City of Culture: Show goes on despite discord in the Derry air

Derry delivered this year, so has it any lessons for Limerick?

Fri, Dec 20, 2013, 01:00

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.

Equally controversial were the appointments, relatively late in the day, of a number of consultants and advisers. Chief among these surprise appointments was that of Dermot McLaughlin, who was seconded from his role as CEO of Dublin’s Temple Bar Cultural Trust (TBCT) in October 2012 to play a leading role, at the same level as McCarthy.

Headhunted by Derry City Council and the Strategic Investment Board and given the title project director, he resigned after five months, citing personal reasons.

His resignation followed the publication of a scathing report by auditors into financial-management failings at TBCT. McLaughlin was suspended on full pay from TBCT last May and will formally leave his post at the end of this month. TBCT, meanwhile, is in the process of being wound up.

Does Sharon O’Connor agree that, with hindsight, McLaughlin’s appointment was unfortunate? “We didn’t know any of that at the time,” she says. “While Dermot was here, he did an excellent job.”

The problems didn’t stop there, though. Former RTÉ supremo Ana Leddy and two fellow Culture Company board members, Claire McColgan and Anna Cutler, resigned two months ago. Leddy publicly stated she was leaving in protest at the decision, by Derry City Council, to wind up Culture Company this coming March, three months ahead of schedule.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these individual situations, did the persistent problems affect the overall mood in Derry or were they, in Sharon O’Connor’s words, merely “occupational hazards”?

Commentator and Derry native Eamonn McCann believes they were “certainly damaging . . . There were people, principally in Derry City Council, who saw the year as an opportunity to grab power,” he says. “It had a very negative effect on those working on the ground.

“As for the consultants who were parachuted in, that was grossly insulting to the many volunteers and people who were working on minimum wage.”

Shona McCarthy believes the worst of the tensions could have been avoided if “the public sector had appreciated that arts practitioners can manage money . . . There seemed to be a panic response, as if mere arts administrators could not be trusted to manage a budget. The level of bureaucracy nearly killed my team. If we really believe that the creative industries are part of our future, the public sector needs to allow arts managers to get on with their jobs.”

The legacy issue
For Sharon O’Connor, it was more a case of differing perspectives. “Some people had a ‘them and us’ approach, but I thought we should be aiming for joined-up thinking. It was my job to make sure targets were met and we kept within budget.

“As it was, the council overspent by £1.5 million and although some of that has probably been recouped, I’m still expecting a deficit of around £0.5m when all the figures have been totted up.”

At this stage in the year, however, most ordinary Derry folk are looking forward rather than back and there is endless discussion of the L word – legacy.

A legacy fund of £900,000 has been set up, and will open for applications in January. A number of events have also been slated for 2014 to maintain the cultural momentum, including the Other Voices festival in February and the Foyle International Maritime Festival in June.

“City of Culture was never envisioned as a one-off project,” says O’Connor. “It’s part of a 10-year plan to double tourism revenue. City of Culture was a way of fast-tracking that vision.”

For Philip Gilliland of the chamber of commerce, there’s no question that the majority of the “40-50 new or substantially improved businesses” and a “re-animated city-centre” can be sustained. “The really striking thing is that City of Culture totally grasped the public imagination. The sense of pride and ownership, the ‘can-do’ attitude – these are entirely palpable.”

Shona McCarthy says that Derry has been changed too deeply for there to be radical slippage. “The most overwhelming aspect of this year was the extent of public participation. Derry used to look battered, now it looks beautiful.

“Even the street cleaners got on board. Everything is clean, freshly painted, with flowers blooming. It keeps reminding me of the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out from black and white into Technicolor.”


Limerick’s status as City of Culture 2014 has had an unfortunate start, thanks to the controversial manner in which its chief executive was appointed.

Patricia Ryan was given the 18-month post, but the job was neither advertised nor tendered for, so the lack of transparency around the selection process has understandably upset a lot of people. Ryan will earn €79,000 per annum for the post, plus a maximum bonus of €15,000 per annum, subject to “key performance indicators”. Her contract is for 18 months.

Accepting criticism of the appointment process last month, Limerick city and county manager Conn Murray said: “Had I been given a different approach to this, different time lines, obviously the approach would have been different.”

Meanwhile, although the programme for 2014 will presumably be expanded on during the year, here are some highlights from what we know is happening so far.

There will be an Irish premiere of the English National Theatre’s Faust, which involves a cast of 100-plus; a world premier of a new Macnas show, Melodica, and a premiere of a new Fishamble play, Underneath, by Pat Kinevane.

Between January and July, Dance Limerick will work with “urban artists across disciplines” on a hip-hop version of The Tain. There will be a pop-up museum for two months on Rutland Street, featuring Limerick’s Georgian heritage. Over July and August, there will be pop-up cultural events, branded Secret Limerick Happenings.

Some of the events in visual arts include site-specific sculpture along the riverside by French artist Denis Tricot. “Is Your Horse Outside?” – a phrase that may ring a bell called Rubber Bandits – is a city-wide community arts project that will create several large horse sculptures that will be displayed outdoors as a sculpture trail. Richard Mosse’s work from this year’s Venice Biennale will come to Limerick, featuring his three-year documentary project in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the autumn, the city will host what is described as the “first festival of sports literature” and a digital youth media festival. Rosita Boland

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