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.)