Londonderry: Iron Maiden

Kosovo is said to pose a problem for Serbian identity. In 1389, it was in the fields of Kosovo that Serbia’s Christian princes and knights gathered to make a last stand against the more powerful Ottomans; they died fighting to defend their land and the legend sustained them through centuries of rule from Istanbul. Kosovo gets called the “Serbian Jerusalem”. It is central to their idea of who they are; and inconveniently, today Kosovo’s population is over 90% Muslim Albanian. Making it a fully Serbian land for Serbian people would involve warfare and mass expulsions on a scale seldom seen since Stalin carved up his winnings- it’s not going to happen. Parallels could be drawn with Northern Ireland’s second city, Londonderry (‘Derry’ in everyday speech unless one is a nitpicking Unionist). 1689’s Siege of Derry, just before the Battle of the Boyne, is integral to Protestant folklore. It has bequeathed it a motto and a mentality in “No Surrender”, as well as the idea of the duplicitous “Lundy” who must be expelled from the body politic, and which the egregious DUP exploited to bring down any leader willing to countenance compromise; O’Neill, Faulkner, Trimble. Shifting demographics and intimidation having done their thing on the Irish border, the city is now 25% Protestant and almost all those Protestants have gathered Waterside, across the river from the city centre, to the point where anyone who insists on calling it ‘Londonderry’ on the Cityside is probably quite brave.

As UK city of culture for 2013 the city has had a new lease of life. Every marching season, Belfast uses Londonderry as a stick with which to beat itself for failing to manage proceedings half as harmoniously. The Apprentice Boys may keep a tighter leash on cretins who play The Famine Song outside chapels, but I suspect Catholics find it easier to show magnanimity towards the Orangemen in a city where they are uncontested top dogs. What residents of Belfast know about Londonderry will be largely anecdotal. My best friend has never been, my parents hadn’t been for 40 years. My one previous visit was to play a gig; it turned out that the bloke from the soppy film Once was recording a live album across the road, and our two paying punters had travelled from Belfast. To the rest of the UK, the city is even more peripheral. The only association the name held for my girlfriend was a memory of her mother having advertised a hand-painted Victorian toilet bowl in The Times and received a call from the Marquis of Londonderry.

None of this should be interpreted as insularity or lack of curiosity; anyone who actually tries to reach Londonderry will quickly realise how remote it is. A motorway takes you part of the way but there’s a substantial mountain range in between. With the roads clear it took nearly two hours from Belfast, and on the antiquated train tracks your journey will push three hours- this in a famously minuscule country. Government has scrimped on the infrastructure; with partition having separated Londonderry from huge swathes of the countryside for which it was the only nearby city (it’s the island’s 4th city), it’s only recently that the outside world has woken up to the potential of the place. And it is a place with much to offer.

Londonderry’s origins are as a plantation city; an English venture into late renaissance town planning, John Bull’s take on an Umbrian hilltop fort-town. The Walls, built in 1610, encircle the old city. They were strong enough to have never been breached across three sieges, and are still entirely intact. Obviously, their function became obsolete long ago but this is the sort of thing people travel from all over to look at in Carcassone or Tallinn. ‘Cityside’ and ‘Waterside’ incline downwards to meet at the wide river Foyle and behind them the famous Bogside sits under the slopes of the old centre. There’s an Ian Nairn connection in the essay Proud Derry, which talks up an underrated city, “one of the most unexpected and paradoxical of our cities. It is one of the remotest places in the British Isles (even in Belfast they look on it as somewhere way out west), yet attached to London by the oddest and most direct of links”. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to read the essay before my visit.

Defying Nairn’s advice that “there is nothing much to be said for the later Victorian buildings” I’ll start at the city’s showpiece, 1890’s Guildhall, whose facade faces the Walls and whose rear faces the river. After extensive refurbishment inside and out, the Guildhall reopened last year and has been so aggressively scrubbed down that it could have been built last year. It looks like a church (there is a thumping great organ inside) and it’s the gothic/tudor/baronial look that I saw so much of in Belfast. The Victorians couldn’t get enough of revivals. They were the original Britpoppers.

Visitors are free to wander in and out, enter the two grand halls, sit in the old mayor’s throne and see the fruits of the renovators’ labour. There’s an interactive exhibition about the Plantation and its context on the ground floor. Nairn calls Plantation “the most ambitious corporate effort at rehousing before the present New Towns. One of the reasons -there is nothing new under the sun- was overcrowding in London.” The exhibition asserts, perhaps with a slight smirk, that Plantation was a failure as it did not generate as rich a profit for the London investors as had been hoped, nor did it achieve its aims of exterminating the Catholic church and Gaelic culture in Ulster. On these terms Protestantism was also a failure. I’ve been to the Vatican, it’s still there and over a billion people do what they say (or pretend to).

The strangest thing about the Guildhall is the trilingual signage; English, Irish and Ulster Scots. It’s a question of which communities get what funding. To translate English into Ulster Scots is akin to translating it into Scouse or Geordie. It is staggeringly petty and an abuse of the public purse, but viewed within the cultural war being waged by Sinn Fein I think demanding parity for Ulster Scots was a masterstroke. Placing it beside Irish negates the dignity of the Irish language, by implying that Irish is a Mickey Mouse affectation.

The finest thing about the Guildhall is the proliferation of stained glass all over the place (much of it reconstructed after bombing). Stern and sober to the point of Calvinism, donated by old City of London mobs with names like “the worshipful company of Mercers”. Profit is the motive, not salvation, but the quality of the craftmanship cannot be argued with.

By the Guildhall sits the Customs House, along with imperial neighbours of equivalent vintage now being used as cafés and gift shops to promote “Legenderry”. There’s some agit-art from Disability Rights Campaigners too; Northern Ireland is very preoccupied by the next round of cuts from No. 11, mindful of how long it has been heavily subsidised.

Guildhall Square has a couple of gates into the walled city. It’s at the walls that you can really smell the history, it feels like being in a medieval town on the continent. Inside the walls is a small area, originally five streets by four with a gate at each compass point, all leading to the central square called The Diamond. The streets have Aldgate-ish names like Pump St and Artillery St and as strange as it is, you can feel the ancient connection to London.

Walking up Shipquay St, amongst the usual chain places are a couple of fake shopfronts painted onto derelict buildings; East Belfast has also had a lot of this, usually when there’s a high-profile conference coming to town. When we ask local indie kids for lunch recommendations they direct us into the adjacent ‘craft village’, a series of cute courtyards filled with shops, horse carts and other things for tourists to photograph, and we eat lunch in a pleasant café playing ‘Heroin’ by The Velvets.

The Diamond was the location of the original Guildhall and has an imposing WWI memorial at its centre, but after some injudicious building it’s not all it could be; currently it principally serves as a car park and is tricky for pedestrians to cross. It can boast one of Londonderry’s stars in the Germanic tower and fin-de-siecle stylings of Austin’s, which claims the title of the world’s first department store. With its elegant arched windows and balconies it looks far more of an opera house than Belfast’s opera house, and the opera advertised is yet another bone tossed to the Orange Order.

Back to the walls, which on the North-West perimeters offer a panoramic view of the Bogside. Nairn quixotically calls it “Irishtown” and regrets that the cramped, single-storey terraces are in his time being demolished and replaced with new-build housing that will lack “crazy human touches… plenty of people would dismiss it as just sentiment or untidiness. They probably can’t see the point of cuddling their wives either”.

Commendably Nairn concerns himself far more with jobs, trade and the locals’ prospects of making a living than with our labyrinthine sectarian feuding. It seems incredible, however, that two years before the Battle of the Bogside he can remark that “the tension has lessened” and the two states in Ireland “may have begun a slow growing-together”. ‘Free Derry’ was where the Troubles kicked off and the bloodshed having eventually abated, the site is as important to Londonderry heritage and tourist curiosity as the siege and the walls; it makes the city a republican Jerusalem too, so both sides must learn to share.

A foremost grievance of the Bogside was that a Unionist minority gerrymandered the electoral boundaries to keep control of the city. With hindsight it is exasperating to read about this stuff, knowing what it would lead to and seeing anyone who proposed a different direction get shouted down by Paisley. Even now that we have a peace of sorts, Sinn Fein are able to seize on these injustices and make the vast exaggeration that Northern Ireland was a twin state to Apartheid South Africa. It coloured every aspect of life; just below the cemetery is the Brandywell, home of Derry City FC. The Bogside being a no-go area around the birth of the Troubles, the largely Protestant football clubs in Northern Ireland gave Derry an effective ultimatum to leave the Brandywell or leave the Northern Irish league. To their credit, the club stuck by their neighbourhood and in 2014, are part of the furniture in the Republic’s League of Ireland. Not for the first time Ulster shot itself in the foot.

I try to see these things impartially but as a Shankill man I will admit that it does get tiring to hear commentators scorn and anathematise your community for liking the Queen, whilst others get a free pass (if not a thumbs-up) for celebrating the man who implored Khrushchev to push the button and start a nuclear WWIII.

Turning back to the city, the walls are wide enough to walk atop and make for a charming, tree-lined promenade. Here is the pedestrianised space that you cry out for in the Diamond. Antique cannon appears to be trained on the Bogside below and you can see why the bad old days engendered an “us and them” sentiment. There’s also the bizarre sight of the empty plinth for the Walker monument, still maintained; this hero of the siege stood atop a 90-foot pillar until the IRA blew it up after Bloody Sunday.

There are some handsome churches on display within and without the walls; a Presbyterian hall and the venerable little St Augustine, with its pretty churchyard, in the old city. Outside, I was sorry not to have time for the vast, Gothic St. Eugene Cathedral in the Bogside (“imposing but a bit cold” for Nairn), as well as the Catholic Long Tower church, entirely overlooked by every list I could find of the city’s highlights (and Googlemaps) but to these eyes as beautiful as anything in Londonderry.

As the walls circle around towards St Columb’s Cathedral we get a glimpse of the Courthouse’s Grecian columns, which I regret not investigating further as Nairn calls it “Derry’s best Georgian building… there is all the difference, in exactness of proportion and crispness of detail, between this and the hack buildings that so many others churned out… given an identical recipe, one cook will botch and another will excel”.

The Cathedral itself, of course at the summit of the hill, is one of the only pre-siege structures and the first cathedral to be built after the Reformation. Its size is fairly modest as cathedrals go; after trawling Belfast it’s funny to see something in the original Gothic instead of the Victorian version.

This and the city walls are the places where one can visualise the Plantation days; it gives Nairn too “some idea of the original Little-London-in-Ulster”. Beyond the white arches, the old stones of the outer wall must have a few tales to tell.

Nairn finds the church “thoroughly cockney” and compares it to the few that survived the Great Fire of London. “What a strange memorial to leave, all those miles away, a hundred years after the style had ended in England!”. I’m struck by those mesmerising features which transport you right back to the earliest years of the city.

Tucked behind St Columb’s and the nearest walls we find the painted kerbstones of the Fountain area, a tiny pocket of streets which is home to the last Protestants living Cityside, republican acronyms scratched onto their murals. Dressed as a Wellington cavalryman and riding a black horse with flared nostrils, Iron Maiden’s Eddie races towards you with a Union Jack and a bloodied sword, a kamikaze bringer of death. This seems to me to reflect an angry, agitated and distressed state of mind. It must be a huge psychological strain to keep this up. With Queen’s University trying to ban the remembrance poppy, sights like this really make me fear for what Belfast might be walking into as its demographics tilt (I suspect most Prods will choose a quiet life over Loyalism), and I feel relieved to live in England where we just have to worry about Al-Qaeda and bedsits that cost 140% of your take-home salary.

A stiff drink or two may be in order. Nairn is nonplussed by Londonderry’s pubs whose “decoration is nothing like the standard of Belfast”, the Crown cited as his favourite. Waterloo St is said to be the city’s watering hole, so we choose one of the many pubs on its sloping strip. It’s a good choice. The pub is festooned with pots, pans, flags of the world, boar heads sporting Ascot hats, antique mirrors and vintage advertisements; plus signs reading “Catalonia is not Spain” and “Against the famine, against the crown”, which counsel the drinker to remember where he is.

I feel I’m starting to paint Londonderry as far blacker than it is, however. The authorities are making real efforts to build bridges, literallly. Cityside of Craigavon bridge, people arriving by train or the Belfast road are met by the “hands across the divide” sculpture of men on separate mounds reaching out to one another. It’s perhaps a more pluralistic nod to the erstwhile Walker monument, which saw a statue’s outstretched arm claim dominion over the city.

Further along the Foyle is 2011’s Peace Bridge, all elegant swoops and curves with two inclined pylons overhead resembling the wings of a dove. It is already a landmark and it is being used; people are crossing to get to the other side. It’s optimistic, feel-good architecture which points the way down what Ulster is finding to be a hard road.

The bridge pointedly leaves us at Waterside’s Ebrington Square, the Jacobite/French base in 1689 and location of the British army barracks until the 1990s. The listed army buildings have been kept and the generals’ lodgings with a handsome clock tower still take centre stage, but the parade ground before it is now used for concerts (Snoop Doggy Dogg was the next one advertised) and lined by abstract sculpture; rows of upright concrete slabs that look like tin soldiers, or tombstones. The choice is stark.

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