I always have had difficulty remembering historical dates (and a few present ones, although that is a story for another day). They either blur together or present themselves only long enough to finish a final exam. I was never overly concerned by this fact. So long as I remember the important centuries and a handful of world changing years, I am under the impression that I will not be any worse for my lack in memorization. After all, its knowing what happened that counts.
But there are a handful of dates that I simply never will forget. One is September 11th, 2001. Another is January 30th, 1972. Granted, when I read about Bloody Sunday in my high school textbook, it had only been another date to me. I had scanned the page, taken the test and moved on with my life. This fact only made standing in Derry all the more moving, the more chilling and, frankly, filled me with all the more shame. Bloody Sunday should never be forgotten or ignored. And, should you find yourself in Derry, it is something that never will be.
January 30th, 1972 would have dawned not much differently than the day that our college group took the walking tour of Derry. Overcast skies breathed icy wind down our backs, twenty-one students huddled together as a violent scene was painted before our eyes. Forty-one years ago, in a peaceful attempt to bring equality to Protestants and Catholics in Derry, Ivan Cooper led an unarmed march for the Civil Rights Association down the streets of Derry. Men, women and children cheered for peace and justice as they walked. Engines hummed, gravel crunched and the wind sighed through the protesters’ hair just as it now twisted through mine. The British army, brought in to maintain order during a troubled time, watched from the safety of their stone walls, rifles lying heavily in their gloved hands. The march was going peacefully, as Ivan Cooper had intended. As nearly everyone in that march had expected.
When the first shot rang across the streets, were the people confused? Afraid? Did they understand what was happening? Or did the realization not sink in until they saw the man sprawled in their midst, bleeding from a wound he had not foreseen and screaming from a fear that he had never known? When the marchers were peppered by the frightened bullets of a foreign army, did they know that they were in a war zone? Did they stand in confusion as the women, men and children were shot down?
Thirteen Irish citizens died that day. Fifteen others were wounded, one of whom dying in the months to follow. An investigation, initiated by the British army, followed immediately afterwards. The inquisitors refused to hear from eye witnesses and only took testimonies from disguised British soldiers. This was later admitted to have been tampered with. A second investigation was conducted in the following years, during which time it was proven that none of the marchers had been armed and that every person killed had been shot down in cold blood. It was a mass murder and one that still bleeds in the hearts of the citizens of Derry. Memorials have been sculpted, murals painted by the Bogside Artists and statues erected to remind people of the violence suffered here. But the Irish people will never forget, especially not when the deaths are still in living memory. Ivan Cooper is alive today and has in the past years talked to visiting St. Scholastica students. I was told that when he was asked for some bit of advice, he responded, “Stand for something.”
Perhaps the most heart wrenching story from the Derry Troubles for me was the death of Annette McGavigan, whose walk home from school was ended by the gun of a British soldier—who later stated that he mistook her book bag for a bomb. Her mural was not allowed to be painted until after the British army had admitted its wrong. Called the ‘Death of Innocence’, it depicts a young girl with her school things scattered around her feet. There is a butterfly to symbolize innocence and rebirth and a broken rifle to plead for an end to violence. Her plaque reads, “Shot dead by the British Army.”
While Derry is on the road to improvement, the two sides of the River Foyle still separate the majority of Protestant and Catholic peoples. Old wounds are still bleeding, shown on the walls as murals and on the gates and signs as graffiti. Bloody Sunday is fresh in Ireland’s history. Violence is fresh in the Irish heart. A statue near the dividing river is of two men reaching out to one another—representing Catholics and Protestants—with their hands almost touching. Almost, not quite. Derry is almost there, a finger’s brush away, but they aren’t there yet. And as the newly constructed, winding foot bridge over the river shows, the way is never sure.
If you want to see history live, visit Derry. Northern Ireland is steeped in political involvement and Derry drums near the heart of the troubles, pulling violence and injustice into a city that has rarely known peace. And while in the ideal world the people will eventually forgive, no one can ever forget.http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/ira.htm