What do you call this place? Is it Londonderry or just Derry? Most people, especially Catholics and nationalist, call it Derry while Protestants and unionists call it Londonderry. So confusing. Whatever you call it, there is a lot of history there.
So, present-day Republic of Ireland (what we usually just call Ireland) and Northern Ireland were once both part of England; English colonies (belonging to the United Kingdom), actually, just like Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and the US. Most of those have become their own countries, but Canada and Australia still pledge allegiance to the queen, unlike the rebel US. Ireland has since broken off and become its own country (in 1949) and Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, just like Scotland and Wales. Way back before all that, England “planted” Protestants in Northern Ireland and they began treated the “native” Irish Catholics very poorly. Eventually, Ireland split off to become their own country (about 5/6th of the island) and Northern Ireland was left to the British (the other 1/6th of the island).
When the border was set, they followed the River Foyle for the most part, but since it runs directly through the city Derry, the British decided it would be easier to claim all of Derry. This left the Irish Catholics of Derry as a minority so the Protestants still had the upper hand and essentially left the Irish poor and without a vote. The Irish Catholics had their part of town, on the “Bogside” of the Foyle River, and the Protestants were on the “Waterside.” People rarely passed from one side to the other. The same happened in Belfast. Recently, there has been much fighting over whether to join the Republic of Ireland and make the entire island one country (which the Catholics want) or to stay as they are, just a part of the United Kingdom (what the Protestants want).
This is NOT a religious thing, it just happens to be Protestants who originally came from Britain and want to remain part of Britain and Catholics who have Irish heritage and want to become part of Ireland again.
The region of Northern Ireland is commonly called Ulster (from Cúige Uladh, the tribe that used to inhabit the area that is roughly present-day Northern Ireland) and it’s easier to find an Ireland flag than a Northern Ireland flag. When I was trying to find a Northern Ireland patch, the lady at the shop told me that for many people, there is peace at the surface level, but underneath people feel very strongly.
The Troubles, as the violent times are called, are long gone, and most of the violence you hear of today are kids who just want the excitement of violence and don’t truly understand what the fighting was about. I’ve meet several men and women who lived through those times and are very sad they happened, but they are looking toward peace in the future. They certainly want their way, but not so much as to push to violence. On a walking tour in Belfast, my guide casually greeted and chatted with a man. As we walked away, told us the man used to be a leader of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army, representing the Catholic side). The governor of Coleraine used to be a leader of the IRA and ordered people to be killed. Now he governs those people jointly with a Protestant leader. These are real people who are still living today! There is a lot of recent history here, but there are some people who weren’t affected immediately by it. I met three ladies today at St. Columb’s Cathedral who lived through The Troubles but didn’t hear about some things until friends from London called and asked if they were alright because a bomb went off or there were shootings somewhere nearby. People in London were hearing the political news in Derry before people in Derry knew about it!!! This shows that it was not an entire city overrun with violent hatred, but mainly strong feelings that in some situations did turn violent.
The whole area was not a warzone, but it certainly was in some places. The images we see about The Troubles are not false, but they are not the entire country’s state at that time, either.
That is the condensed (but not short) history of Ireland and why it is so important to realize it is a different country than Ireland. Many tourists come here and think they are still in Ireland. The border is an ‘open border’ and many roads can cross it several times in just a kilometer. All that switches to the tourists are whether they spend Euros or pounds and measure in kilometers or miles and whether the roads lead to Derry, Londonderry or both.
There is so much more if you look at the past, even the recent past, talk to the people who lived through it and look at the murals painted across town, both on the Waterside and Bogside. It’s really amazing how recent this was (and it’s still going on) but how little people outside of the area know about it. The people of Northern Ireland feel so much for people in Basque Country and Palestine and other places where the same thing is going on.
When learning about these ‘histories in the making’ like Northern Ireland, Basque Country and Palestine, I think it’s important not to take sides or feel pressured to agree with anyone, but rather to sympathize with everyone. Yes, the nationalists have it rough and have been mistreated, but the unionists shouldn’t have to pay for what their ancestors did. No one should be at fault because of their heritage, but they are all responsible now for finding a solution that creates peace. Learning this history can help travelers to better understand other parts of the world going through similar situations like Basque Country and Palestine.
This is all a lot to take in, especially when reading it from the comfort of your home. But trust me, if you are there and can actually talk to people who lived through this, see the streets where riots broke out and touch the bullet holes in the walls, it is much more moving. I admittedly knew nothing about Northern Ireland before going there, but I learned a lot from talking to people. I learned it’s important to look at history that is happening now. You may not care to learn about Charlemagne or Julius Caesar because it involves reading from a big history book, but the history that is being made now, in your lifetime, you can learn in much more vivid terms and connect with it better.