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.


  1. &

Garbhan Downey’s latest novel ‘The American Envoy’ (Guildhall Press) is now available as an ebook from Amazon.

  • QUOTE “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 let me assure you I am in total agreement.

  • John O’Connell

    Well said, Garbhan. I agree with most of what you say. However, there are parts of Derry that defy your insight and leave a lot to be desired. You only need read the Derry Journal. But those parts are in every city.

  • Roy

    Sounds like this guy just came back from a visit to one of those Head Shops in Derry.
    Coldest, most unfriendliest county in Ireland, for anyone not from Derry.

  • madraj55

    Couldn’t have put it better Garbhan. Derry was a city of Culure already when belfast was mudflats reclaimed in the latter VIII century.

  • Alias

    There’s no dog like my dog.

  • Count Eric Bisto von Granules

    Dont know enough to disagree with much of it, but it sounds like youre scraping the barrel when extolling the virutes of dance in the city by citing one producer of the dance equivalent to the Irish pub.
    Still I havent found the need to leave Dundrum in the last 34 years and still source most of my culture from the family bags of Hunky Dorys in Super Valu, so what do I know

  • Seosamh913

    Fair dos. There is part of me though that can’t prevent myself from mentioning that even when they’re heaping praise on themselves and their place of birth/residence Derry people still manage to make it sound like part whinge, part whine.

  • Briso

    “can’t prevent myself from mentioning ” – Belfast jealousy

    “manage to make it sound like part whinge, part whine” – Belfast ears

  • wild turkey

    ‘Coldest, most unfriendliest county in Ireland, for anyone not from Derry.’

    roy, check out Paul Theroux writing about Derry in Kingdom by the Sea. on the basis of working and living in derry city for a year in the late eighties i would agree with your statement. a real introverted xenophobic shithole of a place.perhaps it has immensely changed. doubt it somehow.
    but i’m just a ferner who has lived in and travelled around ireland for 30 years so what do i know?… as it is springtime, now let a thousand mopes bloom in response.

  • Áine

    Great article Garbhan, this wee street I live in is totally preoccupied with the Jazz weekend, Ursula, top of the street, is performing at three venues and I’m sure this is not the only street in the City that’s buzzing this weekend.

  • Seosamh913


    Wrong on all accounts, one’s sensibilities are firmly culchie my dear. Belfast ? Don’t get me started on Belfast….

  • Ulick

    It was going well until he described Wexford as “breathtaking” – then I knew he was spoofing.

  • Briso

    It was a dignosis Seosamh, not a geo-location. 😉

  • Briso



  • Neil

    My experience of Derry is the same as some of those mentioned above, a total shit hole. Nice people no doubt, but it’s a dump. Every city has famous sons, the larger the population the more numerous the famous sons. By that simple rationale Belfast is obviously going to have produced many more famous people. As for the architecture, Belfast’s got it all.

    Walking along the Strand Road from the supermarket to the town centre there’s nothing much to brag about other than the walls. And that’s pretty much all Derry has. A tourist visiting Derry is going to walk round those walls and then catch the train back to Belfast/Dublin. The alternative is to go drinking and watch the violence unfold or visit shops that are in every other town in this here pravince.

    Also should point out I’m not from Belfast, but I’ve lived here 20 years. It’s a bit crap too tbh, but nowhere near as shite as Derry for things to do.

    Also have to concur with the idea that even the thread above has the unmistakeable tinge of whinge to it even while extolling the virtues of the city. As for the 1st city jibe that’s just funny.

  • OscarTheGrouch

    I live in Derry, its just another regional city, no better no worse. Too big to be cute, too small to support anything more than the occasional foray outside the mainstream ‘culture’.

    Just like 1000’s of other dull wee towns all over Europe, but with more drink.

  • Elvis Paisley

    Garban, that’s as valiant an effort to polish a turd as I’ve encountered in a long time.
    That reminds me, I must add salt and vinegar to the shopping list.

  • kevin

    i think you’ll find its Berkely,as in kilkenny.if yer going to take a dip into every piece of worthwhile contribution your city makes you must give rivals their dues otherwise you sound more like a corkman,and believe me,a corkman in full tilt is not something you want to stay around for,unless its before you play them in a hurling match.waterford and breathtaking?in the same sentence we would tend to associate such sentiments with some serious violent crime.the suir flows through tipp into south kilkenny,tipp river = toiletbowl.waterford city is on the arse of kilkenny.waterford = shit in toiletbowl.