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Jun 7 / Simon

How culture is breaking history’s siege of Derry

After our profile of Peter Jenkinson, the cultural broker who helped draw up the bid of Derry~Londonderry to become the UK’s first City of Culture in 2013, the city invited Simon Tait to visit. Here is what he found

Ebrington's Clocktower as it looks today

[caption id="attachment_117" align="alignnone" width="150" caption="Mayor Paul Fleming sees off Derry\'s City of Culture bid with the slogan \'Just Say Yes\'"][/caption]

Mural by the Bogside Artists


In a stunning accident of fate the City of Derry~Londonderry will make its final presentation on June 16 hoping to become the first UK City of Culture just as the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday is at last expected to be published.

The city’s most significant atrocity of the Troubles happened on a January Sunday afternoon in 1972 when 13 men, five of them teenagers, were shot dead by paratroopers during a civil rights demonstration in the Catholic Bogside area outside the city walls.

For three decades after that day the 1,000 British troops housed in the Derry garrison of Ebrington were effectively under siege, unable to emerge unarmed and without escort. Standing on the east bank of the Foyle river opposite the old walled city, a great dark green corrugated iron screen shielded the 26 acres of Ebrington from Derry’s gaze.

But Ebrington Barracks, ceded to the Office of the First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2004 when the army finally left, is at the heart of the Derry~Londonderry bid as the subject of a £6m pound programme by Ilex, Ulster’s urban regeneration company, to turn it into an arts centre. The former parade ground becomes an open air performance space bigger than Trafalgar Square, surrounded by a contemporary art gallery in what was once the headquarters building, a museum in the former military hospital, studios, cafes, bars and sports centres. It will open within a year.

The relationship between Ebrington and Derry goes back much further. In the early 17th century James I invested the city with Protestant traders from England and Scotland, the “Plantation”, and in 1613 a wall was built around it for the newcomers’ safety – Protestants inside, Catholics out – renaming Derry, from the Erse for oakleaf, Londonderry. The building was paid for by the guilds of London, who officially still own them. Derry City Council, as it is officially called now, is hoping shortly to get the city itself retitled Derry.

On the site in 1689 stood a star fort from which James II unsuccessfully bombarded Derry, where in 1841 Ebrington Barracks was built, named after an English viscount.

The old military base is already an emblem, and it will become a different one later this year when the £13.4m Peace Bridge opens connecting pedestrians and cyclists with Ebrington and the city, paid for entirely from the European Union’s Shared Space programme.

Derry~Londonderry lies hard against the border of the Republic and was once the capital of Donegal, but any resentment at being associated with the United Kingdom is treated as irrelevant. Coincidentally, the year of the City of Culture sees the anniversary of the building of the Derry walls, so there will be a celebration here – “But don’t you go writing that, they won’t give us City of Culture if you do” warns the mayor, Paul Fleming. \

He represents Sinn Fein and spent 16 years in Long Kesh prison for terrorism offences; the wall would have been nothing to celebrate for a Catholic or a Republican. That has changed, and his deputy now is a Protestant. “We will celebrate because we are all Derry now” he says, “and the bid for the year of culture is about who we have become, not who we were.”

How far the community has travelled since January 1972 is exemplified by Professor Declan McGonagle, the creator of Derry’s once famous Orchard Gallery and the only curator to be nominated for the Turner Prize. He is now director of the National College of Art & Design in Dublin.

“One day in the early 80s a British major came into the Orchard. He was charming, really interested in art, and we had a good talk about all sorts of things” McGonagle says. “He asked me to join him for dinner in the officers’ mess, and I couldn’t accept. I couldn’t set foot in that place”. Things have moved on to the extent that it was McGonagle who was drafted in to write the feasibility study for Ebrington.

There is a narrative of regeneration as well as reconciliation, with the traditional shirt-making industry which supported more than 40 factories now effectively dead, the shipping gone – it was once the main conduit for the Irish diaspora to North America and a Second World War base for four national navies where the Nazi U-boat fleet was scuttled in 1945 – and the ship-building which once thrived here disappeared in the 1920s. Tourism is the promising light.

Yet one of the most poignant sites in Derry is in the Bogside, the Museum of Free Derry, which opened only three years ago with objects from the families of those involved in Bloody Sunday. It includes the films shot by local paper compositor and amateur cameraman Willie McKinney over four years from the start of the civil rights protests to his death on Bloody Sunday.

It is run by volunteers, including John Kelly, whose brother Michael was, at 17, the youngest victim that day. “I see my brother’s death as a human rights issue, not sectarian. Saville is about setting the truth free and we want a declaration of innocence for our people. I’m a Derryman, never left the place and I love it, but it’s a major city and we want it to be City of Culture not for the old history but for the new history. It would be a major step in the process of peace and reconciliation.”

The Bogside still has its famous murals on house-ends, but no longer the ones that bragged the community’s defiance. These are about the community’s history but also about peace, made by a co-operative, The Bogside Artists, which has its own gallery and is supported by the community.

Modern Derry is another place where 37% of the population is under 35, not even born on Bloody Sunday, and Derry is a deeply cultural city. It is the birthplace of the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, of the actor Gabriel Byrne, of the singer Dana and Phil Coulter, the song writer and producer, and the home of the playwright Brian Friel. Its modern cultural institutions are almost without exception physically linked to its history. When a derelict convent failed to win in the HLF Restoration TV series the community got together and raised the money to turn it into an educative amenity called The Playhouse, with workshops, studios and an auditorium; the Waterside Theatre, one of the few theatres to have a dance studio incorporated because there was seen to be a need, was opened in a former shirt factory near Ebrington in 2001 and extended in 2008; the unique Verbal Arts Centre beside in a Victorian school building beside the city wall is devoted to the knowledge, understanding and performance of, as its name says, the verbal arts; the Void Gallery, in a much larger former shirt factory, is a successor to the Orchard (which closed in 1991 and its name is now used by the city council’s visual art department) as a contemporary art venue but as well as exhibition galleries has workshops and studios or public use.

“There are more than two narratives here in Derry and Ebrington is a mechanism for us to bring them together for our story” says Declan McGonagle, “and the story is not about the past any more, it’s about the future.”