Ancient Town in N. Ireland Holds History – and Promise

San Francisco Chronicle

By Tom McEnery
Derry, Northern Ireland

An optimistic Bill Clinton Spoke here a few days ago.

For centuries, others have come to this spot. First, Celts and Vikings, then Normans and Saxons sought its safe harbor. Beneath the gentle sloping hills, this place has always beckoned. The ancient wars were decided here – the tocsin of 1689 and the savage defense of the city by Protestants is still celebrated today. It is a source of partisan pride and communal division. Friends in uniform also arrived. This is the city that welcomed the American Expeditionary Force’s vanguard to Europe in 1942 and after the good fight, accepted the surrender of the German U-boat fleet. Up the road is a 2,000 year-old pre-Christian fort, hard by the farm where viscount Montgomery of Alamein was born. Old mixes with new and is spiced with the ancient.

As you walk along the old walls of Derry, or London-derry (here they cannot even agree on the name), you can take a trip through a painful past. Its most recent additions are viewed from the crumbled ramparts: the Bogside. Here is a ghetto where non-violent Catholic protesters were gunned down by the British army in 1972 at the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre. The IRA, an anachronism in modern Europe, was created from the twin pillars of Protestant bigotry and British government stupidity.

This city is no longer what it was. At one time these walls excluded all Catholics. In this place heralded in song and myth, certain emaciated wretched were not welcome. The haunting strains of the old favorite “Danny Boy” are sung to the Derry air. Everyone loves that tune. But behind the laughing eyes and ready mirth is a sad truth: It was here they said goodbye to all they knew and loved and sailed off in coffin … new life. Others across the sea would eke out an existence, never to see hearth and family again. This city tells the story of one of the great wandering races; it is the tale of Derry, as well as Ireland. It continues today. The book is open, the circle remains unclosed.

Much that is good is evident here in this town on the border of old and new, between the last vestige of the British Empire and the nascent Irish Republic. The playwright Brian Friel lives up the road and Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney is a native. It is a place of ideas, but as was noted at a historic session, “Ah, that’s a good idea, but unfortunately, it’s a Catholic idea!”

Today, behind its walls, Derry strives to be positive. A city that knows it may once again go on life-support systems is a fragile place. Twenty-five years of bombs and bullets, tanks and terrors can do that. Here, we know the truth of Joyce’s opinion, that history is a nightmare the Irish are trying to awaken from. The greatest apostle of peace. Nobel … comments that in the most Christian nation on Earth (judged by church attendance), the most horrible events still occur. He wants to awaken the slumbering genius of his people here and across the island.

Many in both the Catholic and Protestant communities want to build that new future. They work toward a fundamental re-examination of attitudes, pulling down the walls of hatred and putting common Christianity in its stead. In doing so Ireland could not achieve a lasting peace, but also give an example to other areas of conflict in the world. An old street couplet depressingly, cynically says, “To hell with the future and long live the past.” In a land where people have suffered and died, most are coming to acknowledge the Hume mantra that he borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr.: “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” The future can be a traumatic place, but after the horrors of living with the hatred and bigotry of the past, it is a place that many in Northern Ireland pray to arrive…

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