When a local finds out you’re new to Derry, one of the first questions they ask is whether you’ve been to one of two pubs: Peadar O’Donnell’s or Sandino’s. As it happens, this post is about one of the most memorable nights of my life, which took place in Sandino’s. I’ll save Peadar’s for another blog post – or maybe I won’t. (As a TripAdvisor reviewer put it, “I won’t insult you with the importance of this place historically and culturally one way or another: either you know about it or you f**king don’t.”) Either way, it’s telling that both places are named after socialist revolutionaries; this is a city of activists.
At 5pm on October 21, 2019, many of those activists gathered in Guildhall Square to celebrate decades of organizing and agitating finally paying off: at midnight, both the decriminalization of abortion and the legalization of equal marriage for LGBTQ+ citizens would go into effect. The political circumstances surrounding these victories – a collapsed Northern Irish government and a last-ditch effort (or political charade, depending on who you ask) by the ultra-right DUP to thwart the bills’ passage – notwithstanding, this was cause for celebration, and what a celebration it was.
Though the evening’s emotional speeches celebrated the day’s momentous achievements, they reminded us that decriminalization does not necessarily mean easy and safe access to abortion for women. In Northern Ireland, there’s still a fight ahead; I was reminded of the current climate in the United States, where a woman’s right to choose is still constantly under attack.
As if the event organizers had read my mind, the celebration in the Guildhall closed with a beautiful a cappella rendition of “Bread and Roses,” a labor song associated with a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912; the lyrics assert women’s rights to both fair wages and dignity. The use of this song stressed the interconnectedness of struggles for women’s and working-class rights in Northern Ireland and internationally. Interconnectedness is a common thread in Derry politics: opposition to oppression in Northern Ireland is often equated to struggles for equality all over the world. Derry activists believe in solidarity, and nowhere in the city is that more obvious than at Sandino’s, where the night’s celebration carried on.
On an average night, Sandino’s is a leftist’s paradise. Stickers, posters, and artifacts from various socialist struggles around the world adorn the walls; tonight, however, the dial had been turned up to 11. The upstairs bar, packed to the gills with revelers, was draped in banners from pro-choice and LGBTQ+ marches over the years; slogans included everything from the straightforward “Decriminalise: Free, Safe, Legal,” to “Save Sodomy from Ulster.” While we counted down the minutes until both bills took effect at midnight, we were entertained with music, spoken word, stand-up comedy, and no shortage of tearful speeches celebrating the work of Northern Irish activists. At midnight, an explosion of confetti cannons and The Cranberries’ “Dreams” over the speakers had everyone hugging, dancing, and weeping in joy and relief. Sandino’s overflowed with happiness that night, and I feel infinitely lucky to have been there to celebrate alongside the incredible activists of this city.