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Traipsing Derry after the Troubles

  • 05 March 2014

I stumble over the name while buying a train ticket. 'One way to Derry, err Londonderry.' The ticket seller at Botanic Station in Belfast chuckles as he takes my money. 'Platform 1' he says.

I'll call it Derry for brevity's sake. The BBC starts with Londonderry then uses the shorter form for the remainder of the story. The whole issue strikes me as the ultimate riposte to any idea of 'what's in a name?'

It isn't my first trip to Derry. In the summer of 1990, my cousin Tim and I took a bus there from nearby Ballymena where we had been visiting distant relatives. We explored the city, mainly from the relative safety of the famous walls that surround its old centre. There was barbwire everywhere and when we looked out over the famously republican Bogside neighborhood we saw smoke rising from an unseen fire and heard sirens. It may have just been a house fire but the rush of armoured vehicles and soldiers suggested otherwise.

We wanted a photograph of the famous 'You Are Now Entering Free Derry' sign that had first appeared in 1969 as the civil rights movement was quickly giving way to the 'Troubles'. We made our way down from the old city, passing British soldiers on the way. We were two solidly built, long haired young men with faces that could have been — and had been, generations earlier — local. There were watching us very closely. I tried to smile at one of them reassuringly. He was about my age and when our eyes met I saw nothing but raw terror.

Tim and I took our photos and retreated back into the old city for a pint. We asked the barman where we might see some music that evening and he laughed, ruefully. We were on the first bus out the next morning.

This time I arrived two weeks before Christmas in the midst of what the locals were calling a 'heat wave'. Ten degrees with occasional drizzle isn't a heat wave in Sydney but I took the opportunity to walk the streets of a town that I barely recognised. The barbwire was gone, replaced by art galleries, theatres, and the appealing sounding Verbal Arts Centre. I had a plate of paella in front of the wondrous Guildhall and listened to the happy buzz of Christmas shoppers. It was difficult to believe that I was in the same city.

Did I