There's transformation in the Derry air


Derry city is shaking off its hardscrabble image and using its time as the UK’s first City of Culture as a platform to kickstart an ambitious programme of regeneration

THERE IS SOMETHING in the Derry air these days and it is something like happiness. It started in 2010 when the Bloody Sunday Inquiry vindicated those murdered on that day, and took off shortly afterwards when Derry’s bid to become the UK’s first City of Culture in 2013 was successful. Every day now, people with their heads full of ideas are crossing the new Peace Bridge over the river Foyle, to and from the headquarters of Culture Company, which is running the show. Funds are flowing in to the city once dubbed “the capital of injustice”.

Derry people didn’t turn optimistic overnight. The reaction of the man who wrote one of the best songs of the 20th century is typical. “I was sceptical at first,” says John O’Neill of the Undertones. “But I’ve come around to seeing the benefits. We were taught Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel at school, and there were always amazing musicians in the city. We were rightly proud. But there has always been an air of neglect over Derry. We had gerrymandering. We had high unemployment. Everything seemed to go to the east, to Belfast. Derry was on the edge, left out. This will be a brilliant way to change that and encourage a more positive outlook.”

What has won over O’Neill and others is the commitment by Culture Company to make this an opportunity for the whole city.

“It isn’t going to be just the usual big, safe, anodyne events, like Cliff Richard,” says O’Neill (although Sir Cliff, it is rumoured, will be coming). O’Neill’s great song has already given its name to the annual Derry Teenage Kicks festival, and the Undertones are to organise a week-long series of events in St Columb’s Hall in the city during 2013.

Michael Bradley, also of the Undertones, says the idea grew on him, too. “When I heard about it first, I thought, yes, Derry is mad enough to go for this and mad enough to pull it off. I think it is going to be brilliant, not just for the people that are coming, but for what is going to come out of it.”

Bradley recalls the Feiseanna, when Derry children “with a minimum of talent” got to perform on stage, the excitement when the Field Day theatre company made Derry its base, the importance of Declan McGonagle’s Orchard Gallery, and the placing of Anthony Gormley’s statues on the city walls. “It was Derry as the centre of something. There was a sense of pride. There’s been a sudden wave of quality new bands in the past couple of years. There’s the Wonder Villains, a real sparky, great band. There’s Best Boy Grip – brilliant, very melodic. My son’s in a band. My daughter’s in a band. It’s a rite of passage now.”

Bradley is a producer and presenter at BBC Radio Foyle. “You get all the people who ring in to complain about the City of Culture. We had the row about it being the UK city, the row about the name, the Derry-Londonderry thing . . . but it got people talking and that’s good.”

The bid for the City of Culture title, against 54 other British cities, was led by a consortium of Derry City Council, the regeneration company Ilex and the Strategic Investment Board, and Culture Company was set up last year to deliver the programme. It is stuck with having to refer to the city as Derry-Londonderry, that stubborn old political identity problem, but it is putting a bright face on it with the newly minted “Legenderry”.

Derry still has its troubles. The city is full of shuttered retail units, visible signs of serious economic decline. Poverty has persisted in areas where civil-rights activism in the 1960s began, and dissident republicans are gaining a foothold among those for whom peace has brought no apparent dividend as yet. (The dissidents say Derry should not be celebrating British culture, and thereby undermining Irish culture – and have planted two pipe bombs at the city of culture’s offices.)

“We can’t solve all of Derry’s problems,” says Shona McCarthy, chief executive of Culture Company. “But we will be giving the city a great shot in the arm.”

McCarthy is something of a magician. She points at a half-derelict building and says the Turner prize will be hosted there next year and you believe her. She invites to this city of 115,000 people one of the world’s sharpest choreographers, Hofesh Shechter, before she has a penny in her coffers to pay him, and he agrees to come with his dancers, put on a performance, and spend a month working with local young people. She has host families in the loyalist Nelson Drive estate accommodating guests from the Republic attending the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil. She has Martin McGuinness cheerfully agreeing that Derry can be a UK city if that is what it takes.

“This is not about one visionary director,” she says. “What inspired me about the bid was its emphasis on social inclusion, on bringing the edge to the centre, on active participation rather than passive consumption. The Culture Company, a team of 20 of us, inherited huge excitement, high expectations and a blank canvas. We have consulted the people in more than a thousand meetings. This isn’t about handouts – we want to get people to think creatively. We are going to bring about a legacy of real change in this community as well as bringing in world-class inspirational events that will leave people with big memories.

“There was no budget with the award, just prestige,” says McCarthy. “People are asking, ‘Where the heck do you get the money for this in a time of global economic crisis?’”

Chairman Martin Bradley provides the figures, starting with the €15.7 million which the NI Executive has just provided, on top of a €12.5 million capital fund for cultural infrastructure, including a major refurbishment of the Guildhall. British Telecom has put €4.6 million into Derry’s broadband network to give it better connectivity than London or New York. The rail link between Derry and Belfast, under threat of closure just a few years ago, is about to undergo a €58.6 million upgrade. Derry’s City Council is investing €4.7 million.

The Big Lottery Fund has put in €1.25 million for events, and the British Arts Council has provided €935,373. Ilex has put €13.7 million into doing up Ebrington Square where there is to be a maritime museum, galleries and the Vital Venue, where some of the biggest events will be held. Further funds are anticipated.

Derry can’t help being symbolic. The city is built on a languid curve on the Foyle, and now a languidly curving footbridge – built with Peace Funds of €16.2 million – connects its Catholic city side with the Protestant Waterside. The Peace Bridge was designed to suggest a “structural handshake in the middle of the river”, and, whatever about that, people love it. The hub of events in the year of culture will be in Ebrington on the Waterside, now accessed by a series of plazas that rise up from the bridge towards what was, until a few years ago, a heavily fortified British army barracks.

“You’d never have come across here from the city – unless you were arrested,” jokes Michael Bradley, who now cycles across it every day. “The parade ground is the size of Trafalgar Square, and it is going to be one of the best outdoor performance spaces in the country,” McCarthy says. It has magnificent views over the river and out to the Donegal mountains. Sadly, Louise Walsh’s fine sculpture marking the contribution to Derry made by generations of women who worked in the shirt factories has not yet been installed, despite being commissioned by the city council in 2006.

Graeme Farrow directed the Belfast Festival at Queens for seven years and jumped at the chance to direct the Derry programme. “Opportunities like this to make a transformational change only come once,” he says. “Festivals make an impact, but this goes much deeper. It is very difficult and very exciting.” The programme, to be launched in September, is diverse, with gay-pride exhibitions, rock and pop concerts, an opening gala with famous performers from the city, and flute bands. There will the premiere of a new play by Frank McGuinness, a revival of the Field Day company, and new productions of Brian Friel plays. The celebrated Bosnian director Haris Pasovic will create a theatre work with the Belfast company Prime Cut, and this will also be performed in Sarajevo.

Philip King will bring Other Voices from Dingle to Derry. There will be a “city-wide spectacular, featuring the river”, based on the life of St Colmcille and devised by Frank Cottrell Boyce. There will be a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to mark its 200th anniversary, and of Britten’s War Requiem in November with musicians from all over Ireland. The London Symphony Orchestra and Camerata Ireland will perform with Paul Muldoon and Mark Anthony Turnage. And the Tate will bring over the Turner prize for contemporary art.

It is being billed as a “year-long party”, and its organisers are looking to Liverpool’s resurgence after its year as European city of culture. Marty Melarkey has already proved his abilities as the co-founder of Derry’s Nerve Centre for young musicians and film-makers, and for his work on devising a new A level in Moving Image Arts for Northern Irish schools. He is in charge of the Music Promise, which aims to expose every schoolchild in the city to the means to make music.

“Where the world will change is if people from the most marginalised communities get creative tools,” he says. “We have secured funds to purchase 17 Apple computer suites for primary schools, giving children the means of production, going beyond the academic. People are still ghettoised in this city and they think culture is for a particular class. It isn’t – art is totally democratic. Someone playing drums in the garage is creativity in action. Derry has an incredible musical and literary heritage. That is its heartbeat.”

Melarkey is from Shantallow, one of the city’s most disadvantaged areas, an area with high unemployment, social problems and a cohort of alienated young people. He is proud that the estate’s community activists engaged with Culture Company and will present their own Earhart Festival, so called because the field where Amelia Earhart landed her plane after making her solo transatlantic flight in 1932 is nearby. The festival will include a play about her.

Among the creative spirits who have kept culture alive in Derry throughout the bad years are photographic artist Willie Doherty, gallery curator Maolíosa Boyle and film-maker Margo Harkin. All support and will be involved with the year of culture. “I just hope the galleries are ready and there isn’t too much Derryism,” frets Doherty, referring to the prevalent thinking that Derry is the centre of the world.

“We have always set our standards high, Derry has always attracted great artists because its Derry, and this will be brilliant,” says Boyle. “I was elated when I saw the people chosen to run the Culture Company,” adds Harkin. “There is a sense of euphoria rising in the city, and, after all we have been through, a sense that we deserve it. I’m looking forward to all of it, including, I hope, some savage satire.”

Phil Coulter is the author of the powerful anthem The Town I Loved So Well, which was made famous by Luke Kelly and is a noted party piece of John Hume. The song is irresistibly moving to Derry “wans” all over the world, despite, or maybe because of, its big lie: “We saw it through without complaining.” Coulter will be part of Derry 2013, and says he is “spreading the gospel”. Friends have been urging him to write a new verse for his most famous song, he says. “But I think what is needed is there already in the final verse, with its prayer for ‘a bright brand new day’. Could this be it?”

Derek Mahon asks another question in his poem Derry Morning: “What of the change envisaged here, / The quantum leap from fear to fire?” It looks like the answer to Coulter’s question is yes, and to Mahon’s, it is on its way.

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