Housing and two Irish towns

Anyone of my generation who grew up in the British Isles will probably recognise the names Bogside and Crossmaglen.  The first chunk of our lives was suffused with references to ‘The Troubles’.  As an uncomprehending child, the TV news regularly featured images of women banging dustbin lids, youths throwing stones at tanks and violent deaths on remote country roads.  I was brought up as a ‘Republican sympathiser’ without really knowing what that meant, but I’ve had some privileged insights since, most recently a trip to Derry and South Armagh, both places where housing and conflict mingle.

Visiting the Bogside provides a vivid reminder of the appalling behaviour of the British state in Ireland.  For centuries Catholics were excluded from the walled city of Derry, a form of apartheid that underscored the creation of Northern Ireland.  In the classic pattern of the socially and spatially excluded, Derry Catholics were ghettoised in an area beyond the city walls where boggy conditions compounded discrimination in employment, housing and democratic rights.  The Bogside became the epicentre of the civil rights movement, but it wasn’t until I visited the area that I realised how strongly housing was linked to the fermenting discontent that led to the declaration of ‘Free Derry’, followed by its brutal destruction by the British Army and culminating in Bloody Sunday, which in turn shifted the landscape of Irish resistance.

This history is graphically commemorated around the Bogside in the form of numerous Rivera-like murals like this one:


In these post-good Friday Agreement days, it’s easy to forget how deep the social cleavages in the north of Ireland were – and to assume they’ve gone away.  My impression – albeit fleeting – from visiting Derry is that they haven’t.  (As I write this, news is coming in of a bombing in the city centre.)  The Bogside is essentially a big council estate and one that shows signs of the systematic disinvestment and neglect that has undermined the sector throughout the UK.  But if you look beyond the red, white and blue kerb stones, the adjoining Fountain estate – a Loyalist enclave – looks similar.

The Fountain

Depressingly, the two places are separated by a high ‘peace wall’.

The geography of separation is very different in South Armagh.  It’s a beautiful rural area of mountains and lakes, crisscrossed by the numerous trans-border country lanes the British Army found it impossible to navigate.  Even within my time of visiting the area (20 years) the constant thunder of army helicopters disturbed the peace.  They’ve gone now, but replaced with other noises, the sound of land and property speculation.  During the last housing boom, nearby Newry had one of the most explosive housing markets in the UK and as in the rest of the country, there are signs – literally –  around Crossmaglen that it’s happening again.

Land Grabbers in Cross

(Click on the photo if you can’t read it.)

This reflects some local special circumstances in an area where, not long ago, telegraph poles were far more likely to have ‘IRA’ signs fixed to them, but perhaps says something more general.  Such a public rejection of the free market confirms that not everyone regards land (and by implication, housing) as a commodity.

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