Tour guide John McNulty explains the history of Saint Columba’s in Londonderry.

Finding a welcome peace and hope

Exploring the troubled, yet ultimately inspiring, history of Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

Lao Tzu, the 6th century Chinese philosopher, wrote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Can the same be said of the road to peace?

As the season of goodwill approaches, John McNulty, a retired Londonderry (also known as Derry) bank manager now a Martin McCrossan Walking Tour guide, comes to mind. Recently, standing at the Derry Wall, we talked about The Troubles that battered Northern Ireland from the 1960s until 1998.

“Derry is 75 per cent Catholic and 25 per cent Protestant,” McNulty told me. “Church people are leading by example. Every four years we have a Protestant Mayor, and every four years a Protestant Deputy Mayor. It’s a symbolic power sharing. People are working together for the good of everybody.”

We’ve just walked the 400-year-old walls of this city where guides try to encapsulate the undeniably violent, yet inspiring, history of this historic city.

Wall tours include St. Columba’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest building completed in 1633. Within the cathedral, The Promise Chalice, a gift from England’s King James 1 in 1613 in anticipation of the cathedral being built, is still used for special communions. The monarch might be surprised at how fitting the name of his gift would become as centuries passed.

Standing on the ancient wall, some of the murals painted by Bogside artists Tom and William Kelly clearly impact the tourists. McNulty, like all tour guides, pauses to explain their significance. He talks about the Bogside, Free Derry Corner, and streets that in our current history emphasized entrenched  political and sectarian anger, pain, historic and family divisions and wounds.

There is the “You Are Now Entering Free Derry”, painted in 1969 after the Battle of the Bogside. One by one the murals are explained. Most – even from this distance – are chilling, thought provoking. But, one of a little girl is haunting.

Annette McGavigan, the 100th victim of The Troubles, was the first child killed. She is immortalized in The Death of Innocence mural. She was inadvertently killed by a bullet from a British soldier’s rifle on Bloody Sunday. As a mother, a grandmother, and just a caring human being, it depicts for me the futility of war. As McNulty said, “What in the world was it all about. It’s always the innocent who suffer.” artists have indicated that by creating the murals their intentions were to tell the story, but also to offer a cathartic way of examining the past, and moving on to a better future.

Without exception, everyone I met throughout Northern Ireland echoed similar sentiments. John McNulty reiterates that in a video interview after the tour.

The No Surrender mural is a reminder of The Troubles. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo.

Surprisingly, I was the lone foreigner on the tour.  Eventually, it became tough to keep up with our guide since, in typically welcoming Irish fashion, people kept lingering to ask about me, or Canada! Equally problematic was, I was interested in their stories. Some were retired locals, others had come for the weekend from other parts of Ireland to research their roots, and  two board members in town for a “Children in Crossfire” conference wanted to share that information.

Derry is walkable city. Easy to navigate, plenty to see, endless history, and – as with the rest of Northern Ireland – if in doubt, just ask a local.

For example, taking advantage of the free coffee included in the Martin Crossing tour I headed in to Java. By coincidence, a man at the table next to me turned out to be the editor of The Derry Journal. Not only did we share mutual concerns and views about the newspaper industry, he introduced me to local theatre people who happened to be passing.

Suddenly I felt less like a stranger and more like a local. I wished I was staying longer to take advantage of their and invitations.

Before heading for Brown’s in Town for dinner, I stopped at the Tower Museum. Don’t miss wandering through here. The history you’d expect to see is well laid out, easy to navigate, and the section on The Troubles is where the guides will leave you to choose to interpret on your own.

Derry, the key European shirt factory city before China entered the global market, was hosting a Shirt Factory Exhibition. Women were, of course, critical in this industry at the time. In the industrial red brick Shirt Factory building, the ghosts of the seamstresses – and an unbidden optimism – seemed to filter through.The exhibit was hoping for funding to continue. I hope they got it. It’s a part of Derry history worth noting.

Ghosts of seamstresses at the Shirt Factory Exhibit – Ursula Maxwell-Lewis photo

Driving across the river to the Everglades Hotel in the evening, John McNulty’s parting words echo: “I want to see Derry the number one tourist destination in Ireland. We want to take over from Kerry, if at all possible!”

If you go: Contact Discover Northern Ireland at

– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the founding publisher and editor of the Cloverdale Reporter.

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