Our trip to Derry-Londonderry may have been one of the best moments of my CIEE study abroad experience. Meeting with the Apprentice Boys of Derry was fascinating. Their impact on Northern Ireland –– indeed all Irish history –– cannot be undermined and they have proven to be far more mature than the Orange Order in their reception to the peace process. Furthermore, seeing their closing of the gates parade was a valuable cultural experience. We’ve read so much about parades in Northern Ireland and we finally got to see authentic melody bands and hear the crash of the blood and thunder drums in person. Culminating in the burning of Lundy the traitor’s effigy, the trip managed to teach us far more about Protestantism in Northern Ireland than any book.
The most important part of the trip to me, however, was our tour of the Bogside. Nearly forty years ago Catholics in Northern Ireland were clamoring for civil rights. Their struggle was akin to the American Civil Rights Movement in the Jim Crow South. The movement mirrored everything from the inaction of the National Government to the resilience and determination of the protestors. Unfortunately the analogy is broken by the brutality of Bloody Sunday. Under the stress of a largely imagined threat the well-trained British paratroopers cracked and ignited a blood bath.
The walk through the Bogside was overwhelming and deeply touching. I stood in Glenfada park where Michael Kelly was shot in the stomach. I saw the murals. I touched the bullet holes from the British Enfields. I almost cried looking at the faces of the dead and wounded at the memorial next to the Free Derry City wall. It made me appreciate the reality of the Troubles more than anything else since arriving at Queens. The people who were tragically murdered on the 30 January 1972 weren’t characters in a movie or morbid statistics in a book. They were mostly kids (five of them only 17) as well as friends, neighbors, fathers, United Kingdom citizens and human beings. Most of them chased girls, listened to music their parents didn’t like and had hopes of a bright future outside of their home town. Other than their situation in deeply divided society they were not so different from me now. Yet they were murdered because they dared to demand the most basic of human virtues from a supposedly progressive state. In turn, untold numbers of Nationalist dissidents into the opportunistic talons of the IRA and ensured the continuance of the Troubles. If anything that hour, which felt like a lifetime, proved there is no price tag on truth as a part of reconciliation. The Saville Inquiry cost £200,000,000 (when’s the last time you saw a number that large not associated with deficits), but it brought a degree of closure to a black mark on the UK’s past. David Cameron referring to the events of that day as “unjustified and unjustifiable” was the long sought after apology that came far too late –– but at least it came.
I am so thankful that I had this experience. Even in Belfast it’s easy to dismiss and forget the significance of where I am. Going to Derry jolted me awake. It reminded me of the most important aspects of my last three months here and more importantly made me think about my future. I don’t want the Derry field trip to be a nice story I tell my kids one day. I want it to be a reminder of what true empathy of past events feels like. I want it to be something that motivates me to be more passionate and understanding. I want it to be something that makes me fight for a better future. I’ve stood under the Derry City walls and I never want to forget.
Abraham Nelson, Kenyon College