LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland — In a cluttered office just inside the city's 400-year-old walls, Roman Catholic Dessie Baker is trying to revise the history of the siege of Londonderry in 1689, a high point of Protestant heritage in Northern Ireland.
But poking around in Ulster's long, embittered folk memory can be a risky endeavor, especially in Londonderry, where even the city's name is hotly disputed. Catholics call it Derry to avoid the British connection, and events of 300 years ago are still a mental battlefield for Protestants and Catholics in the British province.
Baker, a psychologist-turned-history student, believes that setting the historical record straight can help the two communities find common ground.
But since Baker and most of his colleagues are Catholics, many Protestants suspect a plot to lure them into uniting with the predominantly Catholic Irish Republic to the south.
3 Years of Study
Baker set up his Relief of Derry Project three years ago, looking ahead to the 1989 tricentennial of the siege and wondering whether an ecumenical celebration could be created to replace the triumphal parade the Protestants put on every year.
The parade commemorates Londonderry's 35,000 Protestant defenders who withstood a 145-day siege by the Catholic armies of King James II and entrenched Protestant supremacy over Northern Ireland.
It produced heroes in the shape of the 13 Apprentice Boys, who slammed the city's gates shut against the invader, and villains like Colonel Lundy, the city's military commander, who counseled surrender and fled.
To this day, the Protestants' annual commemorative parade is led by the revered Order of Apprentice Boys. The slogan chanted is "No surrender," and Lundy is burned in effigy, his name a synonym for traitor.
Londonderry, on the River Foyle in the north of Ulster, always has been pivotal in Northern Ireland's history.
The civil rights movement arose here in 1968 among the city's roughly 60% Catholic majority to challenge Protestant supremacy, and it was the Londonderry riots the next year that brought the British army and froze Northern Ireland into its modern-day cycle of violence.
Here also occurred Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British troops killed 13 Catholics during a civil rights march in the worst single shooting incident in modern Irish times.
Baker said he has pored over reports and diaries written during the siege and concludes that the story seems markedly different from that handed down through the generations. She concludes:
- Lundy couldn't have betrayed the city because he left it before the siege began.
- Far from vowing resistance to the death, the city quickly offered to surrender but failed to negotiate a date.
- The Pope was hostile to King James and indirectly supported the Protestants.
'Carnival Atmosphere's Sought
Baker said his group set out three years ago in the hope that the tricentennial observance would become a celebration that Catholics would not see as an offensive display of Protestant triumph, as they do now.
"We wanted to create a carnival atmosphere, something both communities could identify with, in which the siege becomes a colorful, interesting tourist event," Baker said.
Baker said records show that Catholics participated in the 1789 centennial celebrations and that it became an exclusively Protestant affair only in the 19th Century.
But many Protestants worry that the revision may come at the cost of their heritage.
A New Process
"They want to render the siege totally meaningless and turn it into a carnival, just another holiday on the calendar," Gregory Campbell, a Protestant city councilman, said. "It's unique that an event in European history that happened 300 years ago can still be a motivating political force.
"The ideology of the siege still overrides all realism or willingness to negotiate. It has created this language of 'no surrender,' in which anyone who compromises is automatically a Lundy."
Baker's project nevertheless reflects a new process in Northern Ireland as a generation born too late to experience Bloody Sunday seeks to move away from history's taboos.
A nonsectarian yoga and aerobics center today is on the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, for example, and the Catholic-dominated City Council has elected Jim Guy, a Protestant, as mayor.
Benefit Rock Concert
In July the Relief of Derry Project organized a rock concert called "Breaking the Boom," a reference to the ship that rammed the siege barricade across the River Foyle on July 28, 1689, and relieved the starving city. Proceeds went to African famine relief.
"Naturally someone asked me how many Protestants and how many Catholics were at the concert," Baker said. "What could I say? Can you tell whether a punk rocker with purple hair is a Protestant punk or a Catholic punk?"
Funded by the government and voluntary bodies, the project has organized a dramatization of the siege for a local radio station and plans to build a replica of the Mountjoy, the ship that broke the barricade.
Campbell, the Protestant councilor, sees the Catholic gestures as a ploy to lure Protestants into a united Ireland, in which their heritage would be submerged in a Catholic majority.
'They Need Protestants'
This, he said in an interview, is why Jim Guy is regarded by many Protestants as a Lundy for allowing Catholics to appoint him mayor.
"They need Protestants they can work with, to show that Protestants need not fear a united Ireland," Campbell said. "And in the person of Jim Guy they've found someone to work with them."
Campbell conceded that aspects of the siege story have been exaggerated in the retelling, but he insisted that the basic themes of resistance, betrayal and heroism are true and relevant.