An Irishman's Diary
The 1983 Fodor’s Ireland guidebook afforded a paltry 15 lines to the tourist contemplating a visit to Derry. It suggested just three things worth seeing: the Roaring Meg cannon, the neo-Gothic facade of Magee College, and the Guildhall. By comparison, Fodor’s Ireland 2013 stretches to 15 pages on Derry, reflecting how the city has been transformed in three decades.
As it embarks on UK city of culture year, Derry is creating a major industry around cultural tourism. Military parade grounds that were hidden for years are now spacious playgrounds filled with concerts or T’ai-chi practitioners. Armed soldiers who hunkered on street corners 30 years ago squinting through rifle sights, have been replaced by rucksacked visitors spreading out maps.
Derry was the last walled city built in Europe and is still the most complete in Ireland. Construction of the walls started in 1613 and 400 years later they stand cheek by jowl with landmark buildings freshly emerged from a multi-million pound beautification. St Columb’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, the oldest post-reformation cathedral in Ireland or Britain, has just completed a £4 million restoration. First Derry Presbyterian Church, surrounded in the 1980s by high security paraphernalia and bullet-proof perspex, reopened in 2011 after a facelift.
In 1983 the walls were inaccessible due to British army installations, screens and fences – today they are swarming with tour groups. The history, culture and significance of the walls will be dramatised in a range of events while an exhibition will link Derry with Berlin and Dubrovnik, two cities also defined by the iconography of walls. In the summer, marathon runners will thunder past the original gates, making their way around Hangman’s and Coward’s bastion, defensive elements on the walled circuit.
The city is part of a small but distinctive coterie of places throughout Europe which have preserved their ancient ramparts, absorbing them into the modern townscape; later in the year representatives from fortified towns and cities will visit Derry for the European Walled Towns symposium.
Apart from the quadricentennial of the walls, it is 40 years since the IRA blew up the Doric column monument to governor George Walker. Known as Walker’s Pillar, it was erected on the walls in 1828 but after a 100lb bomb in August 1973, just a 7ft stump was left. The original sculpted head – the only section remaining intact – rests in a display cabinet in the museum of the Apprentice Boys’ Memorial Hall. Not to be outshone by the energetic spirit of ecclesiastical renewal, this museum is also benefiting to the tune of £3.2 million for a grandiosely titled “Siege Heroes Museum and Shared Space Visitors Centre” planned for the summer of 2014.
A short stroll down St Columb’s Street, a cobbled lane made from ballast, takes you to the Victorian sandstone Guildhall. It too is undergoing a £10million conservation programme and will reopen in June 2013 with a new exhibition telling the story and legacy of the Plantation of Ulster.
Some locals pronounce it “Guilthall” and although it is not a hall of guilt, it is a place of symbolism. The ornate building was centre-stage during the British government’s 2010 apology for the killings on Bloody Sunday. The clock, modelled on Big Ben, and the largest in Ireland, was given its first makeover in 2011. With its four faces and green copper roof, it has watched over the city for 122 years and given rise to a local saying about someone “having more faces than the Guildhall clock”, a quip not to be interpreted as a compliment.
Geographically on the periphery of Europe, Derry’s cultural importance is summed up in a billboard news motto: “Small city becomes huge”, a piece of artwork by David Shrigley to be displayed throughout 2013. The mascot, the cuddly “Oaky Dokes”, a red squirrel created by local artist Domhnall Starkey, connects to the city’s origins Doire Cholmcille or “Colmcille’s oakwood”.
The broad walkway on the historically-saturated walls, a no-go area for many years, has been reclaimed by tourists, cyclists, joggers and snoggers. The deep-throated boom of the cannon roar no more, but the surrounding built heritage glistens as never before. During the year ahead the walls and steep streets will echo to the sound of the LSO, Columba Canticles and Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. With so much planned, it is no surprise that city of culture vultures have rechristened “LegenDerry” with a new tag “MerryDerry”.
* Paul Clements is a contributing editor to Fodor’s Ireland 2013.