gallagher, a well-known musician and producer for promising young Derry singers like Mairead. "This town has been waiting so long in the shadow of history, so we feel excited, and wary, about coming into the light."
On Thursday, actor Jude Law hosted the Peace One Day rock concert in Ebrington Square, a former British military garrison that was vacated in 2004, to kick off the three-month countdown to Global Truce 2012. It also celebrated the one-year anniversary of a pedestrian "Peace Bridge" linking the city's mostly Catholic west bank with the more Protestant neighborhoods on the east. And in July the Clipper 11-12 Round the World Yacht Race, a 40,000-mile ocean marathon, will finish in Derry, a nod to its centuries-old maritime past.
"Derry people have so many gifts to give the world," says Pat Hume, the wife of Northern Ireland political figure John Hume. He shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with his Protestant counterpart David Trimble for successfully brokering the Good Friday Peace Accords.
It's a city thick with Pittsburgh connections, she's quick to note. U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, a close friend, has visited Derry often in recent decades, and the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh hosts young people from Derry as part of a peace and reconciliation program.
Walking along the Derry Walls -- built in 1613 to keep Protestant plantation owners from Scotland and England in, and the Catholic farmers and working classes out -- Ms. Hume ticked off the names of artists, writers and other leading lights of her city. There's poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, playwright Brian Friel and actors Damian McGinty, who became a regular this season on the hit TV series "Glee," and Roma Downey of "Touched by an Angel."
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard is writing a play to be produced during the City of Culture events. And the Turner Prize, Britain's most prestigious art competition, will be held in Derry in 2013, one of the few times outside its London base.
Of course, Derry is also fertile territory for trivia buffs -- the old Irish tune "Danny Boy" was first performed here. Amelia Earhart landed her plane here 80 years ago last month, mistaking Ireland for France.
"And [Vice President] Joe Biden's family is from Derry," said Ms. Hume with a laugh.
But does all this talk of a renaissance include true reconciliation?
There are occasional glitches: Last month, Olympic torch bearer Isobel Coote was rushed by supporters of paramilitary group Real IRA when she approached Derry, prompting officials to detour around the city. The group said it was merely trying to draw attention to the plight of Irish political prisoners. And the City of Culture's offices have been bombed twice by dissident Republicans -- drawing criticism from both Protestant and Catholic leaders.
Ms. Hume, who raised a family of five children as her husband, John, was risking his own life to bring peace to this war-scarred province of six counties, spoke firmly.
"Ours is a settled peace, with occasional difficulties. But this celebration is about where we are going, not where we were 20 or 30 years ago."
In fact, even as the United Kingdom battles unemployment and stagnant economic growth along with the rest of Europe, visitors will find stunning changes in Northern Ireland -- the direct result of a "peace dividend" that created a mostly stable power-sharing agreement between the country's two main ethnic and political communities: the pro-British unionist, Protestant minority and the nationalist, Catholic majority, who sought union with the Republic of Ireland.
As Ms. Hume stood along the Derry Walls -- considered one of the best-preserved walled cities in Europe -- she was hailed by a leading Protestant figure in that community, the Rev. David Latimer, pastor of the majestic, ancient First Derry Presbyterian Church, which looms nearby over the republican Bogside and Free Derry Corner neighborhoods.
Both of them marveled that they were standing there at all.
"We couldn't walk these walls even 20 years ago," said Rev. Latimer, dapper and cheerful in his clerical collar, noting that even though his church stood shuttered, a frequent target for bombs and nearly burned to the ground "during the dark and dreadful years of 'The Troubles,' " Presbyterians continued to worship there. After a recent, $2 million restoration, its official reopening in May 2011 was attended by Catholics and Protestants "from both communities, including many victims and perpetrators."
Today, it's used as both church and shared city space, Rev. Latimer said, "where both communities can begin to move closer together so as to become friendly allies and not warring adversaries. No one here wants their children to be associated with the paraphernalia of conflict -- people in both communities therefore need to live in a way that doesn't wreck things for the next generation because if we are not careful our children will see peace not on our streets, but in pictures and stories."
Indeed, the stories of violence are legion, even if, in retrospect, not without humor: Ms. Hume recalled a neighbor stumbling upon a gunman who had holed up on her third floor while she was out of town. When she returned, and woke up the next morning, she encountered the man walking down the stairs.
"She asked him what he was doing in her house, and he said, 'Oh, isn't this a bed and breakfast?' He got out of there, but she knew she'd have to sell the house and leave immediately."
There are still the occasional, small outbreaks of violence, and warnings that a small faction of hard-line Republican dissidents will continue to cause trouble, but mostly, peace seems to be holding.
There are no security checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, whose border is just a few miles west of Derry. No British soldiers are patrolling with machine guns.
This new designation as a City of Culture "doesn't come with money, but it does unlock money," said Garbhan Downey, director of communications and marketing for Culture Company 2013, which is helping to coordinate events. He notes that the region may reap as much as 100 million pounds ($155 million) to rebuild its railway and make other infrastructure improvements.
Inconvenience, not security issues, is the main drawback for visitors. There's no train service from Belfast to Derry, only a slow, poky bus. The two Irelands use two different currencies -- the British pound in the north, the euro in the south -- and have two different mobile phone systems.
While schools still remain largely segregated between Catholic and Protestant, an entire generation of young people has grown up not knowing the violence their parents and grandparents experienced. But Derry was chosen by U.K. officials for this designation over dozens of other cities, seemingly signaling a desire by British leaders to support greater autonomy for Northern Ireland. People here still talk about 2010 and "the summer of hope," when the city was chosen and, more important, when British Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized on television to Derry residents for the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when 14 civil rights protesters were gunned down by British soldiers.
Once home to shirt making and shipping industries, Derry is hoping to leverage its cultural history not just to attract tourists but to build a new generation of artists and designers and reach out to the most marginalized members of its community.
Women once worked in more than 40 shirt factories here, delicate work requiring smaller hands, so "the men on the dole played a mother's role," staying at home with children, as Phil Coulter's song about Derry goes. Today, artists now labor in those rooms, in galleries such as The Void, which sponsors classes for high school students with artistic promise.
Shipping disappeared in the 1920s, but during World War II, the U.S. Navy fought the Battle of the Atlantic from Derry, and the Nazi U-boat fleet surrendered here in 1945.
At the elegant Beech Hill Country House Hotel, where President Bill Clinton has stayed twice, one room is set aside as a small museum to the U.S. Marines who were billeted here for three years during the war. Many of the American soldiers married young local women, and the Beech Hill-U.S. Navy Marine Corps Friendship Association still sponsors annual visits to the hotel.
There are other museums commemorating a harder past -- in the city's Bogside neighborhood, the Museum of Free Derry displays memorabilia from Bloody Sunday. Bogside also has its famous murals on houses, from fiery socialist Catholic Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, now living quietly in County Tyrone working to improve conditions for migrant workers, to a young boy in a gas mask. They are no longer considered political gestures, but works of art documenting the neighborhood's tragic history.
For all the talk of next year's festivities heralding a new future, the peace dividend hasn't reached everyone, and a struggling economy means continued anger among those who are unemployed. Some highway signs marking the city's official name "Londonderry" have the "London" scratched out by those who were -- or still are -- disinclined to view Britain as a participant in their government.
"These are the growing pains of a civil society," said James Lamb, executive director of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh. "They're really just the final few, a handful of extremists who are always the hardest to persuade."
The links between Derry and Pittsburgh are long and strong. The Ireland Institute, founded in 1989, made Derry one of its early connections, bringing young people from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds here to spend time together and undergo job training and personal and professional development -- and then go back.
"Wider Horizons," a north-south training and reconciliation program based in Northern Ireland and funded by the International Fund for Ireland, has sent young adults from Derry to Pittsburgh, "probably more than 100" in recent decades, said Mr. Lamb.
"We bring them together as a group to talk about their lives and about diversity, cultural, differences among nations, individuals and communities. We teach them assertiveness as an alternative to aggression, conflict resolution and communication."
Still, at any local political meeting in Derry, there are those who still speak up, still angry, still anguished after this 30-year spasm of violence, the latest in centuries of strife, unable to accept that their version of Northern Ireland -- whether in union with Britain or part of the Irish Republic as a single nation -- does not exist.
"They stand up and ask, 'Is this what our Johnny died for?' " said Mr. Gallagher, the musician.
Yes, perhaps it is.
That is, if "this" represents a British army barracks that is now a performing arts space; a beautifully restored Protestant church now used by Derry residents of all political and religious affiliations; or a $20 million peace bridge that will connect Catholics and Protestants in a "City of Culture," hoping, as Mr. Heaney wrote, "for a great sea change on the far side of revenge."
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am