Derry gives hope to the oppressed

Ciaran Tierney
6 min readMay 3, 2023

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Paul Doherty, whose father was killed on Bloody Sunday, leads a walking tour of the Bogside. Photo by Ciaran Tierney

When I stood beside this wall in Derry back in 1994, there was not a tourist to be seen.

With the armoured cars, the high fences and watchtowers, and the militarized police circling around, we encountered just two other tourists — from Greece — during an entire morning spent examining the murals of the Bogside.

The idea that this area would one day become a tourist attraction was laughable as, four years before the Good Friday agreement, there was still a sense of menace or fear in the air. People, rightly, did not trust strangers in a city which had experienced so much pain.

Almost three decades on, many of the murals are still the same, but the Bogside (and indeed the city) has been transformed.

For ten years now, the families of the Bloody Sunday victims have channeled their grief and rage into wonderful walking tours of the Bogside, telling the stories of innocent victims of state terror whose voices were silenced for far too long.

More than five decades have passed since 14 people marching against interment were gunned down by British soldiers in broad daylight. Time might heal, but there is a clear desire among the families that their stories should be told. And heard. And brought back across the world.

Paul Gallagher of the Bogside History Tours at the ‘Bloody Sunday’ memorial on Saturday.

Paul Gallagher was a child when his 32-year-old father Paddy was murdered by British soldiers. He set up the Bogside History Tours company a decade ago as a way of telling his story to the wider world. In the 1970s or 1980s, the sense of loss, of injustice, of pain, might have been just too strong for him to retrace the footsteps his father took on that fateful day.

But, faced by criminal negligence and indifference by the authorities, the families found their voices and had to fight a very long campaign which ended with an apology from then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in July 2010.

I remember being in the Basque Country at the time and crying when I saw Cameron deliver what seemed to be a full and sincere apology to people who had suffered due to misinformation and the smearing of their innocent family members for far too long.

My parents had lived just ten minutes away from Derry at the time of the massacre.

Last weekend, there were people from Canada, the United States, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, and even Galway, on Paul’s informative two-hour walking tour on a bright and sunny Saturday morning.

Around him, the city was buzzing. The City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival was in full swing. Brass bands and ska bands were playing on outdoor stages all around the city centre and there were brilliant late-night sessions in the pubs.

A city which was seen as a “no go area” in the 1970s and 1980s felt like the perfect place to spend the May Bank Holiday weekend.

At the Museum of Free Derry, where Paul’s tour ended, people from all over the world were learning about the civil rights movement and the creation of Free Derry in the late 1960s.

It tells the story of a working-class community which stood up for justice and rose up against repression and denial of the truth about what really happened on that terrible day when 14 people were murdered by soldiers in 1972.

The entrance to the Museum of Free Derry at Glenfada Park. Photo by Ciaran Tierney

A Palestinian flag sits proudly at the entrance to the museum.

On the day I visited, a Zionist visitor objected to staff about the prominence of the flag. She told them it should be taken down and that Palestine “does not exist”.

Her visit to the Bogside must have made her feel very uncomfortable, as there are Palestinian flags flying from homes and streetlights throughout the nearby streets.

It makes perfect sense.

People in Derry understand oppression.

They know what it is to be a second-class citizen, denied equal voting rights, in their own city.

They know what it is to be attacked and vilified by occupation forces, who not only murdered innocent people but they dared to smear them afterwards.

They understand settler-colonisation and what it means for people to be run out of their own land, homes and villages by colonisers; or to be told they are not allowed to live in certain areas which are reserved for “settlers”.

This is a city which was criminally underfunded for years, simply because it had a majority nationalist or republican population.

Looking back, it makes absolutely no sense (apart from sectarianism) that a university was not founded in the city of Derry. Instead, students from all over Ireland flocked to Coleraine.

The life which students bring to a city like Limerick or Galway is not evident on the streets of Derry on a Thursday night. Even today, there is a lack of opportunities for young people in the second city of Northern Ireland.

The ‘Derry Girls’ mural in the city centre. A new generation of visitors are finding new attractions on their visits to this wonderful city with a troubled past.

But how amazing it is to see a downtrodden people find their voice.

How amazing to see working class people from the Bogside bring tourists from all over the world around their city and to tell them the truth about the sectarianism, discrimination, and injustice experienced by their families.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, very few people listened to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ families as they campaigned for the truth and justice which was cruelly denied them by the British authorities.

Soldiers were told to fabricate their stories following the massacre of civilians which did more than any other event to prolong the conflict in Northern Ireland. Photographers present at the Bloody Sunday massacre had to hide their camera film, because the authorities were determined the truth would not come out. Within hours of the massacre, misinformation about the innocent was being spread all around the world.

But the authorities underestimated the determination and sense of injustice of the families and the survivors, who were determined to tell their stories.

In the years after Bloody Sunday, the people of the Bogside needed hope. They needed to think that the wider world cared and would one day learn the truth about the 14 unarmed demonstrators who were murdered, and the 17 injured, by the British Army on the streets of their city.

They educated themselves and found confidence in their own truth. As oppressed people, they took on the might of a state which was hostile to them. When few seemed to care, they stuck together and struggled for the truth to emerge as they knew that justice, equality and freedom were on their side.

The ‘Bloody Sunday’ families are an example to victims of oppression all over the world.

No wonder my friend, a human rights lawyer from Palestine, was emotional after her first ever visit to Derry last month.

The Museum of Free Derry, which was not there when I last visited in 2014, is dedicated to all who have struggled and suffered for civil rights, all across the world.

There is no more appropriate flag than the flag of Palestine, a country carved up by the British where the locals have been second class citizens for 75 years, to hang at the front of their museum.

When the oppressed are struggling, they need hope. And the people of the Bogside give others hope all across the world.

Especially to the oppressed in places like Palestine, who really could do with some hope right now.

Because, in their darkest days, the people of the Bogside never imagined they would have an informative and engaging museum to tell their story while happy tourists enjoyed live jazz and ska bands in the spring sunshine.

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‘Free Derry’ corner is now a tourist attraction. There were very few tourists here in the early 1990s.

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Ciaran Tierney

A former newspaper journalist, with an interest in human rights, travel, and current affairs, Ciaran won the 2018 Irish Current Affairs Blog of The Year award.