Belfast Telegraph

If only walls could talk, what a tale the Maiden City would tell

By Eamon McCann

Derry isn't short of dividing Walls. There's one for each of the epochs we were out front in Europe.

It would be pushing it to pretend that the fate of Europe in the 17th century hung on the outcome of the Siege of Derry. It is of Aughrim that that might (just about) be said. But Derry grabbed the glory anyway. Typical, some would say.

Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne were battles in the War of the Grand Alliance, fought between, on the one hand, (Holy Roman) Emperor Leopold I, Charles II of Spain, Victor Amadeus II of Savoy and William III and, on the other hand, Louis XIV of France, James II, and an assortment of sub-princelings.

Pope Alexander VIII weighed in on the side of the Alliance on account of Louis not treating the Church with the deference and donations the pontiff thought proper.

Had the Alliance come a cropper, the idea of absolute monarchy would have been validated everywhere. Bourbon Absolutists would have been strengthened in rejection of even the mildest parliamentary restraint.

The war was, in its way, about civil rights.

And, whatever about the continuing effect of the conflict on Ireland, in the broad sweep of European history the civil righters were inside the Walls.

The indomitable fervour of the citizens within wasn't entirely fuelled by righteous hostility to the Divine Right of Kings, but wasn't an atypical spasm either.

Presbyterians in Derry who were up for sedition in 1798 took inspiration from the Siege. A great-grandson of one of the Derry 13 - the Boys who slammed the Gates in James's face - was Unitedman Oliver Cromwell Bond, named after the great English republican.

I learned this from a top Apprentice Boy during the May Day rally held by Derry Trades Council in the Memorial Hall on the Walls in 1988. A talk on 'The Siege and '98' was followed by a discussion on the question 'Must we always walk like beasts of prey through fields our fathers stained with blood?' I cannot remember whether we arrived at a conclusion. But it was a great night.

The second period in which Derry was at the cutting edge of European history came in the late 1960s. As revolt ricocheted around the continent - London! Paris! Rome! Berlin! We shall fight and we shall win! A better chant might have been contrived had it been left to the Bogside - Derry once more rose to the occasion, and wrote its history on a Wall.

Our horizons ranged even wider than Europe. The phrase 'You Are Now Entering Free Derry', first inscribed on a gable at Lecky Road in January 1969, was plagiarised from a slogan of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the time, at Berkeley College, California. It signified that revolt in Derry was to be understood in the context of what seemed at the time a global uprising against oppressive power.

A quarter of a century after the initial inscription, I came across the now-celebrated artist Colin Darke one afternoon on a ladder with a paint brush coating the edifice in a warm shade of red and rendering the letters into luminous yellow.

The intention, I gathered, was to agitate ideas during a community festival just under way. The colours were the colours of the Viet Cong flag. Back in 1969, I noted to myself, that would have been obvious to almost everybody thronged around the gable.

However, even as I savoured the deftness of the reference (and my own sharpness in spotting it), Colin explained that the paint had been given to the festival free by Carlin's on William Street and these were the colours Mr Carlin had handed out.

Still, art works in mysterious ways. The point stands. What Walls mean can change over time, and be changed again.

One of a number of brilliant young artists in Derry these days, Paul Ruairi, has produced a series of representations of Free Derry Wall as a decrepit outcrop set in eerie, dull green light, its slogan smudged and faded, a weary icon overlaid with sour observation: 'Tourist Trap', 'Morbid Museum', 'Past Tense', 'Why Bother?'

There's no need to wait until 2013 to make Derry a cutting-edge European - never mind UK - city of culture again.

We could ask Colin Darke and Paul Ruairi and the many others of like ilk around town to paint the Wall and the Walls according to the colour-codes of their Derry imaginations, so that each might look at the other anew.

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