Last Monday, I awoke suddenly to the sound of large explosions outside my window at 8am. In the heart of a post-conflict zone, I was naturally quite shocked. But before you get too nervous, these explosions were not the sound of a resurgence of sectarian violence, but rather the sound of celebration.
As the final clipper ship entered the dock at Derry-Londonderry, the blast alerted the community to begin the welcoming ceremony. The entire riverside was built up with a marketplace for local and international food and stages for music and carnival rides. And despite the area being fairly desolate at 8am on a Monday morning, through the day and the rest of the week thousands of people would stroll through the Clipper Maritime Festival.
Because the apartment I am living in is right along the river and has an amazing view to below, when I was not out enjoying the festivities for myself, I got to peer from above. People of the ages and backgrounds ambled through the river walk, enjoying the brief moment of warm sun Northern Ireland had to offer.
Children tugged at their parent’s sides for ice cream or treats offered at the cart right below the window, Dinky Donuts. Which incidentally is the culprit of sending smells of fried goodness through the apartment for nine days straight.
There was something incredible about watching people from all different communities converge on this area of the river. They filled the usually quiet riverside with a cacophony of joy.
The entire town filled with excitement in the week prior as we heard reports that the hometown clipper boat Derry-Londonderry-Doirè led nearly all the way across the Atlantic. Even though sports, especially football and rugby, often ignite dangerous divisions between Catholics and Protestants, the Clipper boat became a new symbol of unity.
We shuddered as reports came of the boat losing its lead in the final leg of the race. And cheered in the last few hours when we discovered the boat had regained it’s lead into the homeport. After the win was confirmed, it became the first time any ship had won into its homeport in this 13-leg race around the world.
There’s no better place than this city for that to happen. They needed a win. After four decades of violent conflict followed by another sixteen years of slow and unstable peace building, this community had lost too many times. But for a small moment, that didn’t matter.
The bigger celebration though was had through the week as tens of thousands experienced all the city had to offer and remarkably, seriously remarkably, there was no violence.
The preparation by security and police force was impeccable because the stakes were high. If this event were struck by a sectarian inspired attack, the result to the peace process and community as a whole would be devastating.
But as each day passed and the festival went on without a hitch, the city let out a communal sigh.
The final night featured fireworks on the river and rather than brave the crowds, we were treated to the perfect view from our third floor apartment view.
The fireworks were another reminder of a community that has been transformed. These explosions weren’t a sign of terror, but colourful celebration of a transformed community.
Though they still have a long way to achieve a truly shared society, the conflict has moved away from violence.
And as I heard Michael Doherty, Director of the Peace and Reconciliation Group, exclaim last week, “Let’s celebrate that!”
Indeed, they have.