Derry Town Historian Rick Holmes is back from Northern Ireland, and he has stories to tell.
Holmes and his wife, Carol, spent two weeks in July as guests of the City of Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland. He brought greetings from New Hampshire’s Derry and Londonderry to the city from which their founders came, and helped celebrate the Irish Derry’s designation as a City of Culture for 2013.
Holmes praised the graciousness of his hosts. “We were squired around, driven to places in Northern Ireland and Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. We didn’t pay for our meals. When I was supposed to speak for a half hour, I went on for an hour and they didn’t stop me. They even laughed at my jokes,” Holmes said.
Highlights of the trip
Holmes went to the Ulster Research Center and found himself quoted on a wall, “a tremendous ego boost,” he said. He’s connected to the center now and they will share information on their various Derrys, he said. He spoke on the radio and was interviewed by newspapers, he added.
Holmes was also able to see a field of flax growing, though it was not in bloom. Flax was one of the early crops in the American Londonderry. He was able to effect a trade, sending photos of people working the flax and receiving photos of blooming flax in return.
He was entertained in fine restaurants and also found himself up to his waist in overgrown grass as he searched for the grave of Stephen Holland. He did find the gravesite of William Boyd, in what was a working vacation for Holmes. “William Boyd was the first man to come (to Derry) from Ireland,” he said. “He petitioned Governor Shute to grant land to the Scotch-Irish, and then went back to England. He was the man who inspired James MacGregor.”
But Holland’s grave, and date of death, remained elusive. “He was one of Londonderry’s selectmen during the Revolutionary War and while Matthew Thornton was signing the Declaration of Independence,” Holmes said. “But he was also a major spy for the British.” The tale draws in General Gage and even George Washington, Holmes said.
After the war, Holland was obliged to flee back to England. Holmes, who found Holland’s will on line, said, “He wanted to be buried next to George Hamilton Ash.” He was able to locate the Ash home, a “huge manor house” occupied by one family for 400 consecutive years. He became friends with the current resident, a woman who gives house tours, and she agreed to help Holmes with his research.
Four centuries of culture
Holmes met the Lord Mayor of Derry in the Guild Hall, a “wonderfully ornate” building, he said. The Lord Mayor was in full regalia, including his “chain of office” with a heavy gold medallion. Carol Holmes was allowed to touch it.
In a ceremony Holmes presented the Lord Mayor with a silver coin struck in Derry, New Hampshire in 1969, at the time of the town’s 250th anniversary. He also presented proclamations from the Derry Town Council, the Londonderry Town Council and Governor Maggie Hassan, and brought greetings from State Representative Betsy McKinney, R-Londonderry, who was planning to accompany Holmes but could not go for health reasons.
After the ceremony with the Lord Mayor, the group went to a hotel where they were served dinner in a private chamber, Holmes said.
He invited his hosts to Derry, New Hampshire for the town’s 300th anniversary, in six years, and plans to give them every bit as royal a treatment, Holmes said.
A time for peace
Holmes is happy to report that the “other” Derry/Londonderry is finally at peace. “They are talking to each other,” he said of the centuries-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants. “They’re not always smiling, but they’re talking.” The “Catholic” Derry and the Protestant “Londonderry” are merging into one city, whose slogan he wears proudly on a T-shirt and cap: “LegenDerry.”
“We stayed in Bogside, the site of Bloody Sunday,” Holmes said. “We felt safe even at midnight.”
That isn’t true for Belfast, where he and Carol spent the last night before heading home. There were firebombings a kilometer away, and attacks on policemen with rocks and bats. Outside the hotel, they could smell tear gas and bomb smoke. He was especially troubled to see children used as human shields.
The current unrest manifests itself through teens and 20-somethings, Holmes observed. They’re frustrated about jobs and the economy, and they are “fighting for turf.” Though prejudice was ingrained in them for years, it seems to be the older people who are working hardest for peace, Holmes said, adding, “They are tired of it.”
Recently, in Belfast, young people of Protestant heritage went to a Catholic church, stole a statue of the Virgin Mary and placed it on a bonfire. “And it was the older people who rescued it,” Holmes said.
He’s hoping Belfast will take a clue from Derry, which has built a pedestrian bridge between its Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, across the River Foyle. “It’s called the Bridge of Peace,” Holmes said.
What’s next Holmes made friends with Susan McCall, a teacher at the Foyle College (high school) in Northern Ireland. McCall has created a stand-up display featuring a dozen scrolls, each one telling the history of a Londonderry throughout the world. “I’m going to try to get it here,” he said of McCall’s project.