‘Derry City: Memory and Political Struggle in Northern Ireland’

  • Greenfield historian and author Margo Shea with her first book, “Derry City: Memory and Political Struggle in Northern Ireland.” Contributed photo/Margo SheA

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 9:18:04 AM

Margo Shea’s first trip to Northern Ireland in 1987 would, in many ways, set the stage for the long relationship she has developed with the region and its history. 

After her initial trip to Northern Ireland, Shea returned again in 1999, shortly after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998 — the agreement that helped bring to an end to the period of conflict in the region known as the Troubles. 

“I went back to Northern Ireland as an intern and did research with a team of researchers who were studying memory in the wake of the Troubles,” said the Greenfield resident, an assistant professor of history at Salem State University. “When I was working with them, I realized that for people who didn't have political power, the normal sort of strains of memory work just didn’t exist — memorials, monuments, formal holidays.”

And Derry — the predominantly Nationalist city in a region that was mainly Unionist — was a testament to that. When Shea returned to the city in 1999, she said, it had held no political power, despite being the second largest city in the region.

Derry was also predominantly Catholic, unlike the rest of the region, which was largely Protestant. 

“In Derry, I found that (public history) was, in so many ways, informal,” she said. “It took place through ritual and through storytelling and through music, things that went underneath the radar of the Protestant Unionist community.” 

She said that was where it all started for her — the long process of researching and writing her first book, “Derry City: Memory and Political Struggle in Northern Ireland.”

The 350-page book, which studies Derry from the early 1900s to just before the start of the Troubles, was released late last month. It tells the story of Derry from “behind the scenes of the public stage” using archival research, oral histories and public speeches.

It aims to illuminate the “Derry Catholics’ understanding of themselves and their Irish cultural and political identities,” according to the book’s description. 

Her research also aims to provide a broader understanding of the complexity of the issues that lead to the beginning of the Troubles in 1968. 

“If you look closely, anywhere in the world, the story is always more complicated,” she said. “I wanted to give the older generation their due. They had done all kinds of work to maintain their communities identity to ... fight against discrimination and injustice in their city.” 

Her book, she said, ends where most stories on Derry begin. 

Although she’s not from Northern Ireland, Shea has long since felt a connection to the community she writes about.

“It’s ... one of the things that is kind of paradoxical about societies in conflict … There's really no room for people to be over on the outskirts of a community,” she said. “People either let you in or they don’t. I experienced a sense of community ... a sense of belonging.” 

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. Twitter: @MaryEByrne

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