“Aye, about 30 of us sat through a presentation about Temple. Most said they would participate. One other guy and myself showed up to the next meeting, and only I ended up actually working on the project. But see here, a thing I’ve learned is some steps you have to take on your own.”
Cookie is from the Top of the Hill neighborhood in Derry, the same neighborhood where the Temple stands overlooking the river Foyle and the city of Derry-Londonderry. He first heard about Temple the same way many people did, in a community meeting. Artichoke Trust engaged and worked with over 40 local community groups in an effort to ensure everyone knew that Temple was for everyone, not just one community, but for all of Derry and beyond. The Top of the Hill is part of the greater Waterside neighborhood, a Protestant area, which sits on the opposite side of the river Foyle from the City Side, a Catholic area, but Top of the Hill is traditionally Catholic. Confused yet?
These are the types of divides that go back a long long way in Northern Ireland, and were fuel for the fire of violence and division during the Troubles; a time when sectarianism was aligned with political and national allegiances. Soldiers in the street, bombings, and paramilitary groups were the norm. The peace accords in 1998 brought an official end to the Troubles, and it left Northern Ireland to try to pick up the pieces and get on after nearly 40 years of civil conflict.
With the Troubles still fresh in the minds of the older generations in Ireland and around the world, it has been easy for the press to focus on Temple as a project about, and in response to the Troubles. It’s true, reconciliation and community healing related to the conflict is still desperately needed. Over 3,500 people lost their lives to the Troubles, so everywhere you look in Temple echoes of the Troubles can be seen. Not only does the community carry scars of the Troubles, but so does the City of Derry-Londonderry. The name has a hyphen to avoid conflict. Sectarian murals dot the city and Peace Walls — 25 foot iron, brick, and steel walls built to separate Catholic and Protestant communities — still stand in the city center. Even Temple’s location brings up thoughts of the sectarian bonfires, because in the very spot the Temple stands was the normal location of a very large annual sectarian bonfire that’s usually followed by violent marches and rioting.
At 18, Cookie never knew the Troubles. He was just about 1 when the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ was signed. He and his friends have grown up in a town and a community desperate to move on, but still divided by religion, by violence, by walls, and even by a river. The Troubles may be over on paper, but his generation has grown up hearing the stories, seeing the bonfires, and having to deal with the economic and social damage left in the wake. Derry boasts a very high unemployment rate and one of the highest suicide rates in Ireland. Suicide since the end of the conflict has risen over 67% and the number of victims of suicide since the peace agreements will soon surpass those of the Troubles. It is so prevalent in Derry there is a special volunteer only rescue crew that specializes in suicides. The night of the burn, a local friend working on the project told me that someone he knew had committed suicide the night before. This is what the media did not focus on; everyone in Derry and around knows loss and hardship, and Temple was for them too.
It was no wonder to me when Cookie said he had considered joining the military. It wasn’t because he was looking for adventure, he was looking for a strong community. “I don’t have to think about doing that anymore though,” he said — he found that community in the Temple Crew. He didn’t know what Temple would bring, but he took that small step on his own to see what Temple could be for him. In that step he found a community, and as it turns out, a job after the project is over. He had been looking for a job for over two years. He also now has his sights on making his way to Black Rock City too, working on a large project of course.
Cookie’s comment “some steps you have to take on your own” stuck with me over the week. Spending time at Temple, I watched people arrive by the thousands. There were many concerns voiced about the project and its chosen location. “No one will come” were words of worry voiced many times to organizers. But they did, over 60,000 in a week, and each one took that step on their own. Perhaps they didn’t even realize they were taking a step.
Temple was a joyous meeting place for entire families. It was routinely packed so full you could not get inside. An entire elementary school came to visit Temple one day. Song and dance broke out frequently. On the last day Temple was open, over 28,000 people came to see it, to spend time inside it, to leave what they sometimes didn’t know they came to leave. As a volunteer Temple Guardian I handed out dozens of pens to people who, once there, realized that Temple was for them too and they had a contribution to make.
Temple burned in front of over 20,000 people from all over Ireland, the UK, and Europe. A member of the security team told me it was not only the largest gathering he had ever known of in Derry, but most amazingly it was totally peaceful. Temple has redefined what art born in the desert can mean for the world. Before I left Derry I heard calls for other Temples in Derry, in Belfast, and in other cities across the world, because Temple changed Derry. It has shown that art can unite communities after times of deep divide, that fire can be a source of healing instead of intimidation, and amazingly what can happen when so many take a small step in the same direction.