Derry City of Culture moves into its final month with the immediate focus this week on the Shutting of the Gates ceremony, which commemorates the gesture of defiance against Catholic King James of a small group of Protestant apprentices in December 1688. The ceremony, which traditionally takes place on the first Saturday of the month, includes the firing of a cannon, a bit of a march and a service of thanksgiving, and concludes with the burning of the effigy of Lundy the Traitor. It should be a good day out. Certainly it is always nice to have a traitor to burn.
I have said Derry City of Culture, but of course I should have said Derry-Londonderry. When I was growing up there in the 1960s my impression is that one didn’t hear an enormous amount about “Londonderry” except in official declarations. Most Protestants and all Catholics used the name Derry. It was only later, and under the pressure of what was perceived to be the threat of a newly militant republicanism, that the “London” came to be emphasised in what one most suppose to be a defensive way. “Londonderry” is of course an abomination in the nostrils of the nationalist (and particularly, it seems, the southern nationalist, who more than likely has never been there), but the name has some historical justification. The monastic settlement of Doire Colmcille was just a memory when the English built the new city in the early years of the seventeenth century, a process in which the London livery companies played a large part. As an inscription in St Columb’s Cathedral says, “If stones could speake, then London’s prayse should sound, Who built this church and cittie from the grounde.” Hard to argue with that really.
Derry, OK Derry/Londonderry, is perhaps not the most sectarian or bitter place in Northern Ireland, something which may be due partly to the character of its people and partly to its peculiar geography: a river runs through it. When I was growing up the pattern of religious settlement was fairly mixed, though broadly speaking the east bank of the river (the Waterside) was predominantly Protestant with the west bank being a little more mixed but mostly Catholic. When the Troubles came there was a tendency towards consolidation: that is to say there was a Protestant flight from the west bank ‑ which seems to have resulted in fewer interfaces and less sectarian violence. Though of course there may have been other factors at work too.
Over the course of my childhood my family lived in three separate parts of the city, and they were each predominantly Protestant, even though we were of the other sort. I recall no (literally no) hostility to me on the grounds of religion, though of course it is possible that those who were hostile kept a distance. All the same, there were differences. Our first location was the then idyllic Prehen Park, just a mile outside the city (préachán is a crow; we lived in a small development of new semi-detached houses hacked out of Crow Wood) Here my father did his best with the large back garden. In fact he succeeded in growing potatoes, beans, peas, gooseberries and blackcurrants in it. He may have been less successful with the front lawn for apparently my mother asked more than once why he could not reproduce the beautiful striped effect that our neighbour a few doors down, Marcus Lapsley, had achieved. My father explained that Marcus could create a lawn like that because he was a Protestant. Unfortunately this was said in my hearing and it was not long before I, a friendly and inquisitive seven-year-old, passed on my father’s perception to Mr Lapsley, one of several neighbours I was in the habit of pestering while they were at their work. I also remember informing Constable Hogg (yes), having patiently waited for him to arrive home on his bicycle, of a new rash of “Up the IRA” graffiti on pavements and walls just half a mile away. He and the lovely Mrs Hogg, who had no children themselves, rewarded me with lemonade. It is only now that I feel safe to confess this.
About ten years later my family moved to the pleasant and leafy northern suburbs of the city, onto a road of relatively small but mostly detached houses, where eleven Protestant and three Catholic families (we were the third to arrive) lived. A decade or so later, with the Troubles well advanced and the Provos active in Shantallow, just a mile away, there were no Protestant families at all. Was it that they didn’t feel safe or could it have been the lawn thing again?
Derry changed a lot over these years. A returning emigrant is supposed to have asked a taxi driver “Where’s William Street?” (the thoroughfare that separates Bogside from the city centre); the response was “It’s in the dump.” There were certainly some significant losses – a fine stone-built Victorian bank in Waterloo Place bombed and replaced by a gimcrack 1970s structure (why spend any money if they’re just going to do it again?). Eventually, however, it seemed the destruction was coming to an end (and it more or less came to an end in Derry before it did in other places) and the city planners set about reconstructing the city ‑ not just reconstructing but reimagining and reorienting it in fact.
Anyone who has visited Derry in the last ten or fifteen years will see the use that is now made of its splendid setting (the Foyle is really quite some river). This is a huge change from the city of the 1960s and 70s, when the river and its fine prospects were virtually invisible, hidden from the people by mean streets full of decaying Victorian warehouses. Those streets are now gone and there is a greater feeling of space and openness. The old double-decker Craigavon Bridge, then the only crossing point, was joined by another impressive one north of the city at Madam’s Bank, connecting the now predominantly Catholic middle class area of Culmore Road with Altnagelvin Hospital and the road to Belfast. And in 2011 a footbridge was built to join the city centre (west bank) with the Waterside. A fine structure, and a fine gesture: it is called the Peace Bridge and it is hoped that it will encourage more interaction between the communities on either side of the river, who rub along pretty well most of the time without each other. Peace Bridge is fine of course but I always thought an alternative name might have appealed to the people of Derry, whose humour can tend to the self-deprecating. What better name for a bridge which seeks to unite than the Themmens Bridge? For certainly a proposition that would win a wide measure of assent in both the Protestant Waterside and on the Catholic city side would be that “Themmens [them wans] get everythin’. We get nathin’.”