It's a bright, brand new day . . .
The view from the Derry Walls. photographs: gavan donnelly
As we walk along Derry’s city walls, tour guide Martin McCrossan proudly points to St Columb’s College, lying not far outside them. The graduates of the school famously include Nobel Prizewinners Seamus Heaney and John Hume along with people like Brian Friel, Paul Brady and Phil Coulter.
This small city has produced more than its share of talent, as a concert launching Derry’s year as UK City of Culture recently showed: musicians ranged from Coulter to Nadine Coyle, Dana to The Undertones and Snow Patrol.
The most moving moment of the evening came when Snow Patrol’s lead singer Gary Lightbody paid tribute to John Hume for his work in making peace in the North, bringing the audience to its feet for a standing ovation. Derry is a small city bursting with pride and it has scores of events lined up to attract visitors there in 2013 to show what it’s made of.
For many of us southerners, Derry is a town we don’t know so well. Decades of the Troubles kept the city off our radar as a place to visit, even though we might think we’re familiar with it from songs, poems, plays, novels, news headlines: Creggan, the Bogside, Waterside, the Foyle – we know the names, but not the place.
There are many reasons to go to Derry, a place with so much historical resonance for all of Ireland. And there are hundreds of events lined up for the City of Culture year, from a performance by Britain’s Royal Ballet and a Primal Scream concert in March; a huge riverside pageant celebrating the city’s founding father, Colm Cille; the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil – the first time it’s been held in Northern Ireland – in August; the Turner Prize exhibition from October to December – along with dozens of plays, concerts, exhibitions and festivals of all sorts.
There’s a World GAA Congress, a celebration of the Orange Order’s contribution to the City of Culture, a Battle of the Atlantic commemoration and Bright Brand New Day, a series of monthly conversations addressing divisive issues throughout 2013. .
Derry addresses its troubled history head on, and none do it with more passion and humour than tour guide Martin McCrossan: his tours of the city cover its 1,500 years of development from 6th century monastic settlement to Bloody Sunday, from the Plantation and the building of Derry’s Walls to the recent re-opening of its First Derry Presbyterian Church just inside them, with help from Martin McGuinness.
He’s candid about the divisions in a city which the peace process has so recently healed: as we walk around the city’s walls – it is the only Irish city with completely intact city walls – he points out that as a Catholic, he wasn’t allowed to walk on them for 25 years of his life. Married to a Protestant, he explains how recent protests in Belfast never reached Derry, where both sides of the once-divided community are now working incredibly hard to give Derry a bright, brand new future.
Its history is fascinating, of course: there’s the Plantation, when Doire became Londonderry; the building of the famous walls – 400 years old in 2013 – to defend the city from Irish rebelling against the Plantation; the famous Siege, to stop it from being invaded by Catholic King James.