Burning a 75-foot-tall pagan temple in a Republican Catholic enclave on the loyalist Protestant side of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, seemed to many like a bad idea.
LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland — The Rev. David Latimer thought it was a terrible idea. The streets of this Northern Irish city had burned in the Troubles. His Protestant church was firebombed by Catholics. Every summer, rival bonfires the size of small mountains still burn, and with them the flags and effigies of the other side.
Burning a 75-foot-tall pagan temple in a Republican Catholic enclave on the loyalist Protestant side of town to “bring people together” seemed, well, mad.
“How are you going to get my congregation to come to a Catholic area?” he asked the California artist who started erecting the temple this month. “How is fire going to have a productive outcome in a city where fire has always been about hating the other?”
“It worked in other parts of the world,” said the artist, David Best, whose temples usually burn in the Nevada desert at the Burning Man festival.
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Latimer, a former British army chaplain accustomed to checking for bombs under his car, was unimpressed. “This part of the world,” he said, “is not like other parts of the world.”
Nexus of violence
Londonderry, or Derry to Republicans, may seem an improbable place to take inspiration from the modern-day hippies who flock to a temple in the desert to leave messages and mementos for those they have lost, and then collectively seek catharsis by watching it all go up in flames. As the mayor, Brenda Stevenson, a Catholic, put it: “For us, bonfires are associated with history, violence and the Troubles.”
From the Siege of Derry in 1688, when the Catholic troops of James II tried to storm the Protestant-controlled walled city, to Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British soldiers killed 14 Catholics in a local civil-rights march, bonfires have been at the nexus of Northern Ireland’s violent tangle of religion and politics. More than 3,600 people were killed in the Troubles, and no clear accounting has taken place.
Every July, Protestants commemorating the victory of William of Orange over James II stack wooden pallets and rubber tires into towering structures and cloak them in gasoline-doused Irish tricolors. Every August, Catholics drape their own incendiary towers in the Union Jack.
“Of course, we knew it would be controversial,” said Helen Marriage, founder of Artichoke, the British art-events company that brought Best to Londonderry.
“We wanted to turn the logic of bonfires on its head,” she said. “We wanted to bring people into the same physical space and share something that would normally divide them.”
Best’s mostly American temple crew helped train 57 young people, from Protestant and Catholic communities, in 3D design and carpentry to assist with building it. In their late teens and early 20s, some came from a shelter, others had a history of drug abuse or petty crime and all were drifting. Londonderry has one of the youngest populations in Western Europe, and one of the highest jobless rates in Northern Ireland.
“These kids will never show up at 8 in the morning,” the social worker at the shelter had predicted. But they did. And for three weeks, this city, split down the middle by the River Foyle into a Protestant east bank and a Catholic west bank, watched nervously as an ornately carved wooden structure grew on a hill, until its spire towered far above those of the Protestant and Catholic cathedrals in the town below.
Senior clergy on both sides warned against idolatry and Satanism. Then unseasonal blizzards hit the town, and it seemed even the elements had conspired against the temple.
When the temple opened to the public last week, inviting people to “leave the past behind and look toward the future,” Marriage worried that Protestants would not dare come.
As it turned out, the first person inside the temple was Jeanette Warke, 71, the manager of a loyalist youth club, who had lost her home in the Troubles and whose son joined the British army when he was 18.
Kevin Strathern, a local architect who had helped build the temple, saw her wandering in, a “wee old lady” who soon burst into tears.
“Would you like a hug?” he asked.
“I most certainly would,” she said.
Strathern’s father, William, a well-known Gaelic football player, was shot dead on his own doorstep in 1977. Kevin Strathern, 8 at the time, was upstairs in bed with a toothache. “And here I was,” said Strathern, now 46, “a Catholic whose father was killed by Protestants, purely because he was a Catholic, hugging a Protestant.”
“We wouldn’t have hugged 40 years ago,” he said, adding: “We might not have hugged 10 years ago.”
Things are changing, he said. In 2011, a “peace bridge” was built across the river, giving Protestants and Catholics easy pedestrian access to one another’s neighborhoods for the first time. The Ebrington army barracks, where soldiers would have plotted their Bloody Sunday deployment, have been turned into a venue for music and culture. Since 2013, when Londonderry was Britain’s city of culture, members of both communities can be overheard referring to their city proudly as “Legenderry.”
Over the past two years, the metal cages protecting windows along the dividing line from projectiles have gradually come off. There has even been talk of dismantling the 15-foot-tall fence that separates the two communities.
By the end of last week more than 60,000 people in this city of 108,000 had come to the temple and left their messages. “For a united Derry,” pleaded one. “For the sake of our children,” read another. There were grainy photographs, a ponytail of human hair, a knitted baby hat and at least two vessels with ashes of loved ones. A postcard quoting the poet Seamus Heaney, raised nearby, wished for life “on the far side of revenge.”
Tony Doherty, who was asked by Best to help set the temple on fire, has spent most of his life hungering for revenge. His father was killed on Bloody Sunday, crawling for cover on all fours, unarmed. Doherty was 9. He later joined the IRA, and spent years in prison.
“I’m very conscious that I’m both a victim and a perpetrator,” Doherty said. “I hope we will have a process where people like me can say what they did and hope for forgiveness.”
Doherty had shunned the bonfires for years. But last Saturday, he lit the temple alongside Warke’s son Graham, the former British soldier, and many others. Catholics and Protestants, some 15,000 of them, came and jointly watched it burn.
Also in the crowd was Latimer, his initial doubts allayed, happily quoting from the Gospels: “A light set on a hill cannot be hidden.”