Skip to content
Jun 7 / Simon

Londonderry turns swords into ploughshares

With Bloody Sunday report imminent, barracks at the centre of the shootings takes key role in bid to become UK City of Culture
By Simon Tait

Independent on Sunday, 6/6/10

How Ebrington Barracks will look, with the new Peace Bridge


In an eerie trick of fate, on June 16 the City of Derry~Londonderry will make its final presentation to be the first UK City of Culture just as the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday is at last expected to be published.

The main plank of the Derry bid is Ebrington in the Waterside district, the subject of a £6m conversion into a multi-venue arts centre by Ulster’s urban regeneration company, Ilex.

As Ebrington Barracks it was the military headquarters that co-ordinated the paratroopers’ action when 13 young men, five of them teenagers, died 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 garrisoned in Ebrington were effectively under siege. Standing on the east bank of the River Foyle opposite the old walled city, a great dark green corrugated iron screen shielded the 26 acres of Ebrington from Derry’s gaze.

By summer 2011 Ebrington, ceded to the Office of the First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2004 when the army finally left, will be an arts centre. The former parade ground, today still with its helicopter landing markings, becomes an open air performance space bigger than Trafalgar Square. On its east side the main Clocktower GHQ building will be a major contemporary art gallery, extended with a natural-lit gallery at its rear, and negotiations with Tate for a long term collaboration are near completion. On the square’s north side the former military hospital will be a museum and archive centre; on the south side will be studios, cafes, bars and a sports centre.

On Ebrington’s western edge a new £13.4m footbridge, paid for entirely from the European Unions Shared Space Programme, is growing across the Foyle. It will open at the end of this year as the Peace Bridge, defying Ebrington’s long history.

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 – changing the name from Derry (the word comes from “doire”, the Gaelic word for oak grove) to Londonderry. The building was paid for by the guilds of London, which still own them.

On the Ebrington site then was a star fort from which James II unsuccessfully bombarded Derry in 1689. The present garrison, named after an English viscount, opened in 1841.

In another coincidence, 2013 also sees the anniversary of the building of the Derry walls and there will be a celebration, said the Sinn Fein mayor, Paul Fleming, one which would until recently have been impossible for him. The building of the walls would be nothing to celebrate for a Catholic who spent 16 years in Long Kesh.

There is still occasional internecine trouble, particularly on the Protestant Fountain estate inside the walls where the kerbstones are still painted red, white and blue to declare the community’s loyalty to the crown, but it is the last twitch of the murderous mood that once gripped the city.

Now the administration is a power-share, with the deputy mayor a Protestant. “We will celebrate in 2013 because we are all Derry now,” Fleming says, “and the bid for the year of culture is about who we have become, not who we were.”

In 1971, as a 12-year-old living in Waterside, Brendan McMenamin could wander in and out of Ebrington where he was taught how to use a Lee Enfield rifle by friendly soldiers, but within a few months that neighbourliness abruptly ended.

McMenamin is now the Derry’s arts officer. “This is a small city of a little more than 100,000 people, and it’s also Ireland’s youngest,” he says. “Thirty seven per cent of the population are under 35 and it has become diverse, with over 100 different communities. Most of Derry weren’t born on Bloody Sunday or have come to live here since. We want Saville to put all that behind us.”

Declan McGonagle exemplifies how far the community that does remember has travelled. The creator of Derry’s 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 his invitation. I couldn’t set foot in that place”. Last year it was McGonagle who was drafted in to write the feasibility study for Ebrington.

Derry is struggling not only to overcome its violent history but the loss of its traditional industries, it’s shipping and ship-building. There were 40 shirt factories, now there are two, and the city’s theatres, art galleries and arts centres are mostly in old buildings from Derry’s prosperous past. Culture, diversity and tourism are seen as a potential prosperous future.

One of the most poignant sites is in the Bogside where the Museum of Free Derry opened three years ago with objects from the families of those involved in the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. It is run by volunteers, including John Kelly whose brother Michael was, at 17, the youngest casualty on Bloody Sunday. “I see my brother’s death as a human rights issue, not sectarian,” Kelly says. “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.”

There is no longer a need for reprisal or revenge, he says, and likes to quote Bobby Sands, the Provisional IRA MP who died in Long Kesh on hunger strike in 1981: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”