It took leaving and returning for me to become a Derry girl

As a child, I feared not monsters under my bed but men in balaclavas. While many of my memories of the city were unhappy, I needed to return

I once was an Irish dancer. Arms straight down by my side, bouncing on the balls of my feet, legs crossing quickly to the music. My sister and I used to go to lessons in a town hall down the road from our first house in Derry.

We’d moved there in 1982, when I was four and she was eight. Our house was modern, on one floor with dark slatted wood and bedroom carpet that was soft underfoot. We were two English girls, who spoke with a distinctly Surrey accent and in an attempt to integrate, my mother drove us to Irish dancing lessons just down the road in – God’s honest truth – Muff.

I liked the dancing. I liked the freedom of the feet combined with the static posture of the torso. I liked the fact there were clear rules – on no account should your arms move, for reasons left forever unexplained. I liked the costumes the more talented girls wore on competition day. There was an order to it and a sense of occasion. When we danced as a group, it felt safe.

The safety was an illusion.

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I grew up at a time when the Troubles were raging across Northern Ireland: military checkpoints on the way to school and bomb scares emptying out the shopping centre at weekends. Derry was a place of unspoken assessment. Everyone was trying to work out where you fitted in, what religion you were, what side you were on. It was a city built on buried trauma. The history of its pain, long and deep-rooted.

I wanted to get to know the Derry of today, to go back in order to move forwards. And yet the place that greeted me was still unfriendly, still wary. The weather was wet and cold

It always felt bleak walking around the city walls, as though the drizzle of lost souls hung heavy in the air. My childhood memories were grey and rain-filled. I feared not monsters under my bed but men in balaclavas.

It took me a while to understand that I didn’t fit in, despite the Irish dancing. My accent was always English and, over the centuries, Derry had turned increasingly republican, losing the colonialist “London” prefix and becoming known colloquially as “Stroke City” because of the implied slash. Over the summer months, the Apprentice Boys marched with embroidered signs of “No Surrender”.

I walked those walls again when I went back to Derry recently. I was embarking on a tour of Ireland and the UK to promote my latest book. I had insisted that Derry be the first date. I wanted to pay tribute to the place I had grown up in. I left in 2004 and hadn’t been back for years. And while many of my memories were unhappy, the Belfast Agreement of 1998 had brought peace and hope. I wanted to get to know the Derry of today, to go back in order to move forwards. And yet the place that greeted me was still unfriendly, still wary. The weather was wet and cold. The Bogside was almost exactly how I remembered it, except the “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” sign had been given its own traffic island. I felt the heaviness of history snaking through the paving stones and the pound shops.

There was a Starbucks in the Richmond Centre – that was new – but a lot of the other units were boarded up. It started to seem stupid to have come back – an act of self-aggrandisement in a city that didn’t have much disposable income to waste on evenings out where authors spoke about their publications. I realised I’d been hoping to feel like I belonged; as though the intervening years had been one long exercise in proving myself a worthy storyteller in a city shaped by its own difficult stories. I should have gone to Belfast instead, I told myself. Out of all the venues on the tour, Derry was the slowest selling. We were still only at half capacity.

They were the women who had silently kept hope alive. The ones who had mopped up the day after destruction, who had swept away the broken glass, who had grown their families around shrapnel holes

I’d been wrong, I thought as I returned to my hotel room to get changed, they had never wanted me back.

It was only when Vogue Williams, who was interviewing me, and I walked to the wings five minutes before curtains up that I felt it: warmth. Unassailable, unmistakable warmth. The loudest whoop was for when I said I’d grown up in Derry. The atmosphere was charged with understanding and a willingness to reach out across whatever might have superficially divided us. Afterwards, at the book signing, I lost count of how many people told me they had some connection to me or my family. I got hugs that conveyed a thousand words and a thousand unspoken nods of recognition. My friend Sinéad’s mother, Mar Hasson, held me tight: she had lived through it all – the bombs, the violence, the loss of loved ones – and in her survival and strength, she represented a certain kind of Derry woman. They were the women who had silently kept hope alive. The ones who had mopped up the day after destruction, who had swept away the broken glass, who had grown their families around shrapnel holes. The ones who insisted on life continuing until, one far-off day, when instead of merely continuing, it would flourish. None of this needed to be said. But I felt it. And more than once, I was told by these ferocious, fabulous women that I was “a true Derry girl”.

True healing comes not from the wound, but from the scar. The day I’d spent in Derry, walking around furious and upset, had been the wound reasserting itself. It had reminded me of all the bruising confusion and sadness I’d felt as a child who didn’t belong. But in the theatre that night, we were the scar. We had healed together. And although that scar would always be there, a reminder of what had passed, it bore its own kind of magnificence.

Elizabeth Day is an English author and broadcaster. A version of this essay was first published in her newsletter.

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