Exploring the Troubles in Belfast and Derry (Monuments & History)

Northern Ireland is now a beloved tourist destination. For more than 30 years during the Troubles, it was a war zone.

Jun 2, 2024By Sara Relli, MA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA Screenwriting

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With its six counties located in the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland is one of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom. The deployment of British troops in Derry and Belfast is usually cited as the beginning of the Troubles — the sectarian strife between unionists (usually Protestants) and republicans (usually Catholics) that only came to an end in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Almost 25 years later, both parties have managed to adjust to a new reality, and social and political stability has strengthened. Nonetheless, the scars left by the Troubles are still visible across Northern Ireland.


Derry: A Contested City

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The six counties of Northern Ireland, Source: Irish News


The old city of Derry stands on a hill on the west bank of the River Foyle in Northern Ireland — or Ulster, as the Protestant community prefers to call it. This is where, in the 6th century, famous saint and missionary evangelist Saint Columba (or Colmcille) founded a monastery on land granted to him by a local king. The Irish word doire means “oak grove,” and that’s where the name Derry comes from. But while the city is known as “Derry” to its Catholic community, it is still “Londonderry” to Protestants. The prefix “London”, as well as the city’s stout defensive walls which today are a popular tourist attraction, serve as a reminder of the city’s troubled relationship with and within the United Kingdom. The name “Londonderry” and the city walls are, in fact, inextricably linked.


“London” was added as a prefix when King James I seized the old town in 1613. Over the next few years, he had Protestant settlers arrive from England and Scotland. The old merchant city was fortified, surrounded with defensive walls up to 26 feet high and 30 feet wide. Today, Derry is the only completely walled city on the Irish island. Its walls, built between 1613 and 1618, stand high above the city. From the walls, complete with bastions, watchtowers, and seven gates (three of which were added later), you can look down on the city’s Protestant neighborhoods,“still under siege,” as the many murals and flags in the area proclaim, or on its Catholic enclave, the Bogside. To Derry’s Catholic community, they remain the symbol of Protestant rule.


Bloody Sunday in the Bogside

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The original hand-painted slogan in Bogside, 1969, Source: The Museum of Free Derry


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1972 was the worst year in the history of the Northern Irish conflict, and one of the key events of the Troubles took place on the streets of Bogside. It is now remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Photographers from all over Europe arrived in Derry in the days before January 30, 1972, to cover the march against internment without trial organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an umbrella group including people from the Communist party, middle-class English academics, both Catholic and Protestant, and republicans. Formed in February 1967, the NICRA’s “civil rights” marches were modeled on the contemporary black civil rights movement in the USA. They even used to sing the black civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Among the photographers that arrived in Derry were Italian photographer Fulvio Grimaldi and Magnum French photographer Gilles Peress.


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The Derry City Walls, 1970s, Source: Belfast Archive Project


The march began shortly after 3 pm. It included dozens of women and children. Demonstrators reached the top of Westland Street and marched down into the Bogside. In the meantime, the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had taken up positions and finalized preparations to prevent marchers from reaching Guildhall Square. As they reached William Street, marchers were blocked by the military barricades erected around the Bogside, and the organizers redirected them down Rossville Street. Some people started to throw stones at soldiers manning the barriers and at the paratroopers. At 3:55 pm, the first shots were fired. In the end, thirteen people were killed. Another thirteen were injured. One of them, John Jonson, died in June. Jackie Duddy (17) was the first to die that day; he was shot in the back while running away from soldiers alongside priest Edward Daly.


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Marchers reaching the top of Westland Street in the Bogside, photo by Robert White, January 1972, Source: The Museum of Free Derry


Some of the protesters were killed just outside their homes: Hugh Gilmour (17), for instance, was shot dead right below the window of his home; James Wray (22) was shot outside the door of his grandparents’ home. As he was lying on the ground, wounded and paralyzed, a Para shot him from point blank range, killing him. Michael Kelly (17) was shot in the stomach as he stood at the barricade.


Gerry McKinney (35) was shot in an alleyway after holding up his arms and begging the soldier not to shoot him. The same bullet struck Gerry Donaghy (17) who was standing behind him. Others were shot in the back while crawling to safety. This is how Kevin McElhinney (17), Patrick Doherty (31), and William McKinney (26) lost their lives. Three people were killed while trying to help others:  John Young (17) and Michael McDaid (20) were shot in the face while attempting to rescue William Nash (19), who had been shot in the chest in front of his father.


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The Museum of Free Derry honors the victims of Bloody Sunday, Source: Visit Derry Press


Barney McGuigan (41) was shot in the back while trying to get to the dying Patrick Doherty; he was waving a white handkerchief. The Saville Report concluded that none of the people who died that day were armed. No soldiers were injured, let alone killed. Photographer Fulvio Grimaldi described the hours immediately after the massacre, in which he was “whisked away and hidden in a house deep in the Bogside, where the British troops didn’t dare to penetrate,” only to be later driven “through small country roads known only to the locals” over to the border, and then “at a crazy speed to Dublin, in time for the first Irish TV news and for a reprint of the Dublin dailies.”


The events of Bloody Sunday sent shockwaves across Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Europe as a whole. The Irish government recalled its ambassador from London. In Dublin, the British embassy was set alight and destroyed, as a large crowd gathered and cheered. Overall, thousands of young Catholics joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA).


Today, Derry is a city at peace. The sectarian victims of the Troubles and the demands for peace and human rights brought forward by the Northern Ireland civil rights movement are remembered and honored every year through celebrations and peaceful marches across the city, as well as in the Museum of Free Derry. A little gem in the heart of the Bogside area, and a short distance from the Free Derry Corner, it is mostly run by relatives of the Bloody Sunday victims. The Bogside is itself an open-air museum. The faces of the victims of Bloody Sunday look down on the passers-by from one of the neighborhood’s many murals, The Bloody Sunday Commemoration.


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The Death of Innocence, one of Derry’s most powerful murals, between Rossville Street and Westland Street, Source: La Lune Mauve


Another mural, The Death of Innocence, depicts Annette McGavigan, the hundredth victim of the Troubles, in her school uniform, standing peacefully in front of a pile of rubble and debris, not engaging in any violent action. She was shot in the back of her head on September 6, 1971, while holding an ice cream in her hand. The bullet was fired by a British soldier. No one has ever been convicted over her killing. She stands for all the people who lost their lives during the Troubles. In 2006, the rifle to Annette’s right was repainted — this time, it was broken in two.


Belfast Butchers and the Shankill Road 

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Destruction and British soldiers on the streets of West Belfast, photo by Alain Le Garsmeur, 1976, Source: Alain Le Garsmeur


The Shankill Road, one of Belfast’s main roads, runs through the old loyalist neighborhood of Shankill. The Irish population calls it Bóthar na Seanchill, “the road to the old church.” The Ulster-Scots know it as Auld Kirk Gate, that is, the “old church way.” In ancient times, when the area was covered in woods, the Shankill was the main track running from Antrim, north of Belfast, to Down, in the south. At the peak of the Troubles, Belfast was a deeply divided city, and Shankill was one of the frontlines. Peace walls (or peace lines), initially made of wood and barbed wire, were used to separate the Protestant areas of the city from the adjoining Catholic neighborhoods. Over the decades, as violence escalated, reinforced “peace walls” turned into 20-foot-high concrete walls.


In the early 1990s, anyone living in Shankill could go buy mussels, cockles, and whelks at Frizzell’s, a famous fish & chips shop owned by John Desmond Frizzell since 1966. Above the shop, there was an office believed to be the headquarters of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest loyalist paramilitary group in the country. On October 23, 1993, two IRA men posed as fishmongers and entered the shop carrying a bag with explosives inside. Their aim was to hit and wipe out the local UDA leadership. Nine people were killed, two of them children, as well as one of the IRA bombers. In the 1970s, the Shankill Road was also sadly famous for the actions of yet another loyalist group, the so-called Shankill Butchers.


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The Falls Road, home to Belfast’s Catholic community, 1969, Source: The Morning Star


Between 1975 and 1976, almost 600 people died in Northern Ireland because of the Troubles. While during this time killings attributed to the army were not as high as in the previous years, most of the civilian casualties were the direct effect of the increased activity of the IRA on one side and the UVF on the other. The sense of siege felt by the Ulster Protestant community in the first years of the Troubles had led to the formation, in September 1971, of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), whose motto was Cicero’s Cedant arma togae, that is, “Let war yield to peace.” While Republicans have always staunchly denied the IRA’s involvement in the (often random) killing of civilians, loyalist groups such as the UDA and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) openly and officially regarded Catholic men, women, and children as legitimate targets.


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Hooded and armed men of the UVF at the junction of Newtownards Road and Dee Street (Bright Street), Source: Extramural Activity


The UVF, established in 1966 by Shankill Road loyalists, was a purely Shankill product. The same can be said of the Shankill Butchers. Their leader and driving force, Lenny Murphy (1952-1982), was a bully at school, well known for picking up fights and threatening fellow students with a knife. At the age of 16 he joined the UVF. In May 1975, soon after serving time in prison, he spent most of his days and nights frequenting pubs on the Shankill Road, assembling the group that was to become the Shankill Butchers. The Shankill Butchers would roam Falls Road and New Lodge, synonymous for centuries with the Catholic community, looking for Catholic victims, targeted solely for their religion.


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Irish journal announcing the death of Lenny Murphy, the leader of the Butchers, Source: HubPages


Their cut-throat killings were brutal, ferocious, and ruthless. They were carried out using large butcher’s knives, hatchets, and shovels — hence the name “butchers.” The butcher’s knives and meat cleavers were provided by one of the gang’s members, a former worker in a meat-processing factory, William Moore. The victims, both men and women, were kidnapped, dragged into alleyways, beaten, tortured, and left to be found with their throats cut and their bodies mutilated. The Shankill Butchers’ killings continued for almost seven years, until 1982, when Lenny Murphy was killed by two IRA gunmen. Many of the group, however, had already been jailed in a large-scale trial in 1979, with eleven members receiving a total of 42 life sentences amounting to almost 2,000 years in prison. Overall, the attacks of the Shankill Butchers claimed 23 victims. Two of them were Protestants mistaken for Catholics.


Northern Irish Cities Today

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Loyalist mural on Sandy Row, imitating the “You are now entering Free Derry” mural in Derry’s Catholic Bogside, Source: Dove Viaggi


Today, Belfast is a city of murals and vibrant street art. Not all of them are political, especially those in the area around the Cathedral Quarter, with its many beer gardens, clubs, and bars. Divers and mermaids, acrobats, people in period costumes; these are the scenes depicted by muralists from across the world that paint Belfast’s streets with colors. Other murals, however, such as those in the Shankill and Falls neighborhoods, do not shy away from addressing the legacy of the Troubles.

Belfast-native investigative journalist Lyra McKee was 29 when she was shot to death by the New IRA while reporting on a riot in Derry. She was the first journalist to be killed in the UK since the 2001 assassination of Irish investigative journalist Martin O’Hagan.


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Emmalene Blake’s tribute to murdered journalist Lyra McKee on Kent Street, Source: CNN


In her writings, she investigated the aftermath of the Troubles and the terribly high suicide rate among young people in Northern Ireland in her article Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, published by The Atlantic. Hence, her moniker is the voice of the generation of “ceasefire babies”. On Emmalene Blake’s mural, located just opposite the Sunflower Pub and a short walk from St. Anne’s Cathedral, she is painted alongside the words of an essay she wrote, titled, “A Letter to my 14-year-old Self,” about the struggles of gay teenagers in Northern Ireland.


On the Shankill Road, just as in the Protestant neighborhoods of Derry, murals are there to remember and honor Protestant victims and loyalist paramilitary groups, the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). On Newtownards Road in East Belfast, the so-called Ulster Freedom Corner shows the Red Hand of Ulster and the words “Tomorrow belongs to us.” On Canada Street, the mural Untold Story recalls the IRA attack on Protestant communities throughout the city in August 1971.


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The Summer of 1969 mural at Hopewell Crescent in Shankill remembering the onset of the Troubles in the summer of 1969, Source: Princeton University


Although signs of normalization abound across Northern Irish society since the end of the Troubles, Belfast is still a divided and sectarian city. It is also, however, a tourist hub, and its street art attracts visitors from all over the world. Unlike in other cities, however, here murals have always been political statements. After more than 50 years since the Troubles began, and 25 since they ended, they are a powerful reminder of the complexity of sectarianism, and of the toll it has taken (and still takes) on civilians on both sides.

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By Sara RelliMA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA ScreenwritingSara is a Berlin-based screenwriter and researcher from Italy. She holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of West London, as well as an MA (Hons) in Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures from the University of Bologna. Deeply passionate about the relationship between history and literature, her interests range from Irish literature to race representation (in literature and cinema), from post-memory to the response of Indigenous peoples to climate change.