City of culture: Londonderry
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Mention a Northern Ireland trip to someone who hasn’t been here and you might be met with raised eyebrows and a possible “Is it safe?” But the compact region at the top right of the island – still officially part of the United Kingdom – has been resolutely transforming itself since the Good Friday Agreement heralded the end of the Troubles in 1998. And as visitors in 2013 are about to discover, there’s no turning back.
Belfast, the attention-hogging capital, was first out of the blocks with a raft of European funding and a swathe of sparkling new attractions and developments. But it’s Northern Ireland’s second city that’s ready to seize the initiative. A 117-kilometre drive from its big sister, historic Londonderry has been designated the UK’s first City of Culture, beating out heavyweight bids from Birmingham, Sheffield and almost 50 others.
The result? Derry – as most of its 107,000 locals call it – will host a gigantic menu of events throughout 2013 featuring a who’s who of artists and performers from Ireland, the UK and beyond.
Among the hundreds of acts – many appearing here for the first time – will be the Royal Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra. Homegrown superstars like actor Stephen Rea and Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney will also be in the spotlight. And in a major coup, the Turner Prize – the UK’s leading contemporary art competition – is being mounted outside England for the first time in its 29-year history.
But it’s not all high art. Alternative rockers Primal Scream and risqué comedian Jimmy Carr will also hit the stage (presumably not together), while Derry’s annual Halloween celebrations will extend to a five-day carnival of parades and haunted happenings. Even bigger will be the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann: the world’s largest Irish cultural gathering is heading north of the border for the first time and is expected to lure 300,000 shamrock-eyed visitors.
Aiming for the near-miraculous boost Liverpool enjoyed as 2008’s European Capital of Culture, Derry’s hugely ambitious festival would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Then, the city was still defined by Bloody Sunday, the infamous 1972 incident when a civil rights march spiralled out of control and 14 locals were killed by British soldiers. It inflamed the Troubles, a 30-year-long armed conflict that resulted in thousands of deaths across Ireland and the UK.
“It used to be like a war zone here,” says Derry resident John McNulty, who now leads historical walking tours around the city’s picturesque medieval walls. “In the 1970s, you stayed home in the evenings and kept your head down. And there were no visitors – the tourist scene was non-existent. But this is a young person’s city and there are now many more people who were born outside the conflict. The vast majority have moved on and visitors have been coming back ever since.”
Alongside its City of Culture designation, several symbolic projects have helped Derry turn the page on its painful past. The 312-metre-long Peace Bridge – a graceful s-shaped pedestrian crossing over the River Foyle linking protestant and catholic neighbourhoods – opened to great fanfare in June 2011. It leads walkers to an even more impressive development that launched just a few months later.
When the British Army closed its Northern Ireland facilities as part of the peace process, several fortress-like compounds were handed over to the city. Some were transformed into housing schemes, but one of the oldest – Ebrington Barracks – remained mothballed, its wire-topped walls staring blankly at the locals for almost a decade.
Until Valentine’s Day 2012, that is, when thousands streamed in for the opening day party of a giant new cultural complex, comprising concert areas and refurbished museum and gallery spaces. Home of the 2013 Turner Prize and many other City of Culture events, the renamed Ebrington Square – now without its looming exterior walls – is the centrepiece of a drive to transform Derry into a northern version of artsy Ireland success stories such as Cork and Galway.
The promised economic benefits can’t come too soon, according to Sinn Féin councillor Michael Cooper, as he strolls around Derry’s traditionally Catholic Bogside neighbourhood. “The biggest issue we now face is economic – there is very high unemployment here. The next stage of the peace process has to be development, which means the City of Culture must create a legacy of attractions, infrastructure and new hotels for visitors beyond 2013.”
But what about those arriving now? Aside from this year’s mammoth cultural fiesta, Derry – recently named by Lonely Planet as one of the world’s top 10 cities to visit – has beefed-up its attractions in recent years. The picturesque castellated walls, marking their 400th anniversary in 2013, are ideal for a guided stroll, while the excellent Tower Museum evokes the region’s tumultuous back-story from its 6th-century founding.
It’s not far from the handsome, immaculately preserved St. Columb’s Cathedral, completed in 1633. And then there’s the grand 19th-century Guildhall, reopening in all its stained glass glory in June 2013, following a meticulous renovation.
For many, though, the city’s recent past remains a key fascination. The political murals – especially in the Bogside – are a must-see, while formerly out-of-bounds institutions such as the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall are now open to the curious. Next door, First Derry Presbyterian Church, which also has a new museum, reopened after a decade in 2011, when senior clergy from both catholic and protestant communities attended its first service.
But the most moving experience for many visitors is the Museum of Free Derry, which grippingly contextualises Bloody Sunday with period artefacts and grainy film footage.
Manning the front desk, John Kelly – who was there on the fateful day and whose brother Michael died during the tragedy – helps visitors understand what happened. “We get many people from all over the world here,” he says, indicating a pin-studded map representing more than 120 countries. “In 2013, we look forward to seeing many more. The City of Culture is our chance to show we’re moving forward and that things here have changed for the better.”
Sidebar: City of Culture Top 10
Derry is hosting hundreds of events and performances throughout 2013, including the following highlights. Visit www.cityofculture2013.com for the full schedule.
March 19; Ebrington Arena
Open-air concert from the Scottish alt-rockers, celebrating their 30-year anniversary.
March 30-31; Millennium Forum
Leading dancers from the company perform highlights from its repertoire.
The Return of Colmcille
A three-day performance involving hundreds of locals telling the story of the city’s founding monk.
June 26-30; citywide
Giant electronic music festival, staged on dance floors around the city.
The Royal Shakespeare Company stages Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann
August 12-18; citywide
Traditional music and dancing dominate the world’s largest Irish cultural gathering.
On Home Ground
September 20-22; Laurel Villa Magherafelt
Seamus Heaney introduces a three-day poetry festival with performers from Ireland and beyond.
October 23-January 5, 2014; Ebrington Square
UK’s top art competition, exhibiting the often-controversial work of leading contemporary artists.
Relief of Derry Symphony
December 20; Ebrington Pavilion
Ulster Symphony’s closing concert, a stirring rendition of what’s often known as the Symphony of Peace.