Two months ago I arrived in Derry, Northern Ireland, with a mixture of excitement and ambivalence. Excitement generated by the prospect of exploring a new place while studying a subject that its inhabitants had lived for the past 35+ years: peace and conflict. Ambivalence due to the difficulty of trying to place the upcoming year within my own life story: as I see it now, my first 21 years were like rafting with the current down an academic river that, upon college graduation, fed into a great bay from which I could choose from any number of routes – once of course I discovered what those were. After exploring different coves of the bay this past year – taking on a succession of short-term jobs – I was feeling the urge to set a course out into the sea. I hope and trust that my year “across the pond” in the North will help me do so.
So far, I have been enjoying my time in Derry and learning a lot. Derry/Londonderry is an interesting city, particularly for someone studying the Troubles. The name itself has been a point of contest. Originally named Derry (a derivation of the Irish for oak grove, which it was when originally established as a monastic settlement in the 6th Century CE), the city was renamed Londonderry at the start of the 17th century when members of London guilds were charged with rebuilding it as part of the Plantation of Ulster, in which (mostly Protestant) English and Scottish settlers took control of large parts of Ulster (the northernmost province of Ireland). Situated at the mouth of the River Foyle just inside the northwest border of Northern Ireland, the city became a flash point in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the civil rights protests gave way to Free Derry, Bloody Sunday, and decades of sectarian conflict throughout the North. During the Troubles, the name of the city was an issue; some (nationalists) would only call it Derry, while others (unionists/British) would insist on Londonderry. Though it is now officially Derry, some still call it “Stroke City” (for the “/” in Derry/Londonderry) to avoid controversy.
I”ve enjoyed getting to know the city – walking around its historic walls; running alongside the river that divides it and out towards the mountains that surround it; drinking pints of Guinness while listening to traditional Irish music; exploring the Bogside with its famed “You are now entering Free Derry” wall and countless Murals (commemorating scenes from Bloody Sunday and the Troubles); celebrating Halloween with 1000s of other costume-wearing revelers in the streets, pubs, and clubs on what is the biggest night of the year in Derry; trying to decipher the cheers of a fiercely loyal crowd at a Derry City Football Club match.
Two other Derry experiences stand out. For one, the Derry Anti-War Coalition hosted a conversation with Ibrahim Mousawi, an editor of Al Manar, Hezbollah’s news syndicate in Lebanon – someone whose perspective on this past summer’s war and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general I doubt I would have had the opportunity to hear back home in the States. Also, when a guest speaker called my professor to cancel a meeting with my class, scheduled for later that afternoon, my professor quickly arranged for someone else to come – John Hume, the Nobel Laureate from Derry who holds the Tip O’Neill Chair at the University of Ulster (my school) and, as leader of the SDLP (the biggest nationalist party in the North during the Troubles and the 1990s peace process), played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for, and then negotiating, the Good Friday Agreement.
I’ve also enjoyed opportunities to travel within the North and to the Republic. I’ve visited Belfast twice and Dublin twice as well. My second two weekends after arriving corresponded with the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. With one of my Derry flatmates, I celebrated Rosh Hashana with the only remaining Jewish congregation in the North -in Belfast. The small Orthodox community welcomed us and a number of other young visitors into their synagogue in north Belfast; no doubt they appreciated our forming part of the initial minyan (the minimum of ten worshipers needed for services to begin) each morning! The next weekend was off to Dublin for a whirlwind orientation with my fellow Mitchell Scholars. We stayed in the lovely Westbury Hotel, just off of Grafton Street, a lively commercial street closed off to cars. Almost immediately after arriving it was off to the Guinness Storehouse’s Gravity Bar, where we were treated to the black magic straight from its source (and yes, it is better over here!) and to an excellent dinner and a speech by the outgoing U.S. Ambassador. The rest of the weekend was full of good craic, highlighted by our front row seats at the Ryan Tubridy Show, which is Ireland’s Saturday-night equivalent of the Late Show. It just so happened that the night we were there David Hasselhoff “The Hoff” was the main guest. Whatever else you want to say about the Hoff, he is absolutely a charismatic performer and a surprisingly good singer. I also enjoyed a rainy hike in the Wicklow mountains outside of Dublin. I stayed on in Dublin for an extra day to observe Yom Kippur, this time at a good-sized Orthodox synagogue where the congregation and rabbi were again quite friendly.
A couple of weekends later I made it back to Belfast – this time to coach a girls’ basketball team from Limavady, a town about 30 minutes from Derry, in two games against other teams from around Northern Ireland. I am working with the Limavady club, which also has a boys team, through an American organization called Playing for Peace (PfP). For the past five or so years, PfP has been using basketball to bring together children from Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. Unlike soccer, rugby, and the Gaelic sports, which are either associated specifically with one or the other community or have been sources/outlets of sectarian conflict (i.e. the sectarian rivalry within the North between fans of the Glasgow Rangers and the Celtics, also from Glasgow), basketball is a relatively new sport here and does not suffer from sectarian associations. Coaching the girls from Limavady has been a lot of fun – they are a spirited and energetic bunch!
After the games, I spent the rest of the weekend touring around Belfast, which I’ve found to be a very interesting city. The City Center is bustling and quite cosmopolitan, highlighted by an impressive City Hall building and the Queen’s University campus. Walking around, I got the sense (projected in all of Belfast’s promotional tourist information) that the city has moved decisively past the era of the Troubles and is now a bustling European capital. Just across the Lagan River, the docks where the Titanic was designed and constructed are being redeveloped into new commercial, residential, and leisure areas. Yet just blocks away from the City Center, in the republican Falls Road and loyalist Shankill Road areas of west Belfast, there are still countless political murals, graffiti, and other signs that mark the sectarian divide just as clearly as the Peace Line – the wall that physically separates republican from loyalist neighborhoods. On the Falls: many murals commemorating the Hunger Strikers; Irish tricolours and flags commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strikes that left 10 republican prisoners, on hunger strike for the restoration of their status as political prisoners (rather than common criminals), dead; murals linking the republican cause with that of other revolutionaries seeking to liberate their countries of colonial oppression; graffiti promoting the CIRA and the RIRA, factions that broke away from the Provisional IRA in the wake of its ceasefires in the 1990s; and several memorial gardens to commemorate those members of the IRA who died fighting for Irish freedom as well as local community members who were killed during the Troubles. On the Falls: countless murals of armed paramilitaries from the UVF, UDA, LVF -some of the main loyalist paramilitary forces; British flags; several murals of the Queen of England and another celebrating Oliver Cromwell’s role in Ireland; and commemorative gardens for loyalists and local community members who had died during the Troubles.
This second trip to Belfast helped me getter a better understanding of the nature of the sectarian conflict here in the North, which is the subject of one of the two courses I am taking this semester in my MA program in peace and conflict studies. The other course has to do with theories and methods of peace and conflict research. Both are interesting and I’ve enjoyed getting to know my classmates, who come from around the world. We spent a few days in Dublin together at the start of November in a number of interesting meetings with Irish officials and Parliament members working on the Northern Ireland issue. This second trip to Dublin also afforded an opportunity for a great dinner with some of the Dublin Mitchells.
As I look ahead, I’m excited to spend more time with the other Mitchells and to get more into my coursework and, next semester, my thesis. I’m also very much looking forward to seeing more of Northern Ireland and the Republic (especially Donegal) and to traveling to other places in Europe and beyond. More immediately, I’m looking forward to a flatmate’s concert at a pub in town. Until next time then. Peace.