Case Study: Diamond War Memorial, Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland
In Derry/Londonderry, the Diamond War Memorial has traditionally been viewed by the Nationalist community as ‘belonging to the other side’. The Memorial was repeatedly vandalised and the gated space was kept locked. The Holywell Trust led a project which conducted research into the names listed on the Memorial, helping reveal that it features approximately equal numbers of nationalist and unionist servicepeople. A programme of cross-community engagement activities was also held, enabling the space to be seen as a shared monument by Derry/Londonderry residents.
- Site and type of structure: Diamond War Memorial, a public memorial in the city centre
- Location: Derry/Londonderry
- Country: Northern Ireland
- Legal protection: Not relevant to this case; no physical change was being proposed to the asset or its setting
The Diamond War Memorial, designed by Sydney and Vernon March, is dedicated to citizens of Derry/Londonderry who lost their lives during the First World War. The Memorial features two bronze statues of a sailor and a soldier. The central monument, forty-feet high, is then topped with a winged victory statue, with the names of fallen servicepeople engraved along its four sides.
Since its unveiling in 1927, the Memorial had been a site of sectarian controversy in the City. Nationalist residents viewed Ireland’s participation in the First World War with a sense of ambivalence, as some felt that the country was unwillingly steered into the conflict by British political rule. There was also a common perception among local residents that the names listed on the monument are predominantly of unionist servicepeople.
Context for reinterpretation
The Memorial had been repeatedly vandalised by young people. Commemorative wreaths laid at the site were often damaged and the gated space became locked off to prevent further damage, making the Memorial inaccessible to the general public.
In 2007, the Derry City and Strabane Council, along with the British Legion and the curators of the memorial, informally approached a local community relations organisation – the Holywell Trust – to fund a community-led response to the vandalism, as previous efforts to address the issue had been unsuccessful. That year, the Holywell Trust began a project to re-open the Memorial within a shared public space, reflecting the different religious, cultural and political traditions within the city. This was inspired by research from a local historian, whose investigation of the names listed on the Memorial revealed that the dead of both communities were represented in almost equal numbers. The project received a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Assessment of options
Physical changes to the Memorial were not considered – besides work to clean the monument, and a publicised decision was taken by the Holywell Trust to unlock the gates of the space.
Rather than install temporary or permanent reinterpretation materials at the site, the Holywell Trust felt that more high-profile and direct engagement activities were needed to reach residents of the city across sectarian divides and bring new understanding of the people commemorated on the monument.
What was done and who was involved?
The Trust negotiated with Derry City and Strabane Council to take over responsibility of the monument. This was to allow them to unlock the Memorial gates and open the space to the public. However, it was also vital that the site was managed by a non-partisan organisation, to distance it from sectarian affiliations.
A local historian was hired to conduct research into the lives and deaths of those named on the Memorial. A community co-ordinator was then also recruited for the project to publicise these stories around the city.
The project developed an online ‘commemorative diary’ that detailed personal stories from the lives of those represented on the Memorial. The diary was updated regularly with related events and deaths that happened ‘on this day’, ninety years beforehand during the War.
Local print and broadcast media were also engaged frequently to publicise the latest research conducted for the project, and postal pamphlets were sent out to residents of the city to increase awareness of the unionist and nationalist communities’ shared links with the monument.
Historical research helped to connect the servicepeople named on the monument with descendants who still lived in the city, further helping to develop a cross-community interest in remembering their sacrifice.
The project lastly undertook outreach in local schools to engage children with the stories uncovered by the research and prompt discussion on the importance of commemorating servicepeople from all sides of the community.
The public has not been asked directly for feedback since the Diamond War Memorial Project took place. Nevertheless, there has been a notable reduction in vandalism of the Memorial since the programme of reinterpretation activity took place – suggesting the cross-community engagement helped to defuse the contentious associations of the site. Footnote 1
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the project has had a lasting impact, enabling the Memorial to be viewed as a shared space for remembrance, open to all members of the community. The gates remain unlocked and commemoration events are held at the site each year with both nationalist and unionist residents. The Holywell Trust has also asked that no political parties hold remembrance activities at the Memorial, helping to prevent it from becoming associated in future with one ‘side’ of the community.
Lessons and insights
The Diamond War Memorial project demonstrates an approach to reinterpretation which required minimal physical changes to the site itself. By focusing on a multi-pronged strategy of community engagement, backed by extensive and effectively communicated research on the backgrounds of the servicepeople listed on the Memorial, the project was able to successfully defuse local controversies around the site.
This is particularly impressive given the high degree of sectarian polarisation that has existed in Derry/Londonderry since the Troubles, for which the Memorial had increasingly become a lightning rod. This approach – of focusing efforts on online, media and school outreach materials rather than permanent changes to an asset – could be helpfully emulated elsewhere, especially on sites where heritage is contested and there are complex planning restrictions.
The case study also highlights the useful good practice of agreeing a published and impartial set of ‘principles for remembering’, when addressing heritage that is contested. The research conducted for the project was guided by a systemised set of rules, shared via its website, which set out the purpose of the project and the framework of the research. This helped address potential concerns that one ‘side’ of the story was being neglected or marginalised.
The project has since inspired the National Lottery Heritage Fund in Northern Ireland to adopt a series of ‘principles for remembering’, which it has used throughout its Shared History Fund during the Decade of Centenaries. Its principles for remembering were as follows:
- Start from the historical facts
- Recognise the implications and consequences of what happened
- Understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist
- Show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period
- All to be seen in the context of an inclusive and accepting society
Thirdly, stakeholders involved in the project outlined the importance of championing an ‘agonistic’ – rather than ‘antagonistic’ – approach to memorialisation. Rather than seek to create a consensus view around one narrative of an event, an ‘agonistic’ strategy instead looks to recognise a plurality of different memories of the past, using memorialisation as a chance for open-ended dialogue between different interpretations of history. The project helped link the Memorial with residents of different religions and political ideologies, enabling them to feel a sense of personal connection with the space. Moreover, by unlocking the gates to all members of the community, it also allowed different groups within the community to commemorate those listed on the Memorial differently based on their own feelings and perceptions of Ireland’s involvement in the First World War.
A similar approach may be relevant for other sites of remembrance where contestation arises because some sections of a community feel marginalised by predominant narratives. For example, in light of recent debates over the memorialisation of Commonwealth soldiers from the First World War and Second World War, others responsible for public war memorials may draw useful learning from the Diamond Memorial project.
- Community-based learning programmes and digital reinterpretation initiatives may provide a good way to respond to heritage that is contested where planning restrictions prevent physical changes to a site
- Connecting heritage that is contested with human stories, and descendants linked with those stories, can help defuse heated debates and increase levels of empathy for different interpretations of the history of the site
- Where contestation arises from a group feeling marginalised by historical narratives, community engagement should proactively search out and recognise their voices in reinterpretation debates
- Since this case study was drafted, the theft of wreaths placed at this memorial in August 2022 highlights that concerns of vandalism have not been entirely eradicated. ↩