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.
It was one of Ireland’s main emigration points for North America in the 19th century and a major naval base for the Allies in the second Word War. Stand at the Diamond and you can look four ways down the city’s four main streets. At the bottom of one of them, Martin conjures up the image of 50 U-boats lined up on the River Foyle: this is where the German navy surrendered them to the Allies at the end of the war.
Ebrington Barracks, a British army complex where the navies were based, has been revamped and is open to the public: the launch concert was held in a 2,000-plus-seat pavilion that sits beside buildings redeveloped as offices and apartments. It lies just across the handsome pedestrian Peace Bridge over the Foyle, a short walk from the city centre.
Most visitors to Derry are likely to want to explore some of this history, and there are any number of museums to look at, including the Blue Coat School visitor centre attached to the First Derry Presbyterian Church, the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall nearby, St Columb’s Cathedral, the first cathedral to be built after the Reformation, in 1628, the Museum of Free Derry and the famous Guildhall, being refurbished and due to reopen in June.
Monuments to look at include the Bloody Sunday memorial and the Hands Across the Divide statue at Craigavon Bridge. There are excellent walking tours too, from Martin McCrossan’s City Tours of Historic Derry (which won a “best tour available on the island of Ireland” a few years back), to Free Derry Walking Tours of the Bogside: its catchline is “learn about the political conflict in Derry from those most affected by it”.
On Shipquay Street, not far from the Guildhall, is the Craft Village: it’s a reconstruction of Derry in times past, comprising a square and a streetscape with attractive shopfronts, where you’ll find craft shops like City of Derry Crystal, balconied apartments, an excellent restaurant, Cafe del Mondo, and the Boston Tea Party coffee shop. For modern chainstore shopping, the Foyleside Shopping Centre isn’t far away.
That’s the thing about Derry: it’s a small city, easy to get around, with a population of just over 100,000 – which makes its flowering of talent all the more remarkable. McCrossan, an enthusiastic cheerleader for his city and county, points out that the city also makes a great base for exploring surrounding countryside. You can go up the coast to Portstewart and Portrush, visit the Giant’s Causeway about an hour’s drive away, or for exploring Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula – Buncrana is about half-hour’s drive.
Walking back from the concert at Ebrington Barracks across the Peace Bridge, we lingered, in spite of the cold. Across the Foyle, there was Derry, its lights sparkling welcomingly on a frosty night. Yes, it’s a place to return to, for an overnight, a weekend, maybe longer – a town you’ll enjoy getting to know quite well.
10 events in Derry's City of Culture 2013 programme
March 19th:Primal Scream and David Holmes
April 5th-6th:Highland Dance Festival
May 19th-25th:Amelia Earhart Festival
June 7th-9th:The Return of Colmcille
July 19th-28th:Walled City Music Festival
August 12th-18th:Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2013
September 30th - October 5th:Roctober Metal Fest
October 23rd:Turner Prize exhibition opens (winner announced December 2nd)
November 1st-9th:Teenage kicks – A Punk Musical
December 20th:Shaun Davey – The Relief of Derry Symphony, closing concert.
For details of events, see cityofculture2013.com
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW:
By bus:the journey is usually about 3.5 hours on all services. Bus Éireann Expressway, €35 return, buseireann.ie; Translink Goldline 274, translink.co.uk, €30 return; John McGinley Coaches, johnmcginley.com, €30 return. By rail: Not really an option – the journey would take over five hours, involve changing trains in Belfast, and getting a bus from Coleraine. By car: The journey takes about 3.5 hours from Dublin city centre on the M1, via Ardee and Omagh
PLACES TO STAY
Tower Hotel, 17-19 Butcher Street, Derry, tel: 0044 (0) 28 7137 1000, towerhotelderry.com. Comfortable four-star inside city walls, rooms from £56 (€65) a night.
Bogside B&B, 27 Rossville Street, Derry, tel: 0044 (0)28 7136 9704, bogsidebedandbreakfast.com.
Guesthouse in heart of Bogside, a short walk from city walls, from about £60 per night for two people.
Derry City Travelodge, 22-24 Strand Road, Derry, tel: 0044 (0) 870 1911733, travelodge.ie/Derry-Hotel. Three-star no frills hotel also inside Derry’s walls from £40 (€46) per room per night
PLACES TO EAT
Custom House Restaurant, Queen’s Quay, Derry, customhouserestaurant.com, tel: 0044 (0) 28 7137 3366. Views of the River Foyle from large, plushly-decorated restaurant with food at reasonable prices.
Cafe del Mondo, 29 The Craft Village, Shipquay Street, cafedelmondo.org, tel: 0044 (0) 28 7136 6877. Tasty lunch and dinner menus in a charming restaurant.
Badger’s Bar Restaurant, 16-18 Orchard Street, Derry, tel: 0044 (0) 28 7136 0763. Polished-brass and stained-glass Victorian pub
THINGS TO DO AND SEE
City Tours, derrycitytours.com, tel: 0044 (0) 28 7127 1996. Take Martin McCrossan’s guided City Tours walk of Derry – he tells its long, often troubled story with candour, passion and sharp Northern humour.
St Columb’s Cathedral, London Street, stcolumbscatheral.org. When James I formed The Honourable The Irish Society to build Londonderry in 1613 , building a cathedral was a priority. It was the first one built after the Reformation, completed in 1633. Tower Museum, Union Hall Place, Derry, tel: 0044 (0))28 7137 2411,
derrycity.gov.uk/museums. Two permanent exhibitions, one tells the story of Derry, the other the story of the shipwreck of one of the largest ships in the Spanish Armada, La Trinidad Valencera, which sank off Donegal in 1588
FRANCES O'ROURKEtravelled to Derry as a guest of the Northern Irish Tourist Board