There's transformation in the Derry air
“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.