Hope Amid the Scars of Derry's Tortured Past

There are places the very names of which conjure an association with the best and worst of humanity, synonymous with suffering, struggle, and the determination and obdurate refusal of the human spirit to be crushed under the wheels of injustice.

Belgrade, Sarajevo, Gaza, Jenin, Soweto, Belfast, and Derry are cities, towns and places where ordinary men and women have forged history neither by choice nor design but as a consequence of circumstances not of their choosing. And with this in mind, on a recent trip to Derry in Ireland I was reminded of something Bertolt Brecht wrote: "Because things are they way they are, things will not stay the way they are."

Situated close to the border with the Irish Republic, Derry (Londonderry to those who adhere to its status as part of the UK), occupies a place in history much larger than its size should allow it. It was here in 1689 where the struggle for the throne of England between the Catholic incumbent, King James II of England (James VII of Scotland) and Holland's Protestant Prince William of Orange over the succession to the throne was immortalized.

© Photo : John WightDerry in Ireland
Derry in Ireland - Sputnik International
Derry in Ireland

Known to history as the Glorious Revolution, Ireland — an English colony — was key in the outcome, with Derry in particular playing a crucial role when the city's Protestant Apprentice Boys shut the town gates to prevent it being taken by forces loyal to Catholic King James, dispatched to seize control of the town. This act of defiance eis still commemorated by loyalists in Derry on the anniversary of the event in December each year, culminating in a ritual ‘Shutting of the Gates' at various points around the city's wonderfully preserved ancient city wall.

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In more recent times — 30 January 1972, to be precise — Derry was the site of the massacre of 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators by soldiers of the elite Parachute Regiment of the British Army, in an event known as Bloody Sunday. At that time Catholics in Derry, where they constitute a majority, and throughout the partitioned statelet officially known as Northern Ireland, where they are a minority, were subjected to a system of apartheid. They were denied equal housing, employment, and political rights compared to their Protestant and pro-British counterparts.

The injustice this enshrined was the catalyst for the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967, inspired by the black civil rights movement being led by Martin Luther King Jr in the southern states of the US at that time. The Irish civil rights movement was brutally attacked and bludgeoned by loyalist thugs masquerading as police officers for the crime of peacefully marching and protesting with the aim of redressing decades of wrongs inflicted on the province's Catholic and Irish nationalist citizens.

© Photo : John WightDerry in Ireland
Derry in Ireland - Sputnik International
Derry in Ireland

The culmination of the campaign of violence mounted to crush the movement was, as mentioned, Bloody Sunday. It was a murderous day, spawning the 30-year conflict on the island known as the Troubles, during which 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.

As for the psychological and spiritual scars of the conflict, those are impossible to accurately quantify, though if Spike's story is anything to go by there is hope.

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Now in his fifties, in his early twenties Spike was sent to the province as a soldier in the Scots Guards of the British Army, deployed as part of Her Majesty's occupying forces to crush a by now full blown insurgency being waged by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and other republican paramilitary groups, against British rule with the objective of achieving a united Ireland by physical force. The things he witnessed and participated in during his deployment cleaved psychological scars that propelled him into a post-military wasteland of drugs and alcohol abuse.

© Sputnik / Nikolai GorshkovDerry, Northern Ireland
Derry, Northern Ireland  - Sputnik International
Derry, Northern Ireland

But then, just at the point at which he was about to enter the abyss, Spike began to undergo the process that would lead to him establishing friendships with those he once considered his enemy. And though his own personal journey from man of violence to man of peace has been long and tortuous, it stands as proof that that which unites ordinary people is far more powerful and enduring than that that which divides them.

Listening to his story, I was struck by his courage in fighting the most important battle than any man in his position will ever have to fight: recognizing the humanity of former enemies and thereby rediscovering his own humanity.

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The result is that Spike today is a committed peace activist, poet, and spoken word artist who works with ex-soldiers suffering from the same post-conflict trauma he did. He also rediscovered Ireland not as a part of the world where his enemies lurked, but where new friendships have been forged among those former enemies.

Derry is a part of the world where authentic human interaction and community spirit has long been and still is the antidote to adversity and hardship. It has emerged from the Troubles with its people unbowed, committed to remaining on the right side of history.

Where Spike once stood against them, now he stands with them. No longer is he a pawn in their game.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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