Travel Journal: Northern Ireland
However, a river in the middle of the city divides Derry physically. A wall surrounds the predominately Protestant area, whereas the Catholics live below, across the river, in an area pejoratively called “The Bogs.” Peace murals, including a 14-year-old girl killed by British soldiers and a painting of Che Guevara, mark many of the building walls in The Bogs. Apparently it is common (in both Derry and Belfast) for Catholics to identify with Palestinians and socialist revolutionaries and for Protestants to identify with Israelis, even flying the different flags in neighborhoods of whatever majority. Unlike Belfast, where it took a poetry class to elicit a proper discussion of these issues, the division is palpable in Derry.
Our tour guide took us around the walls of Derry describing dark stories from the past, including the death of Annette McGavigan, the 14-year-old girl, whose father reportedly thought the mural so realistic that until his dying day he stared into his daughter’s eyes, never able to come to terms with her death.
And yet, there is a real sense in which the wounds are healing over. Our rotund tour guide’s step grew light in between the dark stories he was obliged to rehash. He went on to say that the mural wasn’t finished until after the Good Friday Agreement; at the top a broken machine gun can be seen. Our tour guide grew more and more passionate about the real opportunity for a peaceful future. Somehow managing not to sound cliché, he told us that we as the future (not of Ireland, per se, because most of us were international students) had the opportunity to learn from their fraught past.
Despite the occasional bomb threat from a crusty old terrorist, I think that the effort to remember the all-to-recent past is readily reconcilable with a future based on mutual respect. Still, in a recent conversation with an incredibly intelligent Irish friend here, he told me that many people he knows vote on purely religious lines. A Catholic would very rarely be seen voting for the (conservative) Unionist party, even if they didn’t particularly think Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic. I can’t pretend I understand the history or the emotions tied into these issues very well. I’m sure that any Irish or British friend who happens to read this will have many corrections and addendums to offer. For what it’s worth, my perspective as an outsider is that although there is some residual division, everyone’s just trying to get on with their lives. As Mal from Firefly put it, “The war’s over. We’re all just folk now.”
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