Derry, on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is known for the walls which surround the city center, imposing masonry walls which have stood since the 1600s. There are other walls of significance in Derry, though.
Across the River Foyle in the Waterside district, and just south of Bishop’s Gate in the walls, in the Fountain area, buildings are painted with the red hand of Ulster, with images of King William, a seventeenth century ruler whose image has become an icon for the Unionist side of things in the history of divisions in Northern Ireland, and with the red white and blue of the British flag, the Union Jack. Then to the west of the walls which surround the city center, there are different sorts of images. The images painted on walls in the part of the city called the Bogside tell stories of the history of Derry, and of the north of Ireland. from another perspective.
In Northern Ireland, the term the Troubles refers to a time of violence and unrest from the 1960s up through the 1990s. This violence is often framed as a sectarian matter, Catholic versus Protestant. In reality, though, it was and remains a political issue, a matter of the destiny of the six counties of Northern Ireland: should they remain under British rule, or should they become part of the Republic of Ireland? It’s also a matter of loyalties and divisions and pride in one’s land going back centuries, long before the island of Ireland was partitioned into two states.
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All that’s not going to be explained in my few words here. You will understand more of what went on then and why it still matters today as you allow the images from the Bogside artists to touch you, and as you may be inspired to explore the history and the questions raised.
They were painted, it’s good to know, by artists who lived through the stories they show, lived through them on the ground of the Bogside where they painted the stories.
Across the world in the 1960s and especially in the United States, people were taking to the streets to ask for change in what they saw as wrongs in civil rights and social justice. Inspired by what they saw and heard, people in the working class, poor, overcrowded, and largely Catholic section of Derry began taking to the streets as well. As was the case elsewhere. these protests were often peaceful. Others became violent. Sometimes, people were just caught in the crossfire. On a January day in 1972, tension spilled over into violence that became a flash point in the history of the Troubles, as British soldiers fired into a crowd of demonstrators in the Bogside of Derry. Bloody Sunday, that day is called. Fourteen people died, scores were injured, and it seemed hope for a peaceful political future was riven in two.
The Bogside is peaceful these days, though. Through political change and the courage and forgiveness of individuals, it is a place of welcoming community spirit. Many of the buildings, and most of the people who were there during the Troubles are gone, but part of the spirit that makes the Bogside, and that makes Derry, remains. Twenty years and more on from Bloody Sunday, Tom Kelly, Kevin Hasson, and William Kelly decided to tell those stories through image, on the very ground where many of the events took place.
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You can see the Bogside murals as you walk Derry’s seventeenth century walls between Bishop’s Gate and Butcher’s Gate. You can and should come down from the walls and walk among them. The artists chose to paint many of the stories in black and white, reminding of the newspaper images of the day. You’ll see the portrait of a young girl, Annette McGavigan, who at fourteen years of age was one of those caught in the crossfire, in 1971, a good while before Bloody Sunday. She was the first child to die in Derry from this sort of violence. You’ll catch the mixed emotions of a group of civil rights marchers — anger, celebration, camaraderie, fear, hope, uncertainty. You’ll understand the commitment of firebrand politician Bernadette Devlin McAliskey as you take in the image of her speaking. You’ll see an image of a soldier smashing in a door. You’ll catch the emotion of people helping wounded in the midst of Bloody Sunday. You’ll see, in full color this one, a mural of a dove. A dove is the sign of peace from ancient times, and it is also the sign of Derry’s patron saint, Saint Columcille
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