I had such an amazing experience touring The Republic of Ireland and learning about Irish history that I became curious about Northern Ireland. While most of Ireland is self-governed, Northern Ireland, the northeast section of the island, is part of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland has a long, complicated and painful history that I cannot fully comprehend or summarize here. But one thing is clear: the division between unionists/loyalists (those loyal to England) and nationalists (those who prefer a unified and independent Ireland) has caused decades of strife and bloodshed in and around Northern Ireland, and in Derry specifically. Unionists tend to be Protestant while nationalists tend to be Catholic. But religion, rather than being the core source of the conflict, was used as an easy way to identify individuals’ political beliefs. Many point to the discrimination against the Catholic/nationalist minority by the Protestant/unionist majority as a major cause of “The Troubles,” a period of violence that lasted from about 1969 until 1998, when the “Good Friday Agreement” was signed in Belfast.
I have mixed emotions about my visit to Derry. I absolutely believe that the four days I stayed there equated to time well spent, and I would definitely recommend a visit to the city. The period known as “The Troubles” because much more familiar and real to me. I learned so much about the conflicts in the divided country of Ireland as well as in Derry itself, a city where significant acts of violence occurred. While Derry is far from a war zone these days, divisions still exist between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, and an undercurrent of distrust and resentment still feels palpable in the city.
It was difficult for me to relax in Derry. As I walked past the very storefronts I had seen in photos from Bloody Sunday and other violent conflicts, my shoulders tensed and I shivered even in the sunshine. One night, I watched an enormous unionist/Protestant-organized bonfire on the hill overlooking “The Bogside” and talked to a 23-year-old Northern Ireland native who boastfully declared his hatred for the city’s Catholic residents. I hope and believe that his talk was just talk, but I still felt uneasy. Nearly every city I’ve visited can point to violence in its history, but in Derry it is so recent and feels that much more real.
Having said all that, Derry has come a long, long way since Bloody Sunday took place in 1972. It has a more industrial and working-class atmosphere than the other parts of Ireland I visited, but its fascinating history, which dates back to the 1600s, is what really makes Derry worth the trip today.
Here are my recommendations for how to spend your time in Derry/Londonderry:
- Take a walking tour.
While walking tours are typically a good way to familiarize yourself with the layout and key sights of a city, Derry is small and easily navigable with a basic map. The real value to participating in a Derry walking tour is to get an introduction to the city’s long and complicated history from a local guide. I took a tour with Derry City Tours, which costs £4. My tour guide discussed the unionist/nationalist and Catholic/Protestant divisions honestly and shared his own personal experiences. He also pointed out that though some political and religious divisions still exist among some individuals, the city is much more peaceful than it has ever been before.
- Cross the Peace Bridge.
Constructed in 2011, the Peace Bridge is a modern pedestrian bridge that stretches across the river between the traditionally Protestant and Catholic sides of the river in Derry. The shape is reminiscent of two arms coming from the opposite banks to shake hands in the middle. The bridge is a pleasant place for a short walk or jog across the river.
2. Create your own Irish Pub crawl.
The nightlife in Derry centers on a couple of streets crowded with Irish pubs. To meet locals, sit at the bar and start a conversation with your neighbor! I went out one night with a group of girls from the U.S. and Canada who happened to be staying in my hostel dorm room. Our hostel manager said Peadar O’Donnell’s was the best pub in Derry, and I definitely agree! The pub has traditional live music, a friendly and relaxed crowd, and a good selection of ciders. I don’t like the taste of beer, but I hear the brews are decent there, too! When you’re ready for a change of scene, check out the other pubs next door and up the street.
3. Take in the People’s Gallery.
The People’s Gallery is definitely a must-see when visiting Derry, and it’s free. The “gallery” is a series of murals painted on the sides of buildings along the street where violence began on Bloody Sunday in 1972. The powerful images, created by a group called the Bogside Artists, are accompanied by plaques that explain the story behind each mural. The gallery is an easy walk from downtown Derry.
4. Walk atop the old city wall.
Derry is the only city in Ireland with its entire city wall still intact. The circumference of the wall is nearly a mile, which makes for an easy walk and a great way to see the city from above. Informational signage at various points along the wall provides more color to historically-significant places and people.
5. Visit the Museum of Free Derry.
The Museum of Free Derry does not make for a “fun afternoon out,” and it is not recommended for children. The museum is a national archive which provides visitors with a greater understanding the area known as Free Derry, the events leading up to and occurring on Bloody Sunday (January 30, 1972) and the later resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. What I found most moving were the personal stories and belongings on display from each of the victims who were killed on Bloody Sunday. Many of the photos are graphic, and the exhibit concludes with a slideshow that provides further details and photos from the events on that day and afterward. When I visited the museum, the younger brother of one of the Bloody Sunday victims was welcoming visitors and providing an introduction to the museum.
Be prepared – the exhibits are sobering and some of the accounts are difficult to read. Even so, I left the museum feeling grateful for the peace that finally exists in Northern Ireland and for a museum that honors the memory of those who were killed.
6. Check out the Guildhall.
Derry’s Guildhall is a lovely and impressive building that houses the city government. Though it may look old, the Guildhall was destroyed a few times in its history and the current building dates from the 1970s. The Guildhall is free to visit and houses an exhibition on the Plantation of Ulster, Derry’s original settlement. It also features some nice stained glass windows and a large courtroom where the Bloody Sunday Inquiry took place from 2000-2005.
I found the exhibits in the Guildhall only moderately interesting. It was not my favorite museum, but it’s worth a look because it’s free. You can check out the parts that interest you and then move on without guilt!
7. Tour the Tower Museum
The Tower Museum is a large and well-organized museum that tells the story of Derry from the original settlement through the 20th Century. In addition to some interesting sections on early industry and the two world wars, I thought this museum provided the best explanation I had seen or heard regarding the root causes of “The Troubles.” The information was presented in a well-balanced way that seemed suitable for all ages. The exhibition ends with an interesting video that summarizes Derry’s history and discusses where the city is today…or at least where it was a few years ago when the video was made!
8. Visit St. Columb’s Cathedral
One of the key narratives in Derry’s history is the story of the “Apprentice Boys,” 13 young apprentices who together closed and locked the city gates against the attacking Jacobite army during the Siege of Derry in 1688. St. Columb’s Cathedral, built in 1633, survived that siege and now has several artifacts from the Siege of Derry on display, including the original keys to the city gates. A short video is shown to tell more about the cathedral’s interesting history. The church and surrounding cemetery are free to visit.
9. Gaze at the “Hands Across the Divide” monument
I visited this beautiful statue, which is located near Craigavon Bridge, on my last day in Derry. I found it the perfect way to wrap up my visit. Seeing the monument reminded me that the opportunity for reconciliation exists and indeed, great strides have been made to that end. Derry has found peace after the violence, and there is hope that one day, political and religious beliefs will no longer incite hatred or distrust among its citizens.