Paths less trodden

22 Aug
Sunset cityscape - Derry / Londonderry

Sunset cityscape – Derry / Londonderry
© 2013, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

Last month, just after writing about the frustration of the 12th July marches here in Northern Ireland I found myself up visiting my grandparents in Derry/Londonderry.*

*I’m just going to call it Derry from here folks. The name of Northern Ireland’s north-west city is a bone of contention here, and too many use it as a political beating stick. I’m not implying any kind of political viewpoint by adopting the shorter version.

I’ve been visiting the city since I was a kid, and have fond memories of wandering around within the walled city with my brother when we were younger. Fond memories, apart from the one time when we managed to miss the bus back out to my grandparents, and mum freaked out and phoned the police and had them looking for us. We got back eventually, and I can only assume nobody checked the bus station. Different times I suppose – Derry wasn’t exactly a safe place.

At some stage as a teenager I stopped visiting the city itself. I have a recollection of the last trip in during the 12 August commemorations of the Siege of Derry, and heading back through being diverted by police because of riotous trouble, and seeing objects being thrown over the city walls towards us.

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to visit more – pushed on because of my grandparents’ fading health and advancing years (though saying that I now feel guilty that I’m not seeing more of my other grandparents, who live only on the other side of Belfast). And, in deciding to stay with them for a few days (I did the same last year, and that was the first time in about 15 years), I made a point of trekking into the old city, ostensibly to shoot a few frames and to wander the city walls.

When I was here before you could wander only a few short stretches of the wall, with much of it closed off for security concerns. It says a lot about how times have changed, that the walls are finally allowed to be opened almost entirely, and stand as a fantastic tourist attraction. I made a point of circumnavigating them during the afternoon for the first time in my 32 years of coming to the city.

Shipquay Street towards Guildhall

Shipquay Street towards Guildhall
© 2013, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The city has changed a lot. Long gone are the second hand book shops, and antique stores that I remember from before. Something of the soul has been ripped out with the modernisation and building of the big malls. But then my parents and grandparents tell me that the soul was ripped out in the 1970s during the sustained bombing campaign in the city that destroyed many of the older buildings and robbed more than a few of their livelihoods. I’m aware that my grandfather’s own shop stood on the spot where the Craft Village now is, and was firebombed by the IRA in the 70s. The after-effects are still being felt. And the same is true for many in Northern Ireland. The memories, the learned memories, and the bitterness are slow to fade away, Each side of the perceived divide has their own reasons to be angry, both have been wronged by the other.

Stepping foot around the city solo was an eye-opener. Being a tourist in the most positive sense – exploring the sights as an outsider might, examining the architecture. Being aware of the subtle changes and differences and stark underbelly.

I also went in armed with my DSLR camera, which increasingly has altered my relationship with people and surroundings. It has become a strange filter with which to view the world. I find I put myself in places where I wouldn’t go were I simply walking around. Pushing yourself into unusual spaces to get a particular angle on a shot, or indeed moving into a location you wouldn’t otherwise dare to breach. There is an aura of objectivity, and suddenly all communities and people become game, and the territorialism you might once have had (if you’re that way inclined) slips away.

The Bogside

The Bogside
© 2013, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Before I caught my bus in Belfast my folks had advised me to be careful and watch where I was going. Of course, I found myself caught up on the Saturday afternoon in the sunshine in an air of positivity. There was an open-air concert taking place, and a gathering of motorcycles on the walls overlooking the Bogside. I peered over the walls into the Bogside, an area I’d only recently been driven through in a car. I watched the groups of foreign tourists marching from the city walls into the Bogside, and standing around the Free Derry mural, laughing and posing. It was inevitable that I would brave the slope down from the old city into the estate.

For someone from my protestant background, stepping foot into the Bogside is a significant move. A quick trawl of internet forums and a cursory examination of the history, and you’ll see all you need to about the strong Irish Republican / Nationalist / Roman Catholic orientation of the area, and in particular the anti-British sentiment. There’s always a little bit of you that thinks, well if someone asks me questions they might take objection and start attacking me. But then, I think the same thing when I’m wandering around Loyalist parts of Belfast too. I don’t see myself as either, so I’m a target for all.

But I felt it was important. I’ve watched the documentaries, and looked at the contemporary reports and footage and images from Bloody Sunday, and felt the anger that must have been felt by the communities at the murder of unarmed civilians by an over-zealous British army (an army initially welcomed into the city by all sides). And I’ve felt the anger of those who lost their businesses to the IRA bombing campaigns. I wandered around, reading about the murals, and photographing the monuments painted by the ‘Bogside Artists’ group. Looking at the memorial stones to noted Republicans, and staring back up at the walls of the city, acknowledging its fort-like structure looking down on the area, and the walls stained with grafitti in honour of fallen Republicans.

Derry Walls from Free Derry Corner

Derry Walls from Free Derry Corner
© 2013, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

Who am I to judge? If I’d been born in this community I would surely feel empathetic towards these people. I might well have suffering in my own family. What was important was that I wasn’t afraid to walk into this area and see the memorials and propaganda for myself. What did bother me was the tourists laughing and jostling for jolly photographs just feet away from the hunger striker monument and images of Bloody Sunday. It just doesn’t seem appropriate – this isn’t just a gloriously huge art gallery, it is a statement and a point of remembrance.

Walking back up to the city I felt a personal achievement, an attempt to listen and understand; and at very least a direct engagement with a community I had little experience of growing up.

I’d still like to attend a republican march to contrast it with my experiences of the Orange parades, searching for similarities and differences, but the couple of events I’d hoped to make it to proved impossible in the last few weeks. There are hopefully more days ahead in which to try this though.

A week later and I was once more walking the length of the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, photographing the loyalist murals.

To suggest that the Bogside visit was my first direct engagement with the republican community would be completely misleading. And it isn’t my first interaction with an important site either. But it was the first time that I felt I had voluntarily moved into an area like that with a purpose of exploration and interaction, with hopefully an open mind and a desire to learn more. The first time, that I ran a risk – however slight – of putting myself in danger. I don’t know how open Bogside residents are to Unionists, Loyalists or plain protestants visiting their community, any more than I know how Loyalist residents are happy to accept the reverse in their areas. I do feel that for a future, those barriers need to be broken.

The photographs from the visit to Derry are here:
and a separate mini-album of the motorbikes on the walls is here:


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