Without a city wall

A frayed hole in the shoulder of a boy’s coat: his photograph, moments before the puncturing bullet. Plum-coloured stains on that day’s clothes, pegged up, unwashed. Remembrance is forensic here.

IMG_1552The Museum of Free Derry, site of the Bloody Sunday shootings in January 1972, is a perpetual crime scene: an open wound of wailing tarmac. Every rag and relic, each faded veronica, devotedly kept on display. And what pains the aggrieved have taken, that we might stay to see what they see. Images on a window overlooking the car park mark the precise place where this man’s brother fell, or where desperate friends carried another’s slumping frame. An insistent haunting, glimpsed through this grim palimpsest.

Traumatic memory is prone to being replayed, scarring places and people like a scratch in a record. Events as explosive, as jarring as this are a barricade to the normal processions of time and space, and none of us is equipped to move beyond them. A cycle of violence is just that: a hurt we return to. Revolutions are never progress, but mere re-enactment.

Perhaps this begins to explain why, in Londonderry – the only complete walled city in Ireland – the past remains so encompassing, and so well preserved. Bloodshed seizes our attention, naturally enough, but more compelling yet are Derry’s deep continuities and astounding powers of recall. The siege of the city in 1689, by the catholic king James II – recently deposed from the English throne and looking to Ireland to regather his powers – moulded and cast the cultural imagination here. To keep this intact, the Apprentice Boys Association, named after thirteen youths who slammed the Derry doors against Jacobite forces (and whose relentless marching pounds their rebuttal into the landscape) has its own, intensely curated, museum. Within these walls, there is no surrender to time, and history without relief.

Such a concentrated defence of territory and tradition, spiked as it is with the bayonet of religious difference, feels uneasily biblical. On hallowed ground, local actions – British Army emplacements along the walls during the Troubles, for example – are inescapably prophetic and provocative: all things become soaked in their associations. Including (it sinks in pretty swiftly) ourselves: Anglican visitors, implicated up to our collars in our nation’s anaesthetic detachment from the fallout of her history. For, pace John Lydon, there is no past in England’s dreaming: its sparks no longer ignite us. We can incinerate Guy Fawkes without a singe to our skin.

But upon these clouded hills, Derry (the ‘London’ prefix being an English branding) feels like our Jerusalem. And so it comes as no surprise that Cecil Frances Alexander, who married the Anglican Bishop of Derry, wrote her enduring Good Friday hymn, There is a Green Hill Far Away, gazing on the prospect from these battlements, where our clutch of clergy musters for its tour. How do we deal with crucifying memories, beyond amnesia or fretful repetition? This is a question our guides – two priests, one catholic and one protestant – are committed to answering together, to finding within their sufferings the secrets of agreement. Peace is, in their view, a new anamnesis.

On Bogside, a stone’s throw below, the former scrawl of the Free Derry Corner has become more pristine, more carefully typographical, with each successive repainting. Insurgency turned into heritage, a national mistrust. The bus was quiet returning to Belfast: our pilgrim’s tread now soft, like trespass.




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