UPDATE: the museum has undergone significant changes and doubled in size, housed in an all new building. In April I will return to Northern Irleland and slot in a re-visit of this museum. I'll duly report back and update this chapter after my return. Please bear with me.
A small topical museum in the city of Derry/Londonderry
, Northern Ireland
. Informally, the museum is also simply known as "the Bloody Sunday Museum". Its main theme is indeed Bloody Sunday, but it also covers the historical background to it and the whole role of the Bogside district, where it is located and which has been described as the "Crucible" of "The Troubles".
Small as the museum may be, it has some very poignant artefacts and is certainly one of the top attractions to any (dark) tourist with an interest in the Northern Ireland conflict.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
Bloody Sunday is the informal name that the events of 30 January 1972 have become best known under worldwide. It was possibly the most significant turning point in the earlier part of the Troubles, the one that turned it from mere protests, civil unrest and riots into what was perceived by many as downright "war".
What happened? Tensions had already been running high since the late 1960s when the civil rights movement formed in the Catholic Bogside district and especially after the so-called Battle of the Bogside of August 1969 – see under Derry/Londonderry
The confrontation between Catholic Republicans in the Bogside and the authorities escalated further all through 1970 and 1971 and "Free Derry" had become a no-go area for the authorities. The fact that the Catholic Nationalists were able to maintain "Free Derry" demonstrated their resolve; but it was a severe provocation for the Loyalist side and the local authorities, which were therefore intent on toughening their approach, also with support from Great Britain
At the end of January 1972, Republicans organized yet another protest march. The main issue that was being protested was the practice of internment without trial of captured Catholics deemed (often wrongly) to be associated with IRA violence and agitation. The march scheduled for 30 January was banned by the authorities, who even pre-emptively put the blame for any violence on the marchers already the day before.
Partly in an effort to smooth things over the IRA had promised to stay away from the march (though some were later found to have been present all the same). Therefore the assembled ca. 15,000 civilians on that morning believed that the event would run relatively peacefully for once. That is why many families with children participated.
At the same time, however, British paratroopers had arrived to strengthen the Army presence in Northern Ireland
. Military roadblocks were prepared. They were determined to prevent the march from reaching the city centre.
The march proceeded down from the Creggan area into the Bogside. As they approached the Army roadblock on William Street, the procession mostly turned right and continued down Rossville Street and towards "Free Derry". A small group of angry youths meanwhile proceeded to the roadblock in Williams Street and the by then "usual" rioting ensued: the protesters throwing stones and bottles, the other side responding with the usual tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets – as had happened on countless occasions before in the city over the past couple of years. So far, that is, there was nothing really out of the ordinary going in.
But what happened next was very much out of the ordinary indeed – and has been the subject of numerous allegations, counter-allegations, investigations and inquiries. I will not attempt to give a fully detailed account here. The museum does that quite elaborately from its point of view. There's also an ocean of material out there where readers can find the fullest of accounts. For our purposes the following short version has to suffice.
Away from the William Street roadblock, the paratroopers suddenly started to open fire – using live ammunition rather than the usual rubber bullets! Two protesters were hit (one of whom later died) and the demonstrators ran away from the Army. But they were pursued down Rossville Street by armoured vehicles and more shots with live rounds were fired. Several protesters were hit, some fatally, some were shot in the back, others were shot as they attempted to help the wounded. Carnage and panic increased as the protesters tried to take shelter, e.g. at the barricades at Rossville Flats or the residential area at Glenfada Park, but a second wave of attack was mounted by the paratroopers.
Within half an hour, 13 protesters had been shot dead, another died shortly after from his wounds. The same number of people were wounded. This unprecedented degree of brutality naturally shocked the whole community – and much of the outside world too.
But what about the other side? The Army claimed they had been shot at by gunmen in the crowds, though there was no evidence of this. Nor could the allegation that there had been IRA activists with bombs in the crowd ever be corroborated. Still, the Army reaction was backed by London too. A quickly cobbled-together "official" report, which failed to take into account any eyewitnesses other than from within the Army, whitewashed the Army of any guilt … some commanders were later even promoted.
In Ireland, however, the outrage was great. The Republic of Ireland
even demanded that the UN
intervene in the north (it didn't). In Derry/Londonderry
, though, the setback through Bloody Sunday was huge, despite initial resolve. Only months later the British Army undertook Operation Motorman in which it forcibly cleared the barricades and ended "Free Derry". For the Republican side it looked like defeat.
However, in a way it was only the beginning of yet another cycle of violence, albeit of a different nature. Unlike the "Official IRA" (which tried to pursue their cause through a path of negotiation), the more radical "Provisional IRA" now stepped up their underground campaign with bombings and assassinations. Retaliation from the Unionist side was ratcheted up further too. The whole situation was a nasty mess that was to haunt Ireland and Britain for many years to come.
The PR machine of the Loyalists and Great Britain
was not completely successful, though. Public anger was voiced strongly and Bloody Sunday became the icon in the
worldwide public perception of the Northern Ireland
conflict. This was also reflected in numerous protest songs, not just the anthemic "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" by the Irish band U2, which is however probably the most famous of them all.
Years of campaigning for the truth about the events of 30 January 1972 finally came to fruition in the ten-volume "Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry" published in 2010, after 12 years of gathering facts, evidence and witness accounts. The report crushed the previous ones and, even though some questions remained open, concluded that the victims were unarmed and posed no threat and were thus innocent, whereas the paratroopers shooting at fleeing civilians and those aiding the injured, had "lost control" and that there was no justification for their actions. Not much later the British Prime Minister voiced an apology on behalf of the British Government. How times can change. Some in the Army and on the Protestant side remained defiant in their position, but on the whole the findings of the report have been accepted all round.
For the relatives of the victims, and the Catholic side in Northern Ireland at large, this report and its general reception was a rather late vindication, but still one enthusiastically welcomed. Meanwhile the Peace Process had made enormous progress anyway, so the conclusion of the Inquiry could hopefully only serve to further strengthen the durability of reconciliation in Northern Ireland
. It looks like this is indeed more or less the case.
The Museum of Free Derry developed out of the Bloody Sunday Trust, established in 1997, and its National Civil Rights Archive. It sees itself as rooted first and foremost in its community, and indeed, much of its collection has been donated to the museum from this community. Apart from an educational role it also aims to foster local "community identity" and to tell the "people's story".
As such it is not an "official" institution and firmly on one side of the story – but I found that it made a decent effort at presenting the historical background to Bloody Sunday in as much a balanced way as you could expect under the circumstances. Nor is it overly confrontational towards the Loyalist side or the British – or anyone really. The staff are decidedly open and friendly – and international interest (and input!) is very much welcome too.
The museum is apparently still a bit of a work in progress. Things may change and the exhibition might be expanded further. But the core of the exhibition now already seems pretty solidly put together from the impressions I got. The museum's website is still mostly in future tense, describing its mission more like a "project" rather than as a result already achieved. But that's probably just because those parts of the site haven't been updated much recently (a lot of it is still copyrighted "2005"!). So don't be misled by its own website's tentativeness. The museum is definitely in place in its projected premises and is open as advertised, or at least it certainly was when I visited in December 2012.
What there is to see:
When you've found the location take note of the large paintings outside, one of them a reproduction of Picasso's "Guernica
", against the red facade on the outside before going in.
Inside there's a small reception desk, where you buy your ticket and where there are also a few brochures, books, T-shirts and other items for sale – including some very unusual objects such as a bust wearing a golden gas mask!
If your language is not English then first ask if they have any leaflets in your language. That may indeed be the case. In the back of the museum stands a rack with loose paper translations of some of the museum's texts which have been supplied by speakers of an astonishingly wide array of languages. It will only be a short summary but still better than nothing. Obviously I cannot vouch for the translation quality of all of these, but the German one I had a quick read-through of looked largely very well done. The explanatory texts and labels in the actual exhibition are all in English only (i.e. no Irish here either).
The exhibition follows a double approach, as it were. One consists of a series of informational text-and-photo panels, all in more or less the same design/layout, lined up along the inside of the outer wall. These provide a chronological account of the historical background in a concise, easy-to-grasp format.
The other strand of the museum is the collection of artefacts, most of which are on display in large glass cabinets set into an inside wall that runs through the centre of the building and thus separates the museum's single hall into two halves.
The first half illuminates the historical background and the build-up to Bloody Sunday, from the Siege of Derry/Londonderry via the partition of Ireland
, the repression of Catholics in the north and the early part of the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Naturally there is a particular emphasis on the civil rights movement and the early phase of increasing violence – as in the so-called Battle of the Bogside (see under Derry/Londonderry
Artefacts on display in this section include some intriguing objects, such as milk bottles from a local dairy that are of the same type as those that were used by the protesters to make petrol bombs. There's also the famous photo of the young petrol bomber taken during the battle. If you think you've seen it outside the museum already, then that's indeed the case: one of the Bogside's most prominent murals is based on this very photo.
Also on display are RUC helmets, banners, truncheons, rubber bullets, a gas mask as well as photos and original documents. A record player used by Radio Free Derry can be seen in a separate glass display box.
In a small side room at the far end of the first room are two workstations with computer touch screens. Here additional audio-visual material can be viewed/listened to (on headphones), including MP3 recordings of protest songs or video footage of Bloody Sunday and the funerals afterwards.
The second room is mostly dedicated to Bloody Sunday. The text-and-photo panels precisely chronicle the events of that day and every single one of the casualties is described in detail and located on a map. Under the panels on the left stand white crosses with the names of the dead – as they were used in the funeral procession.
In the display cabinets on the right-hand side, many original artefacts can be seen, some of them very poignant indeed. For instance there are still blooded bandages as well as items of clothing worn by victims with the bullet holes clearly visible which were torn by the projectiles that killed or wounded them. Original bullets are on display too.
One particularly special artefact is the original white handkerchief that featured so iconically that day. It was this handkerchief that Father (later Bishop) Edward Daly waved at the troopers as others behind him carried off Jackie Duddy, one of the mortally wounded casualties. Given that others who had attempted to help fellow protesters who had been wounded were shot dead themselves, this scene exudes particular drama and courage. According to the label by the exhibit, the handkerchief was later passed on to the Duddy family and Jackie's sister used to carry it around with her everywhere. It must be one of the most prized donations in the entire collection.
On one big flat screen on the wall in the centre of the room, original private footage taken by William McKinney is played in a loop. The soundtrack alone provides a good impression of the fear and despair that was in the air during these dramatic moments. The very camera used by McKinney is also on display in an adjacent display cabinet. He himself was shot on Bloody Sunday – right in front of the building that now houses the museum!
The final two sections are about the immediate aftermath, especially Operation Motorman (see Derry/Londonderry
) as well as about the Blood Sunday Justice Campaign. This long struggle is also illustrated by a range of exhibits, including copies of the brief report that initially backed the Army's actions. Next to it towers a copy of the ten-volume 2010 inquiry report that finally overturned that verdict and acknowledged the fact that that the people killed on Bloody Sunday had indeed been innocent.
On balance: the museum, though small, is both very informative and at the same time touching, especially in the section that has the poignant relics from Bloody Sunday on display. Despite its clear angle, i.e. that of the Bogside people that were involved in the tragedy, it refrains from lashing out against the Protestant "enemy" or the Army/RUC in a manner that comes across as aggressive – at least not in its own commodification. Many of the documents, banners, newspaper cuttings from the time and so on, are of course worded in no uncertain terms. But that's part of the historical coverage. What the museum adds to this as commentary is, however, quite restrained and balanced. That's of course a good thing in a context that all too often still generates heated emotions and hard feelings.
Overall, the museum impressed me a lot more than I had anticipated beforehand, also given that I had been told that it had a rather "unfinished" feel. But maybe that impression had been gained before the museum took on the form it had when I saw it. I found that it does tell its story well and with a good balance of emotion vs. factuality/evidence.
So do make sure you take it in when visiting Derry/Londonderry
's Bogside – don't just make do with the murals if you want to understand better what they are all about.
Access and costs: only a short walk away from the city centre; not expensive.
Details: to get to the museum from the city centre either walk from the pedestrianized area to the north of the city wall down William Street and then turn left and proceed down Rossville Street in a southerly direction to find Glenfada Park branching off to the right.
Alternatively, leave the city wall through Butcher's Gate and use Fahan Street to get down to Rossville Street, or use the footpaths that descend the hillside from Grand Parade west of the city walls. Then head up Rossville Street in a northerly direction to find Glenfada Park branching off to the left (between the Civil Rights mural and the one depicting a lone protester and an armoured police vehicle).
Glenfada Parks is not a park, by the way, but just the name of a housing estate cul-de-sac and car park. But the red-painted museum building with its large-scale paintings on the wall is pretty hard to miss.
Opening times: Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year round. Between April and September also on Saturdays between 1 and 4 p.m., and in July and August on Sundays too. Last admission 20 minutes before closing (but better get there earlier than that close to closing time!).
Admission: £3 for adults, concession £2 (also for groups of ten or more). You can purchase a combi ticket with a Free Derry Walking Tour (see below) for £6, i.e. you'd save £2.
Time required: depends a bit on how familiar you already are with the subject matter that the museum covers. If you do not need to read all the general background information panels and only want to look at the concrete exhibits, then you could be out again in less than half an hour. If you want to read everything and even dig into the interactive computer workstations, then you could probably spend up to 90 minutes or so in this museum.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Derry/Londonderry
– the most obvious combination before or after visiting the museum has to be a walk around the Bogside for its memorials, murals and sites of Bloody Sunday themselves. There are information panels giving guidance for independently visiting tourists. Alternatively you can join one of the Free Derry Walking Tours (£5 – so not free; the name derives from the former "Free Derry" no-go area); these start two to three times a day between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. right outside the museum. A combi ticket for both entitles you to a £2 discount.
- Museum of Free Derry 01 - with a Guernica copy on the wall
- Museum of Free Derry 02 - Civil Rights Movement
- Museum of Free Derry 03 - things got nasty
- Museum of Free Derry 05 - milk bottles were used for petrol bombs
- Museum of Free Derry 06 - gas mask worn for protection against tear gas
- Museum of Free Derry 07 - Sunday, Bloody Sunday
- Museum of Free Derry 08 - relics from Bloody Sunday
- Museum of Free Derry 09 - marked bullet hole
- Museum of Free Derry 10 - that famous image explained
- Museum of Free Derry 11 - that famous white handkerchief
- Museum of Free Derry 12 - blood stains from Bloody Sunday
- Museum of Free Derry 13 - the long aftermath
- Museum of Free Derry 14 - lots of translations contributed by visitors
- Museum of Free Derry 15 - interactive screen