Derry Essays 2: A city on the border…

Derry is in the UK, true enough, but not only in the UK. The potential ‘UK City of Culture’ now stretches well beyond the boundaries of the state. Housing estates full of Derry commuters have sprung up in recent years on all the roads that stretch north, south and west of the city centre and across the nearby international boundary.

Some people jokingly refer to Golan Hill on the outskirts of Buncrana in Co Donegal as ‘Golan Heights’ because there are said to be so many ‘settlers’ from Derry living there. At the same time, the dominant nationalist civic culture in Derry stretches the ‘banal’ everyday nationalism that dominates south of the border across the border and into the heart of the city where symbols of Ireland are an ubiquitous feature of everyday life.

The dismantling of the looming military border checkpoints that ringed the city during the Troubles has facilitated the accelerating interpenetration of city and rural hinterland but Derry was always a cross-border city.

Derry has the odd distinction that it was a cross-border city for unionists as well as for nationalists. Some of the B-Specials serving in the Derry unit in the 50s and 60s headed back to homes across the border in Co Donegal after their day’s work defending that border while the City of Londonderry Grand Orange Lodge stretched out beyond the bounds of the city and beyond the outer bounds of the United Kingdom to include lodges in east Donegal.

One quarter of the Unionist members of the infamously gerrymandered Londonderry corporation of the 60s lived across that border, some of them playing a busy part in the life of north Donegal as well as that of Derry. A Derry that stretched out and over the border, beyond the confines of the UK, if not beyond the confines of the province of Ulster, has long been embedded in both unionist and nationalist civic cultures in the city, even if the Troubles gave many unionists strong reasons for turning their backs to the border.

This is not to say that the border of the UK is slowly dissolving at this far north-western edge. The border might be open now but open or not borders push people apart. In a masterly study of everyday life in divided Berlin, carried out just a few years before the wall came down, anthropologist John Borneman outlined how the two German states had created two distinct kinds of people in Berlin and in Germany as a whole. The creation of two distinct identities produced neither a securely separate national identity for the east German state nor loyalty to that state. But it did create a sense of mutual recognition and mutual identification between those with a shared experience of growing up in that state.

The Irish border might never lead to enthusiastic northern nationalist identification with the Northern Ireland state but it continues to push people on both sides of the border apart, a powerful inhibitor of shared action and shared understandings.

The border may be open, but identities and interactions are still structured by it, and divergent experiences of education, health services and a hundred other aspects of everyday life continue to widen the gap, even in the northwest of Ireland where Donegal and Derry sometimes seem to have melted together and the border to have vanished into the past.

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  • John O’Connell

    A very interesting article. Amazed to learn that some of the unionists controlling the city prior to the Troubles lived in Co Donegal.

  • The Raven

    Interesting indeed. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the outlook of some Protestants and Unionists to start realising that this has happened here, and can happen elsewhere, and guess what?

    The world won’t end.

  • Brian Walker


    I remember well how unionists straddled the border just as nationalists do today. Derry ones linked up with their co-relgionists through the Orange Order and even cricket in the older Plantation of the Laggan which still survives as you know. Fahan was a location of choice for shirt factory managers.

    Captain Sweet and Captain Brewster were WW1 officers who had shares in bakeries in Derry. Both sides were adept at exploiting the economic conditions on either side of the border to their own advantage. In time, can’t this be so again?

    On the border as a social inhibitor, I agree but this shouldn’t be insoluble. .I have an Inshowen friend who had to weekly commute to Dublin for particular treatment. It should be possible for him to be treated in Altnagelvin. The Commons education commitee as long as ago in the 1980s put forward a plan for coordinating third level education in Derry and north Donegal.

    Cross border reciprocation and harmonisation are EU-inspired familiar themes which have not yet produced enough practical results. Footnote. RIP Capt Marcus McCausland of Inch, formerly Irish Guards, an early UDR officer and ADC to the Queen. Murdered by the IRA in I think 1970. A powerful social inhibitor in its time.

  • As someone who is not a native of Derry but has lived in the city for almost 16 years, I have to say I don’t believe the border is much of a division at all when it comes to the division between Derry and Donegal. The core of that division is derived, I think, from a relationship that pre-dates partition, that is partly a classic urban-rural division, and is one that has been overlain in more recent times with a clear left-right demarcation.

    The majority of Derry people have their roots in Donegal, but theirs is a history of poverty and displacement going back to the 1830’s. Many of the Donegal people left on the land made good on vacated property, consolidated farms and opened businesses off the back of those forced to head for the city.

    There is a long-standing sense not necessarily of that history explicitly but of some sense of dislocation and resentment (more than the mere nationalist sense of betrayal over the Treaty), from Derry ‘wans’ towards Donegal. There is also that sense of dissonance and suspicion between townies and culchies that people usually pastiche and laugh about but which is nonetheless real for all that.

    Derry is a very urban environment for being so close to the countryside and even the second generation of migrants who live here, while retaining a lot of love and nostalgia for their ancestral roots are very definitely not Donegal people and often define themselves and their values in opposition to the conservative, rustic background of those ‘over there’.

    Finally, since the civil rights era and a heightening of social class identity in the city, as well I suspect as a result of marriage ties, familial links and other interactions, there is a pronounced sense of a class fissure between Derry and Donegal. I’ve met many people who have nothing but bad experiences and negative comments to make about working for Donegal foremen or marrying into a Donegal family.

    This is quite apart from the reality that Donegal, and particularly Inishowen, has a clearly right-wing political preference completely at variance with some of the left-leaning perspectives in Derry politics.

  • Alias

    Most sovereign states share land borders. It doesn’t follow that those states should pool sovereignty over there educational or medical institutions, etc, just because its gives a good vibe to folks that live close to the borders and have personal contact with folks in the other sovereign jurisdiction, and nor does it follow that taxpayers in one jurisdiction for pay for the medical care or education of citizens in the foreign jurisdiction.

  • Mick Fealty

    It would be good to get a few Donegal perspectives on this question!