The third instalment of our mini-series THE OUTSIDERS, we visit a city with a turbulent past and a club who switched allegiances to mirror those of its fans.
BY PAUL BREEN
“Be advised my passport's green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.”
Seamus Heaney, ‘An Open Letter’ – 1983.
Derry, of all places in Britain and Ireland, seems ready made for the language of football, with a history that’s very much composed of two halves. You’ve those who see themselves as Irish on one side of the pitch, and those who see themselves as British on the other. Out of this strange, enforced marriage comes a place that’s cut from different cloth to anywhere else on both sides of the Irish Sea. Home of shirt factories and receptacle of the shared history between two islands, this is a city that has suffered, as described in Phil Coulter’s famous song ‘The Town I Love So Well.’
But, as in the poems of Seamus Heaney and the upbeat rhythms of The Undertones, the character of Derry is based on triumph over suffering, and in finding a voice and a position unique to itself.
My brother lives there and it’s a place I visit often, spending time up in the heights of The Waterside, from where you can see the compact city spread out before you in the form of bridges across The Foyle, and narrow streets teeming with history.
Amongst these, on nights in the football season, you can find a rectangle of green and golden light that seems as much of a bridge as those that span the water which once marked this city into Protestant and Catholic, British and Irish, neighbourhoods.
These days, the darkness of such division is dissipating; dissolving slowly as compromises are made and people learn to live together. And the light of the Brandywell Stadium, home of Derry City Football Club, represents something that has long been missing from life in Northern Ireland – normality and stability.
For the first time in hundreds of years, there are no battle fires in the background, and the club, the city has found peace as a place that faces in two directions, and has become settled in each.
Starting out in life as a 6th century monastic settlement, the city was changed forever by the Ulster Plantations of the 1600s. The task of modernising Derry was handed to The Guilds of London, artisans in different professions who sought to fortify the town against the dispossessed native population.
As part of their modernisation, they built the city walls that still stand today as a symbol of the place, as seen in the club badge of Derry City FC. Today, those walls represent many things, ranging from new opportunities for tourism to a symbol of the siege that Ulster Protestants experienced in the first century of plantation.
Even today, those who identify as British may still feel under siege in a city such as Derry, which is overwhelmingly Catholic and Irish, facing out on the Irish Republic north, south, and westwards.
Those who see themselves as British look towards the east. Those who see themselves as Irish have no choice but to look in two directions, Ireland on one side, and Britain on the other. That’s given birth to a mindset that’s peculiar to Derry, on both sides of the divide, where the greatest loyalty is afforded to the city.
History has forced the people of Derry into such a position, especially the Catholic population in the decades after partition.
Half a century of institutionalised discrimination led to the birth of the Civil Rights’ movement in Northern Ireland and then a spiral of violence that went out of control after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when the British Army shot 13 unarmed civilians during a march against internment without trial.
Against this backdrop of violence and discrimination, Derry City Football Club almost went out of existence having been a part of the Irish League since 1929. Today, that club stands at the heart of life in the city, though it plays in the League of Ireland. Legally, politically and financially, Derry City belongs to Northern Ireland, but is affiliated with the Association and the teams of the Republic. Special dispensation had to be granted in the 1980s to allow this symbolic act. Derry - battered militarily and economically by the state to which it belonged - turned its back on Belfast and looked towards Dublin for the opportunity to play senior football.
That, though, should not be taken as a rejection of Northern Ireland or the British identity within the city. From the outset, the club has made efforts to reach out to both sides of the community. Protestant and Unionist players, supporters and management have long been welcomed from both sides of the border. Indeed, there’s a rich tradition of players from Derry and Donegal plying their trade in England, from the early days of association football right up to the present situation of men from these two counties playing critical roles in both of the Irish national teams.
Derry’s affiliation with the broader world of British football is also evident in the very colours they wear, red and white stripes inspired by Sheffield United, for whom one of the club’s earliest managers, Donegal-born Billy Gillespie, starred in the 1910s-30s.
With this strong cross-border tradition, the team known as the Candystripes embarked on a new adventure in the summer of 1985 as the first team from Northern Ireland to compete across the political boundary on a league basis. The early years brought considerable success and huge crowds for this level, at home in the Brandywell Stadium and away in other parts of Ireland.
Suddenly, Derry City’s position on the edge of two states brought fresh advantage in their ability to source and link together players from north and south, as well as being one of the first Irish clubs to bring in players from overseas.
In 1989 they achieved a domestic treble of League title, FAI Cup and League Cup, planting the name of Derry City firmly upon the football map of southern Ireland. At the same time they offered their supporters and the people of Derry respite from the last ferocious years of the ‘Troubles’, which by then were mainly concentrated in Belfast and other places.
Derry, like its football team, had moved on politically and the club’s current President, John Hume, played a leading role in steering Northern Ireland towards the peace of the mid-1990s. John Hume eventually received a Nobel Prize for his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998.
His local team, though, found the honours drying up at this point, as debts mounted in the early 2000s. First time around, the club survived, as the community and the football world rallied to help them raise the finances they needed.
By the middle 2000s, Derry City was back amongst the honours both domestically and in European competition, where teams on each side of the Irish border rarely find themselves in the spotlight. Amongst the high points of this era was a 5-1 UEFA Cup hammering of Gretna, across the sea in Scotland.
Like Gretna though, Derry once again faced financial difficulties in the latter end of the 2000s, and in echoes of a Glasgow Rangers scenario, faced expulsion from the league and then reformation as a lower division club. Unlike Rangers, Derry only had to climb a single division to get back to the top table and did so in a season.
Back there, once again, they are established and secure. The light of normality is well and truly shining at the Brandywell, and Derry, as a place, is making the most of its geographical and cultural position on the edge of two states.
It was the UK’s city of culture in 2013, and showed how far it has moved on from the past while never forgetting its history. At the end of the day, win, lose or draw, the Brandywell stays the same distance from the Atlantic on one side, and the Irish Sea on the other. We might as well enjoy the game as it is now, and if you ever get a chance, go see Derry, as a city and a team. You won’t regret it.
PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men available in paperback, and also on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen-ebook/dp/B00G8OBOKW/
FOLLOW PAUL ON TWITTER @CharltonMen