I started writing this article sitting on a seat in the middle of the Peace Bridge, which connects Derry-Londonderry City Centre and Ebrington. The bridge will be celebrating its second birthday next week and has been hailed a ‘beacon for a shared city for future generations’. It is a people-friendly ‘shared space’, a no-engine zone, where people can walk, cycle and sit. It’s great.
The bench seat is physically nearer the city side but psychologically I am sitting in the middle. The newly-restored Guildhall sits on my left and the regenerated former army barracks, at Ebrington, can be seen on my right. I’m sitting in the bridge’s structural interpretation of the ‘arms that embrace’, Derry-Londonderry’s next chapter superseding the infamous mural where the hands of the warring Republicans and Nationalists didn’t quite touch.
The sun is shining and Derry is a ‘chocolate box’ city. A cathedral tower pops up in amongst the trees in the distance, as a train skirts round the edge of Ebrington. There is still scaffolding left on the bridge after last night’s celebrations. Friday 7th and Saturday 8th June were a big deal for Derry.
Derry-Londonderry is the UK City of Culture 2013. A spectacular schedule of events has begun and will be taking place throughout the year, alongside a massive regeneration project. But, this hot June weekend, it was party time.
The celebrations were vast; music, art, dance and theatre were played out in pockets of city. The main event was the epic retelling of the legend of Colmcille. Saint Columba (Colmcille) believed to have founded the city of Derry before travelling to the Scottish Island of Iona, to establish a monastery, and then spread Christianity to Scotland. Frank Cotrell-Boyce wrote the script, and Walk The Plank were in charge of the production for the magical storytelling, which unfolded in a two-day community extravaganza.
On Friday, thousands of people gathered on the city side of the River Foyle to welcome a barge, carrying a gift, made by children living on the Scottish Island of Iona. The arrival was straight out of a magical storybook. Colourful circus-style characters, decorated the quayside. An old bearded guy on a mechanical horse, a fairy on a merry-go-round pony and an eerie looking gent on stilts peered into the distance. A barge billowing red smoke slowly made its way into Derry. Everyone was watching. Speakers positioned alongside the quayside thumped repetitious and rather harrowing procession music. It was ringing in everyone’s ears.
Red Monks lifted the gift – a large box- from the barge and proceeded to parade it through the city, accompanied by the collection of bizarre looking performance artists. The large box was then taken to a position in front of the Guildhall, where it spent the night, under the watchful eye of some very mischievous Red Monks.
That evening I went to a traditional Irish pub and, you’ll never guess what, it was crazily Irish. It was so Irish that I felt as though I was in a Hollywood movie and suddenly I was an American protagonist who was being taken to Ireland to meet an Irish boyfriend’s family, in a pub. It felt that Irish. There was an Irish band, Irish dancing, Irish jokes, Irish beer, Irish laughter and then, you’ll never guess what, the two women who had rowed the gift from Iona, from Scotland to Ireland, walked in…It’s not exactly part of my Hollywood-style story but it felt bloody surreal.
The next day, I got to see a lot more of Derry and again the sun was out. The recently appointed young mayor – very fitting as Derry has a young population with 40 % of its inhabitants under 25 – confided in me that he may well have been responsible for the sunshine. Why not eh, he seemed nice enough. The mayor had only been in the job a week and his first engagement was a school visit. He told me that the kids had had the school weather meter pointed at cloudy. He quite rightly moved the arrow on to the sunny icon, and he claims it has been sunny ever since. He smiled at the thought that he may have brought everlasting sunshine to Derry-Londonderry. I smiled back, that could be what you call Irish luck.
The mayor showed a group of us around the newly restored Guildhall. Costing a cool £9.5 million, it looks spectacular, making the previously unwelcoming civic space a place for everyone to share. The stonework, roofing, stained glass windows and clock have been cleaned and returned to their original splendour. The public spaces have been made physically more accessible. A free public museum offers a very interactive exhibition on the history of the plantation of Ulster. There is also a cute café and a Council chamber with a magnificent ceiling. During the building work they even found a time-capsule, left by previous renovators, and that is also on display. On a slightly more Lonely Planet note, it’s the perfect place to use the loo.
The Guildhall visit was the beginning of a very special day for me in Derry. I watched the opening of the gift from Iona. The large box opened into a book which people were invited to contribute to and illustrate personal additions to Derry’s new chapter. I saw the Undertones play in Bogside, I visited a beautiful Catholic church named the ‘church with the long tower’ and walked all around the old walls of the city. It was a great day. However, the evening celebrations took it over the edge.
Saturday evening, everyone flocked again to the Quayside for the next chapter in the Legend of Colmcille. It was busy and people were excited. Now what would anyone do if they looked down at their press pass and then looked high and saw a cluster of cameras silhouetted on a rooftop – yep, find the lift. That evening I watched a tremendous display on the River Foyle. The Loch Ness Monster sailed down the river to do battle with the Peace Bridge, with the bridge (the people of Derry) prevailing. A fairytale duel, narrated by James Nesbitt, that included clever light and smoke displays. The dramatic river scene ended in a magnificent firework show. The clear night, the clever composition, the theatre of it, the choir singing: the atmosphere was legendary.
The Legend of Colmcille is set long ago and therefore adds distance to the more recent horrors, which Derry is generally remembered for. As I described in my previous piece, a visit to the exhibitions at the VOID gallery and Bogside adds balance to the overall picture of this city’s history, Derry-Londonderry
For me the Peace Bridge represents a new era of tolerance. The music events, such as Radio 1’s Big Weekender are not held in Ebrington for any other reason than it can now accommodate it. There is no political decision here. The Guildhall and the newly regenerated former army barracks are prepared for a diverse multitude of events.
Sitting on the bench on the Peace Bridge I watch as people greet each other as they pass and dogs are being walked. The bridge activity reflects a community spirit. Someone just walked past with four different breeds of dogs, calling ‘come on girls’. It’s seems a very happy place. I met two Westies called Hamish and Isla. Hamish was wearing a blue cap and Isla a pink one. Hamish was a rescue dog who had been badly beaten, he was saved by his new owner and now he was the happiest dog you could ever meet.
Tory Turk for FAD