By Michelle Jackson for the Irish Daily Mail

COMPLETED in 1618, the 400-year­old Walls of Derry hold centuries of tales and sagas within and today is the only intact walled city on the islands of Ireland and Britain.

I’m standing on the banks of the River Foyle waiting in antici­pation with thousands of others as a parade of lighted ships sail down the river to the Peace Bridge. The man standing beside me is huddled next to the rails. `I’m stuck here like jam,’ he quips in his Derry Brogue.

I’ve been in the city only a few hours and I’m overwhelmed by the festive atmosphere at the Foyle Maritime Festival. The mood is jovial as families enjoy the stalls filled with chocolate dipped strawberries, bratwursts and waffles — all you’d expect to see at a Christmas market.

The story we are about to watch is entitled Voyages and encom­passes pirates, dancers and musicians in a display of light and fireworks.

Derry has several tales to tell and I start the next day at The Siege Museum, situated next to The Apprentice Boys Hall on Society Street.

Living in the South, I’d heard about the Apprentice Boys on the news growing up and am keen to hear more from the museum curator Stuart Moore, who has lived his entire life on the dominantly Protestant Foun­tain estate.

And so to 1688 when Catholic King James II sought to take his throne back from King William III or William of Orange.

The Governor of Derry at the time, Robert Lundy has been vil­lainised in history as the man who cried surrender.

But he had not bargained with the resilience of the citizens, and in particular Henry Campsie and a group of 13 young apprentices to London businesses who closed the gates to the cry ‘No Surrender’.

The siege had lasted 105 days and in that time the population of 25,000 inside the 29 acres was cut by one third due to starva­tion and disease.

Every year a 20ft-tall effigy of Lundy is burned on the first Saturday in December. For the last 25 years it has been made by the same members of the Walker family from the Fountain estate. The crimson-clad Apprentice Boys then march to St Columb’s Cathedral, where a service is held in memory of those events.

Of course, not everyone sees it as a cause for celebration.

It is just a short stroll outside the walls to Catholic Bogside, where The Troubles are recalled in the Free Derry mural, now with the colours of the Palestine flag, and two images, one of Fr Edward Daly on Bloody Sunday, waving a white handkerchief as a dying boy is carried to safety and Nelson Mandela and Bobby Sands flanked in the flags of their respective countries joined by these stirring words:

`Many suffer so that someday the future generations may live in justice and peace’.

I walk on to the site where once the Roswell Flats stood but is now the Museum of Free Derry. Here I meet with Jean Hegarty, a guide at the museum. Her brother, Kevin Mcllhinney was one of the 13 people killed by British troops on January 30th 1972 — Bloody Sunday. Inside I’m moved by the images and memorabilia associated with the civil rights marches which were instigated with the premise of equality for all the citizens of Derry.

AFTER the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, condi­tions remained bleak for Catholics in the Six Counties with them being sub­jected to a form of apartheid with voting rights weighted heavily towards the Protestant maj oryity.

The original demonstrations, following the lead of Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights cam­paign in the US even saw some members of the Protestant com­munity came out in support but Bloody Sunday drove a wedge through the city.

Hope sprung again though with the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process and the Peace Bridge was erected across the Foyle in 2011. It has since been crossed by The Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton and Mar­tin Luther King’s son Martin.

Designed to link the two com­munities, it leads to Ebrington Square. Once the barracks for the British Army during The Troubles, it now houses The Walled City Brewery, which is the only brewery-restaurant in the one location in Ireland.

I meet with the owner, who has great hopes for the continued development of the site which boasts the best views over the Peace Bridge and the walled city. That evening a classical concert plays. The Peace Bridge is doing its job.

I gain a different vantage point of the bridge the next day through Inishadventures’ canoe trips on the river.

I can’t leave Derry, though, without actually walking the walls. Martin McCrossan tours have been educating visitors for over 20 years.

Sorcha Bonner is my guide, and talks me through the his­tory with in-depth tales of the siege when citizens ate the car­casses of rats and dogs which in turn had feasted on the bodies of the dead. We pass by St Colm’s College, where notable alumni include Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and John Hume. Next were are treated to a pan­oramic view of the Bogside and home to Dana who stole our hearts at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with Ireland’s first win.

Sorcha makes this walking tour one of the most entertaining and informative I’ve enjoyed in any city in the world.

Before I leave, I catch up with the end of the Maritime Festival as the Clipper ships make their way onto the last leg of their journey to Liverpool.

I’ve been moved, enthralled, thrilled and amused by the tales and charm of its inhabitants. Derry is a city filled with history. The walls may still be there, and celebrated, but these days there is less of a divide.


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