Lesley Riddoch: Derry/Londonderry can teach us much

The waterborne staging of Columba's mythical battle with the Loch Ness Monster was spectacular. Picture: Inpresspics
The waterborne staging of Columba's mythical battle with the Loch Ness Monster was spectacular. Picture: Inpresspics
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CAN the divided, unemployment hotspot of Derry teach Scottish cities anything about cultural regeneration?

Triumph was in the balmy air this weekend when the UK City of Culture 2013 built a spectacular event around the imagined return from Iona of Saint Columba aboard a currach rowed by 13 real and very hardy men.

Columba or Colmcille reputedly left Derry for Scotland in 562AD after a medieval battle over copyright in which 3,000 men died. A disgraced Colmcille took a dozen followers and sailed into exile on Iona where his monastery produced some of the most beautiful objects in the world at that time – the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Choosing this rebellious, iconoclastic figure as the prism for viewing divided Derry was an inspired move. Thirty thousand people lined the banks of the River Foyle on Saturday night to witness an ambitious, waterborne staging of Columba’s mythical battle with the Loch Ness Monster with spectacular lighting, fireworks and sound.

Earlier, Derry became “Colmville” for the day, showcasing developments missed by the long-departed saint including the divided history of five centuries, 150 years of shirt-making, an accidental landing by Amelia Earhart, the surrender of the German U-boat fleet at the end of World War Two, and the stranding of “Dopey Dick” (a killer whale caught in the fast-flowing waters 40 years ago.)

The participation of a thousand “cross-community” volunteers, the epic scale of the city’s transformation, the entirely peaceful atmosphere – even the absence of litter – and the arrival of visitors from all over the world left once-isolated Derry folk gobsmacked.

The Return of Colmcille was not just a theatrical or financial success. It represented a massive emotional landmark for a city whose many names demonstrate the reality of enduring division. It’s Londonderry for the Loyalist community, Derry for the majority Republican community, the city council and most of history, Derry/Londonderry for official purposes, “Stroke City” for lovers of irony, “The Walled City” for signs, and LegenDerry for City of Culture leaflets. Yet this weekend, all those faces and fault-lines were honestly acknowledged and then carefully set aside to produce a waterborne extravaganza with “Olympic Opening Ceremony” impact. Not just because Danny Boyle’s producer Frank Cottrell Boyce was in charge again. But because the boldness, wit and imagination used to tell the story of war-torn Derry simply surpassed all expectations.

And that was a surprise.

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of Culture Company 2013, has admitted that marketing the year-long celebration has been a bit of a disaster. “I don’t think the marketing has been perfect. It has been fraught with difficulties. Advertising campaigns were too slow to be developed. That is a criticism we should take on the chin.”

Taxi drivers can also reel off tales of lucrative contracts given to London companies who then sub-contracted to local firms for a fraction of the price. Organisers failed to appreciate that Irish people might still consider Derry too dangerous to visit and it was left to the Irish language centre, Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, to set up camp outside Celtic Connections in Glasgow and drum up trade for the Fleadh – coming to Northern Ireland in 2013 for the first time ever.

Belfast media may have failed to wax lyrical about Derry’s special year but it may be Belfast’s growing clout as a visitor destination that will lift 2013 to success – together with cross-border as part of Ireland’s Year of the Gathering 2013 and the native wit of Derry’s indigenous arts organisations.

Derry this weekend was awash with Americans – many encouraged to head north not south from Dublin by the cluster of world-class attractions like the Belfast Titanic Centre, the Giant’s Causeway, the new Ulster-American Folk Park near Omagh and now Derry – the only Irish city to have defensive walls preserved in their entirety. Of course those walls have been busy. For half a century marches commemorated the moment in 1689 when King James II was denied entry to the city leading to a siege, starvation and eventually retreat and defeat for the Catholic King at the Battle of the Boyne.

Scarred by ugly railings on both sides and 16 heavy security gates, the walls were for decades a fiercely contested no-go zone for most locals – never mind tourists. But in a herculean (and largely un-reported) effort supported by all sides, the ironwork is being dismantled and will be completely removed the end of 2013. The resulting airy views, heady elevation, cleaned stonework, glimpses of restored churches, civic buildings and outdoor cafes (aided by the Mediterranean weekend heat) now combine to make Derry’s Walls a unique, historic, safe and free visitor attraction.

On a walking tour our Catholic guide spotted the Protestant Director of the Apprentice Boys Organisation and called him over to give his “side of the story.” It was a “Chuckle Brothers” moment surpassed only by locals shaking hands as we passed to welcome us to their city. Later in the Tower Museum, one guide gave us an almost personal tour for two fascinating hours, evidently relieved at being able to talk freely in the knowledge both histories finally have equal weight and respect within.

Of course, old divisions still exist. Flags, slogans, street and pub names are testimony to a city with perhaps two separate traditions in perpetuity. But that knowledge made the weekend’s pageantry all the more symbolic and impressive. Standing outside the Guildhall, crowds howled with laughter at the irreverent portrayal of Colmcille as a flamboyant acrobat suspended upside-down by his cassock from an airborne incense burner. Even three short years ago such “disrespect” could have caused trouble. Then crowds gathered at the Guildhall to hear David Cameron apologise for Bloody Sunday in 1972 when troops killed 26 unarmed civil rights protesters. Ten years earlier the Ebrington barracks was a heavily fortified and terrifying place of detention – not the renovated arts venue it is today – and the iconic peace bridge could not have been imagined.

Unemployment is still high and Derry has not yet turned the corner. But an arts festival has helped two separate communities start to reclaim the no-go zones in their midst. We can only hope the plethora of arts, sports and civic events in Scotland 2014 do half as well.