Freelance journalist from Derry, Northern Ireland.
Published January 13th 2017
The laborious 1 mile circumference of the red stone walls has never been breached, but I felt my human rights had been breached as I trudged down towards the Guildhall. As the only remaining intact walled city in Ireland, Derry is a rarity, although the walls are an unfortunate concrete reminder of the division and so the troubled history of the city. The arduous journey along these walls is however worthwhile in an array of aspects. Their sheer presence, extensively significant history and not to mention the frankly poignant views they permit provoke my remorse for suggesting they were unnecessarily stretched.
Before reaching the walls I wandered through the highly futuristic Ebrington Square area, where the former army barracks had undergone major redevelopment to establish the setting for the City of Culture 2013 festivities. Pigeons hurried around enjoying their new place of worship, accompanied by tourists who revitalized themselves on the innovative architecture as the sun bounced off the black tile-like pavement stones. Then, passing under a modern stone archway, the entire city was visible. An overwhelmingly imposing bridge curved over the River Foyle, on which the premature February sun created a mesmerising glimmer, and beyond lay a skyline like that of a New York film scene.
I hesitantly tip-toed onto the bridge, unsure whether or not the two enormous white wing-like panes would fold outwards and allow us to take off into the abundance of azure above. The see-through floor design furthered my anxiety as the slight breeze instigated the slow awakening of the listless dark blue water below. Safely across, it was time to venture into a city that not so long ago had been shattered by separation.
All of a sudden the peace and tranquility transformed into buzz and commotion. A herd of runners whizzed past, generating an astonishingly powerful breeze that almost knocked me off my feet. Their fluorescent jackets woke me from my pleasant daydream. A train whistled past below. Busy passers-by greeted me at every street corner with welcoming smiles. A busker soothed frantic shoppers with a rendition of Wonderwall as his black and white scruffy dog lay loyally beside him. The soft voiced performer and his dog have a long road ahead if they are to reach the elevated standards of those who have graced the largest theatre stage in Ireland; the Millennium Forum.
After owners of little stalls attempted to grasp my attention with their homemade crafts, I had reached the beginning of the 'Legenderry' walls. Akin to The Great Wall of China, albeit on a much smaller scale, this longstanding landmark had equal significance and symbolized everything about the city: honoured tradition, unbreakable strength and yet sadly, division.
I now felt like I was strolling along the same path Dorothy had wandered in The Wizard of Oz, only this time the bricks were grey, and instead of bumping into strangely enticing characters I was befriending the different areas of the city and their specific history. The evening breeze embraced me much easier than usual due to the height of the walls, sending an unwelcome shiver down my spine.
St Columb's Cathedral caught my eye with all its splendour. The white sandstone walls were outlined with several glass stained windows, some minuscule, yet some enormous. From afar it resembled a castle fit for a king, but the formidable spire asserted its cathedral status and ensured its survival during the devastating Siege of Derry in 1688.
Delving deeper and deeper into the city, The Bogside was in now in sight. 'YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY'. The black letters stood out intimidatingly on the white wall. The lyrics of U2's Sunday, Bloody Sunday came rushing back to me and every word rang through my ears as children played and women pushed their prams through the intricate arrangements of streets. Representing the undesirable centrepiece for 'The Troubles', the mainly political conflict throughout the country in the late 20th century involving the deaths of over 3,500 people. The majority-Catholic area still has one eye on the past. I felt the entire history engulf me as I walked past mural after mural of the area's role during the violence, including touching tributes to those who lost their lives. The tightly packed houses and the graffiti on the walls were particularly striking among this extremely proud and close cluster of people. The Bogside Inn waited patiently for its enthusiastic locals.
Walking up Waterloo Street on a patio-like design which had been dirtied from the night before gave an idea of the nightlife. The line of bars seemed endless, each intriguing in their own way. One was quirky and modern, the next much more traditional. One blasted generic Irish music from its beer garden, yet another sat dormant like a volcano, ready to erupt with songs and laughter at any time.
A break was needed; both from tired calf muscles and the flurry of emotions. A selection of cafés spoilt me for choice. Café Soul next to the Guildhall embodied the warmth of the locals. The Guildhall, which hosts various political conferences, stood prominently in front of a fountain-filled square. Bill Clinton once stood here on a visit in 1995, just a taste of the history surrounding the building. The building itself could be mistaken for the previously adored St Columb's Cathedral, where the stone exterior is complete with glass stained windows which describe the city's history. A clock resembling Big Ben helped locals who forgot their watch on their daily trips to work across the city.
An Italian piazza was simulated in the grey paving stone square as the sun set behind the Peace Bridge. The sole alteration however was the daunting presence of the four black cannons that hung over the square from the walls as though they were peeking out of a pirate's vessel, proving that this truly is an exceptionally distinctive city.