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…

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