A Reflection on Derry Day and the Maiden City by a Critical Friend and Long Departed Son…

‘Derry Day’ takes place this Saturday, the second Saturday in August, when thousands of people within the city and beyond will commemorate the Relief of Derry after its 105-day siege of 1689.

My childhood memories of Derry Day, in the late 1970s, are of more frugal times, with Waterside churches hosting visiting branch clubs for lunch and raising money for charity. My parents and other volunteers worked tirelessly to provide a good feed for hungry marchers and the craic was mighty. The Clooney estate, Irish Street, Lincoln Court, Nelson Drive, Tullyally and the Fountain – marginalised, working class Protestant estates in a majority Catholic city – enjoyed the pageantry and sense of community, and they still do; but where local Protestants have often failed has been in including their Catholic neighbours. The heroic story of the siege and the historic city walls should belong to us all.

Derry Day is more than three centuries in the making. Early in the morning, the ‘Derry crimson’ siege flag is hoisted above Saint Columb’s Anglican Cathedral and its bells ring out in memory of the many thousands who perished during the siege. A Thanksgiving Service has taken place in the cathedral since the boom was broken in 1689. The Parent Clubs carry out their various ceremonial duties and rituals, including laying a wreath at the war memorial where the names of the 756 fallen of WW1 are inscribed (comprising an almost equal number of unionists and nationalists).

Derry City of course has a contested past. The once largely Presbyterian town ceased to be a majority Protestant citadel by the mid-19th century with the mass influx of Catholic labourers to work in the port and the world famous shirt-factories that once clothed the British Empire. (The gargantuan Tillie and Henderson factory was even denounced by Marx in Das Kapital.) Partition cut off the city from its natural hinterland in the Inishowen peninsula, impacting both communities. Derry boys, returning from the Great War, who had fought side by side at Messines (Fountain Protestants in the 36th Ulster and Bogside Catholics in the 16th Irish) now battled one another in a deeply scarred city. The first nationalist mayor was elected in 1920 and self-interested unionist grandees responded by gerrymandering local elections to restore their control of the corporation. There followed decades of discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment, with but little more interest shown in the Protestant residents of the then densely populated Fountain.

54 years ago, the old Stormont state’s woeful and disproportionate mishandling of an Apprentice Boys’ march unleashed the Battle of the Bogside and pushed Northern Ireland to the edge of the abyss. Some mindless loyalist marchers on Derry’s Walls threw coins down at Bogsiders and some nationalist hecklers responded with pre-prepared Molotov cocktails. The police acted in a partisan manner by siding with the loyalists. Some republicans had wanted to use the civil rights campaign to launch a revolution and hardline unionists had predictably ensured this eventuality. The fuse was lit and the fire would rage for the next three decades.

Derry is also synonymous with Bloody Sunday, an outrage that radicalised a generation of the disadvantaged in the Bogside, Shantallow and Creggan and swelled the ranks of the provos. Yet, throughout the conflict the colossus that was John Hume offered a much better vision of the future in the city that was the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, refuting claims that there was no alternative to violence. It is incontestable that, back then, Derry Catholics preferred Hume to McGuinness.

Bloody Sunday accelerated the exodus of 12,000 Protestants from the West Bank of the Foyle, fleeing provo bombs, bullets and intimidation to the safe havens and better housing on offer in the Waterside, Newbuildings, Limavady and Coleraine. A drift that had started before the Troubles began had first spiked after William King was kicked to death in August 1969. (This is all clearly documented in the investigation into the Protestant Exodus that was carried out by the Pat Finucane Centre, a report that is viewed by many Derry Protestants as a whitewash.) The very deliberate targeting of Protestant policemen and businesses, located on the Cityside, also took its toll. The vastly reduced Cityside Protestant remnant once again felt it was under siege.

The 31,000 Protestants who today live in Derry and Strabane City – the 2022 census records that 21% of the 150,000 residents are Protestant and 67% are Catholic – have a right to enjoy their various cultural expressions in the city they love. Many of them feel that they have been airbrushed out of the city’s narrative and that Catholics who reside in the overwhelmingly nationalist Cityside have little contact with or understanding of their perspective. The local agreement that has been in place for a number of years allows the Parent Clubs and bands (Derry Protestants) to parade around the walls to a solitary drumbeat. For some of these Maiden City Protestants it is their most important fraternal gathering of the year. During the Troubles it was often the only day that Waterside Protestants (cut adrift from their ancestral Cityside churches, cemetery and neighbourhoods) felt safe enough to cross the river, rather than shop on Spencer Road or in Limavady. My brothers and I had the run of the Waterside on our Grifter bikes, but we always instinctively removed our Ebrington Primary School ties when we were escorted across the bridge.

Derry Protestants must also ensure that no unnecessary offence is caused to the Catholic majority, particularly by a small minority of visiting bandsmen. There must be no repeat of the incendiary Clyde Valley incident. The Governor of the Apprentice Boys has made this very clear. Parachute Regiment flags and insignia are gratuitously offensive to Derry Catholics and are not welcome. Period. All it takes is one mindless loyalist caught on one eagerly receptive republican smartphone to demonise an entire group of people and renew calls to ban the Apprentice Boys from the walled city that they so revere, and to banish local participants and spectators to their working class redoubts. This would undo all of the tremendous positive work on the ground that has been painstakingly achieved by the leaders of the Apprentice Boys, the Bloody Sunday Trust and city traders.

But it is too reductive to define the story of the city through the prism of our more recent troubles, important as this was. This was also the 6th-century settlement of Colmcille, the Celtic missionary monk who founded his monastery of Doire (oak grove). It was the stronghold of the O’Doherty clan who for centuries had to resist the incursions of the O’Donnells and the O’Neills. It was the plantation town of the early 17th-century London companies that constructed the grid-patterned streets, the Diamond and Derry’s Walls. It was the port that saw tens of thousands of downtrodden Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, not allowed to build a meeting house within the walled town until after the siege and further disadvantaged under the Penal Laws, flee to the American colonies in the 1700s, followed by the famine-stricken Irish of the 1800s. It was a pivotal city of the Battle of the Atlantic and the home of the ‘Derry Boys’ (my grandfather and great-uncles included) who fought so bravely in two world wars. It was a place of formidable women who stitched in over 40 shirt-factories (including several of my great-aunts) and also raised the ‘wains’. It is a town of famous musicians from Cecil Frances Alexander (‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’), to Phil Coulter (‘The Town I Loved So Well’) and The Undertones (‘Teenage Kicks’). And it is the city of DuPont, Seagate, Allstate, an expanding Magee campus and Channel 4’s irreverent and joyous Derry Girls.

Let us return to making Derry legend-Derry. We need the hopefully soon to be restored NI Executive to complete the A6 dualling, begin the A5, and expand the new post-graduate medical school / centre of Allied Health excellence. Why not also throw in a new Veterinary college and some blue-sky thinking on relaying the Buncrana-Derry-Strabane-Omagh-Portadown railway line? The council needs to look to other walled cities like Carcassonne and York and be more proactive about protecting and rejuvenating the tremendous built heritage and streetscape within the historic centre. Many of the old shirt factories have been wonderfully repurposed and we all look on with bated breath to see what will happen to Austin’s.

Does it really matter if people choose to refer to it as Doire, Derry or Londonderry? Each is part of the story. This city has wonderfully warm and resilient people and tremendous potential. It continues to reinvent and reposition itself. The Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Bogside residents have often led by example in agreeing local accommodations to avert civil unrest, in reducing disruption to traders, and in starting to reimagine this tradition as part of a week-long Maiden City Festival. To paraphrase Phil Coulter, it is very much the town we all love so well.

Happy Derry Day and Raise the Crimson High

Rath Dé Ort Doire-Colmcille

Vita Veritas Victoria

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