BELFAST, Northern Ireland – In the abstract, one might think that of all the towns, villages and stretches of countryside that make up Northern Ireland, the country’s second-largest city of Derry would be a place where a legacy of sectarian Catholic/Protestant violence is especially difficult to overcome.

After all, residents can’t even agree on what to call the place – for Catholics it’s just “Derry,” but for Protestants it’s “Londonderry” (the name given it by King James I of England in 1613.) To this day, highways leading into the city display the official name, but Catholics routinely use white spray paint to blot out the “London” part.

This is also where some of the most appalling moments of “the Troubles” happened, an almost 30-year period in which Catholics and Protestants bombed, killed and kneecapped one another with savage ferocity, leaving more than 3,500 people dead. Derry, for instance, was the setting in 1972 for the “Bloody Sunday” massacre, in which British soldiers shot 28 civilians during a peaceful protest against the UK’s internment policy.

There are still occasional echoes of that bloody past.

This July, the city was convulsed with riots fueled by mainly young, Catholic youth, who tossed petrol bombs in protest of a Protestant march. Barricades were set up in the city’s mainly Catholic and Republican neighborhood of Bogside, and police fired tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowds.

Yet paradoxically, perhaps because the press for change is most intense wherever the status quo is most unsustainable, Derry has also been a laboratory for peace-building and reconciliation.

That story, in some ways, can be told in terms of some remarkable figures who hail from this city of roughly 100,000, located on the North Atlantic Ocean:

  • John Hume, the founder of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, the moderate Catholic alternative to the Sinn Fein, and co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the Good Friday agreement.
  • Martin McGuinness, a native of Derry’s ultra-Republican Bogside neighborhood and an IRA commander before trading arms for ballots and going on to serve as the First Minister of Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2017. His term was marked by several memorable gestures of reconciliation, including a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and taking part in a toast to the Queen at Windsor Palace.
  • Bishop Edward Daly, who led the Diocese of Derry from 1974 to 1994. As a young priest, Daly was involved in civil rights protests and appears in a famous photo of Bloody Sunday escorting a group carrying a mortally wounded young boy. As bishop, Daly tried to straddle the divide between the IRA and the British security forces, serving as a back-channel mediator and also a public voice of conscience. He condemned IRA violence but shrank from excommunicating its members: “Better to communicate than excommunicate,” he said.
  • Anglican Bishop James Mehaffey, who led the Church of Ireland in Derry from 1980 to 2002. Together, Daly and Mehaffey provided an alternative model of Catholic/Protestant harmony: They held common Christmas carol services, issued joint statements, and responded to civic unrest together. For their efforts, Daly and Mehaffey are today remembered as two of only four “freedmen” of Derry, meaning figures who played a critical role in the life of the city.

Jim Roddy, who leads an outfit called the “City Centre Initiative” that acts as an informal platform for dialogue, summed up the Derry story this way: “The Troubles started here, and it looks as if they’re going to end here.”

That legacy appears alive and well today in the person of Bishop Donal McKeown, the 68-year-old successor of Daly. We dropped in on him at the bishop’s residence (which he doesn’t use, actually, as anything other than an office).

When I and my Crux colleagues Inés San Martín and Claire Giangravé arrived, joined by our good friend Michael Kelly of the Irish Catholic, McKeown was chatting with Roddy and another civic leader, Gerard Finnegan, who runs a local community college. The three men were discussing strategies to provide alternative pastimes to the city’s restless youth beyond tossing Molotov cocktails.

Roddy insisted that in part because of the legacies of men such as Hume and Daly, “Derry is much more reconciled than lots of other places.”

McKeown agreed.

“We’re quite trouble-free when it comes to marches compared to other places,” he said. “Last year, Jim here and I were in the well of the Orange march [referring to the main Protestant rally] and the band leader himself came over to say hi.”

The annual Orange Order march in Derry, by the way, is the largest in Northern Ireland, usually involving 140 bands and 12,000 or so marchers. McKeown said it can take the entire parade up to three hours to file by a single point in the city.

Everyone involved in the conversation, however, warned that the progress is tenuous, and that reconciliation remains a work in progress.

“Unless we come to agreement about how we deal with the legacy of the past, nothing else matters,” said Roddy, explaining that to this day Protestants and Catholics spar over who precisely should be compelled to stand trial for their role in the Troubles, and how wide a net ought to be cast.

“All that does is keep the pot boiling, keeping us focused on the conflict,” he said. “The risk is that we pass on to the next generation a mystified, glorified view of the conflict, when in reality it was ugly, cruel, and hate-filled.”

McKeown was typically blunt.

“The war is over, but the conflict is alive and well,” he said, suggesting that the country’s main political parties – Sinn Fein for the Catholic/Republican side, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for the Protestant/Loyalist constituency, both have incentives to keep tensions alive.

In that context, McKeown said, “everything becomes a weapon in the ongoing conflict.”

A native of Belfast, McKeown is clearly a convert to his new home – extolling Derry’s achievements as a source of hope. He pointed, for instance, to the city’s famed “Peace Bridge,” opened in 2011, which not only celebrates the end of the Troubles but also connects traditionally Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

“I think of it almost as a sacrament,” McKeown said. “It effects what it symbolizes, uniting two parts of the city.”

Later, over dinner at a charming Italian restaurant just down a hill from the cathedral, McKeown told us that one important way Northern Ireland coped with the Troubles was by cultivating a keen sense of gallows humor.

“We laughed despite it all,” he said, citing a couple of classic jokes typical of the era:

  • “How does a Unionist calendar in Belfast go? January, February, March, March, March, March …”
  • “A stranger is walking down a street and a local asks, ‘What religion are you?’ When the stranger answers, ‘I’m Jewish,’ the local replies, ‘Okay, but are you a Catholic or a Protestant Jew?’”

Roddy suggested a final factor to explain the city’s resilience: a strong sense of civic pride on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant, Republican/Loyalist divide.

“No matter what people call this city,” he said, “they all love it as their home.”