Derry Essays 4: We are the greatest…

James Whorriskey

I have written many times about Derry’s importance as a European cultural capital [1], and every time I’ve met with relentless patronising from subjects of much-lesser cities whose only notable attribute is size.

There’s a small snigger, accompanied by an oh-so-clever remark about “chips on his shoulder” as they slope back to their generic lattes, in generic cafés in Blandland.

I’ve lived in, worked in, or visited every Irish city – and quite a few in Britain besides. And let me assure you, there isn’t one I’d swap for my home town.

And while I accept that the world doesn’t actually revolve around Derry, (as I may have suggested in each of the six novels I’ve based here [2]), it’d be a lot duller place without it.

For a start, it’s the most picturesque city on these islands, festooned with sweeping hills, its sparkling river, urban parks and woodland, and magnificent inner-city architecture, ranging from Gothic to Elizabethan to Georgian.

Waterford, I’ll concede, is also quite breathtaking, as are Galway, Wexford and Armagh, but none of them have got a complete set of 17th century walls – nor the first cathedral built after the reformation.

Then you have the matter of heritage. And where Belfast, for example, oozes new money (and the only accent on the planet that can make “I love you with all my heart” sound like an invitation to a knife-fight), Derry exudes timeless class.

First settled back in the Bronze Age, Derry became an early-Christian centre for pilgrims courtesy of Colmcille and Fiachra. The resting place of high kings, it was later the battleground for the throne of Europe. Civic leaders have included the philosopher George Berkeley (as in Berkeley, California), Bishop Frederick Hervey (who built the Mussenden Temple and half the county besides [3]) and the Nobel laureate John Hume.

Belfast’s greatest boast? The world’s biggest unfloatable boat. Seriously.

And as for the arts? Take a seat till we get started… I co-wrote a history of the city’s music [4] two years ago – and despite it being more than 300 pages long and including 400 photographs, there are still daily fistfights over who was omitted. We had to contend with international anthems from Danny Boy to Teenage Kicks to Things Can Only Get Better; vocalists from Eurovision winners to X-Factor winners; instrumentalists who played with Elvis, the Beatles and topped the bill at Carnegie Hall; songwriters from Frances Alexander to Phil Coulter and John O’Neill; and stadium-fillers from Girls Aloud to Celtic Thunder.

Literature is no easier; we are the city that produced dramatists from Farquhar to Friel, novelists from Deane to Cohn to Johnston, and versifiers from Heaney to the Poetry Chicks.

And that’s not the half of it. I could write from here to forever explaining how the northwest is a world leader in film (Oscar nominations, Bafta and IFTA awards), fine art (Turner nominations), dance (Riverdance producer), animation (Celtic Film awards) and architecture. But you’re already trying too hard to justify your city’s third-class Britain’s Got Talent ‘stars’, and your head hurts.

Dublin, I’ll accept, also has a decent arts pedigree, what with U2, Joyce and a part-share in Sligo’s finest son, Yeats. But Dublin, let’s be honest, is also a city of thieves, starting in the Dáil and working their way down to the banks and restaurants. So, if you really want to appreciate culture there, take out a mortgage – and come armed.

Finally just a brief word on politics. There was an expression used by insiders during the recent troubles: “Nothing moves here, unless it comes through Derry.” All serious business in the last forty years here was first negotiated between the IRA and the British government in the back room of Brendan Duddy’s house in Derry. Everything after that was t-crossing.

To sum up. Derry = Second City? Bull.

We’re the first city. Get used to it.

  • Garbhan Downey’s latest novel The American Envoy (2010) is available from bookshops now – or as an e-book from Guildhall Press or Amazon.


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