Bridges have a lot of meaning in my hometown of Derry in Northern Ireland. So last Sunday I ran a tour of them.
The town is built on both sides of the banks of the River Foyle. Growing up, the Catholics traditionally lived on one side and the Protestants on the other. I grew up during The Troubles, a time when you were all too often labelled by your religion, where you lived, what school you went to, and what your surname was. Calling the town “Derry” or “Londonderry” immediately defined what side of the divide you were on.
When I was born, there was one bridge, the Craigavon Bridge, built back in 1933. It’s a double-decker which originally had trains running under it, but later became open to cars on both levels.
With much excitement in 1984, the Foyle Bridge was opened up. At a modest 866 metres, it is the longest bridge in Ireland. Now just last year, a third bridge has opened in Derry. Acknowledging Northern Ireland’s sectarian past, it is known as the Peace Bridge reaching across the River Foyle. It is a pedestrian only bridge, linking the city centre with the waterside.
I ran first over the Foyle Bridge and then headed towards the Craigavon. It’s a 10 kilometre circuit of the river’s banks. All along them are efforts to build peace within Derry’s community. I passed the “Hands Across the Divide” bronze monument, two men holding out their hands without touching symbolising the town’s spirit of reconciliation and hope for the future. It was unveiled in 1992, 20 years after Bloody Sunday.
Going home, I can see that Northern Ireland has come a long way. Many are the efforts to heal the wounds that were caused during those 30 years of internal strife. Life still isn’t perfect – there’s still unemployment, graffiti, dissident crime – but at least these bridges are trying to replace many of the sectarian barriers that seemed insurmountable less than thirty years ago.