Derry Essays 5: Culture bid can help with Derry’s image problem


We have to admit, there’s something absurd about the idea of Derry as a city of culture. It would be OK if the other contenders were Beirut, Kabul, Baghdad and Tehran. But Derry’s competition for The City of Culture title comes from tranquil English cities where history stopped years ago.

The maiden city is better known as a city of strife. Its big quarrel has only been going for 300 years. Where else would a competition about culture start with a row about the words “The UK” in the title? But then we can’t even agree on what to call the place. After centuries of ‘debate’, according to the DUP candidate for Foyle in the Westminster election the main issue is the need to, “further strengthen the hand of unionism to oppose nationalists in changing the name of the city”.

For people in the rest of Ireland, Derry exists in a parallel universe. For unionists in Belfast, civilisation begins and ends at Glengormley. It can occasionally extend as far as Coleraine and to other areas east of the Bann but it has never reached Derry.

Civil servants and police officers transferred to the second city from Belfast used to think the “End of the crawler lane” sign at the top of the Glenshane Pass was there to cruelly remind them how far they had fallen out of favour with their bosses! Yes, Derry has a severe image problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I support Derry’s bid but then I’ve been in love with the city all my adult life. It’s that sort of place. Maybe it’s a bit like a moth’s attraction to a dangerous flame or an attraction to a woman with a colourful past. It may be irrational but Derry gets inside your soul.

What is it about the place? Sorry, it’s a cliché but it’s the people and the city’s location.  The ancient oak grove on the hills by the majestic Foyle may have a melancholic beauty, but it’s beauty none the less. Its unpretentious and engaging people are often highly talented. Maybe many visits to a celebrated Derry pub, the late Davy McDaid’s in Great James Street, when I was a student in the city in the carefree days before the troubles either coloured my judgement or addled my brain!

Like many cities, Derry has its own dialect. It can take a bit of getting used to. For instance, in a restaurant you may be asked,  “De ye want anythin’ way it?” instead of a more formal enquiry about your choice of “side” order. Sure nobody understands our most famous native speaker, Nadine Coyle of Girls Aloud! If “yous wannae know what she’s sayin” on TV, subtitles would come in handy.

But Derry has a lot going for it. It ‘feels’ different. Galway may be the exotic capital of the west but Derry with its ‘magical’ setting could be even better. It’s just that it has that image problem.

That’s where the City of Culture bid comes in. Becoming a city of culture helped other post-industrial towns with an image problem, like Glasgow and Liverpool, although they weren’t exactly war zones. Still, surely it can do something for Derry. We may have to turn a blind eye to “The UK” part of the title but then we’re well used to doing that with the “London” bit of our official name.

I have to saunter on now, hi…

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    “It would be OK if the other contenders were Beirut, Kabul, Baghdad and Tehran”

    I wouldnt be too sure as Liverpool – the Bagdad of the North of England – got it.

  • I really hope Derry gets it. I think it will help all of Ireland, especially the long suffering north. In hard times all help is welcome.

  • madraj55

    Thanx for your support. Derry has more culture than Athens. What have the Greeks given to the world but Archbishop Makarios? But seriously, Derry deserves the title. I t was a city when Belfast was mudflats

  • Does a city have to be big to be a city. I have said on other threads that Derry should get the award. Culture is not all about arty, farty art museums. At its heart its about people. Good luck.

  • Mick Fealty


    Care to expand on that theme?

  • Surely its obvious, culture would not exist, unless you are talking about something in a saucer, without the people who create it, they create it and over time become influenced by it. In some cases, notably ours, it all but takes over. One tribe divided by our culture.

  • Little Andy Burnham’s ‘City of Culture’ (which is much worse than the whole ‘UK’ thing) is still an embarrassing accolade. People in this town are always looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and the great and the good are always at the head of the queue. There’s also a pervading sense among the latter that they have a divine mission of sorts to save the city from the wreckers and nay-sayers. The reality is that our ‘image’ is as much a ‘contested space’ as the physical city, and I’m not talking about the RAAD-Real IRA versus the rest of us. The crass populist garbage of New Labour with its peculiar mix of PR stunts, Cool Britannia cringe-fest, and gentrification opportunities suffuses this project from top to bottom. It will, of course, provide plenty of material for anyone who wants a laugh at our expense, and profits for the esteemed members of the Chamber of Commerce, but little or nothing for us in Hazelbank and Ballymagroarty, Galliagh or Nelson Drive.

  • Western Approaches

    As a current denizen of the “exotic capital of the west” Galway, I would wholehartedly support Derry’s bid to gain some official cultural label. At the end of the day the UK City of Culture competition is just a label, but we all know how important labels can be.

    I have been following the debate on the ‘UK’ appelation, and I think this is Derry’s chance to highlight just how singular a town it is compared to any other in Britain or Ireland.

    Derry has the cultural capital necessary to be a gateway for the rich texture of Ulsterlife west of the Bann, just as Galway is these days considered the capital of Ireland’s western fringe and the all the cultural, social and linguistic baggage that goes with this reality of geography.

    Derry has some unique attributes beyond its geographical setting however. It has a past shaped by religion, plantation, beseigement, conflict and entrenched tribalism. Rather than always dwelling on the negatives associated with these elements, the positive cultural outcomes should be emphasised too. Nobody does this better than the average Derryman, whether sprinkling from the Fountain or oozing from the Bogside. The sense of humour found in your wee city with the name of one of the world’s metropolises attached is this town’s core attraction.

    And yet beyond being thought of as a parallel universe by Belfast unionists, it is thought of in not dissimiliar terms by many southerners who live in weekend visiting distance or within a generously defined economic hinterland. The main urban area of the northwest just doesn’t exist in the cultural consciousness of many people from Sligo to Longford to Clare.

    That’s a pity, and something I think the cultural authorities of Derry (galleries, museums, tourist boards etc) could work on.

    Derry sends its sons and daughters to Galway, Cork, Belfast Limerick and Dublin to live for long spells, but these other cities reciprocate few. The same goes for many English and Scottish cities. Everyone has met a man from Londonderry, or a wee Derry doll, but few meet them on their home turf, or her about the craic to be had “up the walls”. Why is that?

    Derry can show the people of Ireland – unionist or nationalist – what can be accomplished with peace between our traditions. In particular, I think Londonderry could become a window for Southern nationalists to more fully understand the socio-cultural fabric of Ulster loyalism and the Loyalist tradition. The education system in the 26 Counties (although improving in this regard) still doesn’t equip its pupils for understanding the ‘why’ angle of political unionism. I think a majority Catholic town could also teach a thing or two to visitors from the northeast of the Province who live in something close to culturally homogenous Protestant societies.

    To paraphrase your essay writer, I’m also in love with the Maiden City, but I’m willing to share her with others. This Capital of Culture bid should be supported (not hijacked) by the city and county’s nationalists and unionists for the benefit of a city which – without the raw flame of conflict to attract the world’s media – may become even more forgotten in the context of the UK, NI, IRE or any other bumper sticker you want to label it with.

  • It will also provide jobs, tourism will bring money, and since the tourists are unlikely to stay in one place, that money will spread across the border.

    We do not have to like the culture of the times to live with it. In fact we rarely have a choice. Cool Britannia was more fashion than culture. Its true the ‘great and the good?’ will be at the head of the queue but they do not own the culture of a place. The people, even their accents, are the owners and the creators of the culture.

  • Magazine

    I understand the cynicism but I really believe that what would set Derry (or pretty much any Irish/NI town outside of Dublin) apart as a city of culture is precisely that a huge proportion of people would be affected direclty by the activities. The whole development of cultural organisations in Derry has been from the community up (playhouse, nerve centre, gaelaras, waterside theatre) – not from the cultural elite that have dominated in English cities. Some of the bid ideas – free broadband for the most deprived 20% of the city, free music tuition that is activley encouraged and rooted in the community etc, really will impact on the Hazelbank’s and Nelson Drive’s. Its such a small place and the title does seem to be a big deal. There’s a load of positivity around the bid – 300 people in Galliagh last week to launch their support, that it really could touch everyone in a meaningful way, couldn’t it?

  • I did not intend to sound cynical. I was rushing, to get to bed, and now to get to college.
    Culture is only loosely about art. Its we who create it and cultivate it.

    Sure the ‘top tier’ organise, promote and in some cases grasp an opportunity, that is not important. Derry is unique in culture.

    When we visit a city we go to the theatre, the galleries, admire the architecture. Then on to the bars and restaurants and we see the art, music and dance of the area. And all the time everywhere we go we are talking to the people who created and care for it.

    All the usual tourist ‘culture’, and so much more. From the terrified siege mentality of the protestants. Its in the very walls! to the scarred and wounded anger of the catholics, proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’. All there in a few short miles stretching from the beautiful city, to magnificent countryside.

    People created it and they nurture it. The walls still stand but the gates are open.

  • Seosamh913

    Is there reliable data anywhere regarding the city’s recent past tourism attraction and retention performance, average overnight stays, spend per visit etc ? Also, any data on local vists, e.g. likelihood of shoppers/spenders from Coleraine or Limavady to shop in B’mena than Derry etc ?

  • If there are crumbs to be had from this bid for working class communities, it can still in no way mitigate the predictably lame forms of entertainment likely to be foisted on us never mind address the most pressing issue for the city as I see it which are the cuts Stormont and Westminster (or Westminster and Stormont) will be pushing through. I take issue as well with the notion that the city’s existing cultural organisations are bottom up. The Gaelaras and Waterside Theatre, for example, have both been driven in some respects by people with more than a little bit of power (and the occasional whiff of cordite) about them. The Nerve Centre is a prime example of something, like Bookworm, that went from being a genuine community resource and cooperative project to being the personal empire of certain people, completely focused on the generation of profit. The Playhouse, on the contrary, while it has developed some good community links in the past, is nonetheless the product of a cultural elite.
    The comparison with Galway is often made and, I think, backs up the argument that should the city develop along the same lines we’ll have the same ridiculously over-priced and under-paid service sector, a cultural life dominated by middle classers and a tourist industry that provides low status jobs, inadequate pay and wealth for a very small number of people.
    I understand why people want to be optimistic about the bid, but even the organisers on Radio Foyle this morning were saying how unprepared they were for the bid, and how they could not possibly deal with all the submissions they have had. Again, this is an also-ran prize created by the New Labour administration essentially to win back votes in Liverpool with the help of Phil Redmond, that will as usual promise much and deliver very little.

  • Odhran Moses

    Go to this url and you’ll find the local council’s tourism strategy 2009-12.
    You’ll get figures in there.

  • Magazine

    I’m a bit baffled by some of the specific comments that are addressed to individual organisations in Derry but the general point is that in England, where I grew up, the key cultural organisations in most cities have traditionally been established or maintained largely by local government. In Derry that has not been the case, people have gotten off their backsides and made things happen. You might not like to accept it but this kind of can-do culture is exceptional and underpins the whole cultural sphere in the City. I don’t know what wider experience you have but if you can find a theatre with deeper and more genuine links to its community than the Playhouse then I would be delighted, ditto for the Nerve Centre (which is a registered charity, not a business). And surely the fact that the Waterside theatre and Gaelaras may have had support or direction from people with loyalist or republican links only underlines the point about the bottom-up nature of cultural development in Derry doesn’t it?
    Agreed about the likely quality of some of the activities that would come with the city of culture title, but that’s what its all about isnt it, something for everyone?

  • Neil

    Of course the same could be said of, well, anything man made really. Like for instance an ashtray wouldn’t exist without the people who create it.

  • Oh well done! A person of rare insight, and one who knows his ashtrays. The city of culture award would be good for Derry and the surrounding area.

    On the larger question of culture: culture is of the people and like us it is constantly evolving. I cannot see how it is possible to separate culture from people.

  • Neil

    Don’t get too shirty Pips, just pointing out that this is a very redundant sentence, unless of course you’re trying to say nothing at all.

    culture would not exist, unless you are talking about something in a saucer, without the people who create it

    Nothing that is created would exist without the people who created it. Duh.

  • I am never ‘shirty’. I am sometimes a bit impatient, and you are not the only one capable of sarcasm. Sorry.

    ‘Nothing that is created would exist without the people who created it’?

    Creation is not the sole reserve of people, but if we create something, it reflects us, and when explanations are required it is we who give them. Spoken, written or a laugh in the bar, its all part of our respective cultures.

  • old school

    Think Strabane. Now multiply by ten.
    Thats Derry. No biggie.
    And no, we’re not more cultural than Athens.

  • To be honest, as I said, I’ve less of a gripe with the Playhouse although it is like so many things in this town the personal empire of one or two individuals. You obviously don’t patronise the Nerve Centre too often or have teenagers who will tell you it is a complete and utter rip-off of a place, and charitable status or not, make no mistake about it, they are a business. It is indeed laughable that either loyalists or republicans have ever represented a bottom up approach to anything – they were focused on paramilitary organisations ffs, and their involvement in cultural or community projects was for the greater good of their own organisations.

  • old school

    I don’t get how Paddy Bogside bought a city centre site for a token 1 pound off a London aristocrat, built a museum using low paid builders on the ACE scheme, yet we have to pay to get in. Thats my gripe.
    On a separate note, Souvarine is correct about the cronyism, and corruption rife in who runs and who gets employed in these “community schemes”.
    It’s obvious the State is throwing money at certain groups of individuals to “keep them on the peace gravy train,”.

  • Magazine

    I guess my point about any role that political activists may have had in setting up Gaelaras, Waterside theatre or any other cultural group is that they can hardly be defined as members of any cultural elite and therein lies the difference between here and England.
    Re the Nerve Centre, if you’ve ever put on an event you should know that Public Liability insurance in NI is crippling, as are its requirements for minimum numbers of male and female doorstaff, first aid provision, CCTV etc etc. I would hazard a guess that the place needs to take somewhere over £800 before it covers costs on a night, and that’s before paying any acts. When I came to NI 15 years ago there were precisely zero places in Derry for non-alcoholic events. The Nerve Centre has blazed a trail in this and if they have to charge young people to do this then blame funders, not the provider. I am sure that if they were driven by a profit motive they would not bother and just open the bar every night, sod the kids and take the money…