City of Culture: Show goes on despite discord in the Derry air
Derry delivered this year, so has it any lessons for Limerick?
Lumiere festival, one of the highlights of the UK City of Culture celebrations in Derry. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Fidget Feet at the launch of Limerick City of Culture 2014. Photograph: Sean Curtin
Shona McCarthy, chief executive of Derry’s Culture Company. Photograph: Trevor McBride
As Shaun Davey’s symphony, The Relief of Derry, reaches its climax in a converted British Army barracks in the eponymous city tonight, no doubt a few tears will be shed.
For not only is the popularly-dubbed “peace symphony” moving in itself, but it marks a suitably soaring finale to Derry’s UK City of Culture year, a period that has seen more than its fair share of crescendo and turbulent emotion.
Although it’s early days for measuring the economic impact and other metrics, the anecdotal consensus is that the cultural year has been a big success.
A few damp squibs notwithstanding, major events such as the Walled City Tattoo, Music City Day, The Return of Colmcille and August’s Fleadh Cheoil generated an immense feel-good factor. And a capital investment of £160 million since 2010 has ensured the city has never looked so good, with the new Peace Bridge among a range of major infrastructure works.
It also helps that many of the programme big hitters occurred in the final quarter of the year; the Turner Prize/exhibition, Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread and the beautiful Lumiere festival of light have succeeded – whether intentionally or not – in rounding off the programme on a resoundingly high note.
“Over 40,000 people have attended the Turner exhibition,” says Philip Gilliland, president of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. “That figure was reached at the beginning of December, and they’re still coming. The vast bulk have never been to Derry before. What they are saying is that Derry’s journey – from a downtrodden place to a beautiful one – is what makes it so interesting.”
Indeed, tourism has been one of the big success stories of 2013, with Derry’s hotels witnessing a 25 per cent surge in trade and a number of new tourism businesses springing up in the northwest. For a relatively small population – roughly equivalent to that of Limerick – the footfall has been impressive.
More than 450,000 people were out and about on the weekend of the Fleadh Cheoil. Nearly 200,000 were counted during Lumiere. Just over 45,000 came to see Frank Cottrell Boyce’s multimedia Colmcille extravaganza, 170 of them journalists.
Behind this official good news story, however, lies a less savoury one – that of the strident discord between managers charged with delivering City of Culture. Sackings, resignations and a very public row between the two most senior personnel, Shona McCarthy and her opposite number in Derry City Council, Sharon O’Connor, created an unintended fringe show that at times threatened to overshadow the regular programme.
Because of the complex layers of governance and funding, Culture Company, although independent, was required to work in partnership with Derry City Council, the Ilex Regeneration Company and the Strategic Investment Board (an offshoot of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister).
Relations between Culture Company and Derry City Council seemed strained from the off but things deteriorated around the time that Culture Company sacked its communications chief, Garbhan Downey. He was fired for leaking to the press details of a letter from Sharon O’Connor to Shona McCarthy, outlining plans for Derry City Council to take over the marketing of City of Culture, including the transferral of staff and budget from Culture Company. Downey’s dismissal is currently the subject of an industrial tribunal, which is expected to deliver a decision in eight to 12 weeks.