The Derry Air is Rich With Culture

Maurice Harmon's Hands Across the Divide statue in Derry. Photo: Tourism Ireland
Maurice Harmon's Hands Across the Divide statue in Derry. Photo: Tourism Ireland

By Mary Pat Kelly,February / March 2013

A bright, brand-new day dawns for Derry/Londonderry, the UK City of Culture 2013.

John Hume, Derry’s first Catholic MP, sang the Derry anthem in Oslo when he and David Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, and it has since become a staple of the White House St. Patrick’s Day gathering each year in Washington, D.C.

At a recent concert in Chicago when Phil Coulter played the opening notes the audience applauded and then sang along.

And yet when Luke Kelly of the Dubliners introduced “The Town I Loved So Well” in the early 70’s, it seemed more a lament than a celebration. Because the “happy days” evoked in the first three verses existed only in memory. Present reality was grim.

While in the past “our school played ball by the old gas yard wall,” now “the army’s installed by the old gas yard wall, and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher.” Before, there had always been “music there in that Derry air,” now “the music’s gone” in a town that’s “been brought to its knees.”

That’s the Derry I knew in the early ’80’s while making a PBS documentary, To Live For Ireland, about John Hume and the nonviolent political party he led.

“Armored cars and bombed-out bars.” No question. The city center had only one restaurant, The Leprechaun, and it closed at 6:00 p.m. No movie theaters, limited shopping. The Bank of Ireland building was only a façade held in place by pieces of lumber. An evocative mural memorialized the thirteen peaceful marchers killed by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972.

There were checkpoints throughout the city where British soldiers and policemen asked brusque questions. They searched the trunk, my purse, even our film cans. Intimidating. And I was supposedly above the fray, only passing through. One member of our production team saw an army patrol walking through a housing estate with weapons drawn and thought someone else must be making a movie too and that these soldiers were actors.

On my first election night during the European Parliament contest of 1984 we turned down the road only to be confronted by two men in ski masks pointing their rifles at us. They wanted the car. Our driver, a Derry man, immediately reversed and backed away at 60 miles an hour.

The city seemed divided in every way. The Catholic nationalist population lived primarily on the west bank of the River Foyle, the city side, only a few miles from the Donegal border. The Protestant Unionists resided on the Waterside where roads went east toward Belfast. Walls surrounded the historic city and it sometimes felt as if the Siege of 1689 had never ended. Both communities had internal political divisions and paramilitary forces that claimed to act in their name.

Still I met kind, hospitable people on both sides and found that the vast majority of people wanted peace – an end to sectarian killings, to young men lost through internment, to fear. The desire for an ordinary life lived in safety, free from constant tension, was a shared but seemingly impossible dream.

Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, who attended St. Columb’s College in Derry along with Phil Coulter, wrote, “History says don’t hope on this side of the grave.”

And yet in even the darkest days the people showed amazing resilience. As the song says, “Their spirit was bruised, never broken.”

There were talent shows at the city’s Guildhall. Every party ended in a singalong. Children learned Irish dancing. Musicians played. Amateur theatrics continued. But all these activities were tinged with regret, a sense that so much was “lost and gone forever.”

The song concludes, “I can only pray for a bright, brand-new day in the town I loved so well.” And on January 1, 2013 when Derry began its year as the first ever UK City of Culture, that prayer was answered. The new day has dawned for all the world to see.

In fact the sun has been inching its way up over the horizon for the last 20 years. Meetings between John Hume and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams led the Provisional IRA to declare a cease-fire in 1994. The story of the peace process is rich in heroes on both sides of the Atlantic, with the U.S. government having a more direct influence than ever before. President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. When the Nobel committee chose John Hume and David Trimble of the Official Unionist Party to share the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize they were affirming what had once been inconceivable – the 80-year-old conflict was heading toward resolution.

Derry had survived and now it thrives. Overnight it managed to become a modern city without losing its historic character. So when the British Government announced that one UK city would be selected as the first ever City of Culture, the people of Derry said, “Why not us?” The film produced to support their bid began with Seamus Heaney reciting lines that summed up the moment: “Once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme / So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge.” Differences were not ignored, but the approach was both/and, not either/or. A woman asserts “I am Derry” while an older man says “I am Londonderry.” But it’s the third speaker who expresses what all the people of this city feel about themselves: “I am Legen-derry” says the smiling confident Derry man.

The judges got it. Derry won! The New York Times headlined its November 18, 2012 full-page story on the events planned for the City of Culture year “Where Irish Troubles Began The Arts Heal.”

Who are the people responsible for this transformation? Pauline Ross (née McLaughlin) is one. Pauline left school at 16 to go to work. She had been taught by Pat Hume, John’s wife, and remembers the future Nobel Peace Prize winner, a teacher himself, coming to pick up Pat “in a green Triumph convertible loaded with their kids.” Pauline got a job in the headquarters of the Derry Credit Union, a movement founded by John Hume. “In some sections of our community,” Pauline remembers, “as many as 60 percent were unemployed. They couldn’t get a bank account let alone borrow money. The Credit Union changed that. I saw our work as the democratization of money.”

In 1980 Pauline attended a performance of Brian Friel’s Translations in Derry’s Guildhall that starred Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally. Friel, another St. Columb’s graduate, and the award-winning actor Stephen Rea had just founded The Field Day Theatre Company to bring relevant theater to the people of Northern Ireland, and had decided to premiere Friel’s Translations in Derry. Set in 1836, it tells the love story between a British officer surveying Donegal in order to strip away traditional Irish place names and a young Irish-speaking woman whose schoolmaster father was determined to preserve a heritage that stretched back two millennia. Pauline was inspired. This was art democratized!

“Now I have always loved drama and music, but when I was growing up only the children of well-to-do families were able to attend live professional performances and be exposed to the arts. Why shouldn’t Derry have a permanent performing arts center that the community felt belonged to them?” Though she was married, had two small children and a full-time job, Pauline entered the University of Ulster, earned her BA, and then began work on her master’s. Her thesis? “How to Start an Arts and Performance Center in Derry.”

The British Arts Foundation gave her a £300 planning grant. By this time Pauline had become director of the Orchard Art Gallery in Derry, so she had experience in arts administration. She had written a business plan of which she was very proud. Pauline was also making extra money as a seamstress specializing in First Communion dresses. But one evening she realized she had a dress order she would not be able to complete. Too much schoolwork. She went to her cousin for help. Very Derry, that! Her cousin’s husband, Paul, was in real estate. In chatting with Pauline he learned about her dream. “He asked me if I had any money. I said yes, I have £300 and a great business plan.” “Leave it with me,” he said.

“That was Friday. Tuesday a man came to the gallery. Paul had sent him to take me to see a building. He led me to an abandoned school right next to the historic walls of the city. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the perfect space for my imagined Arts Center. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ I said, and then looked up. Looking down at me was a statue of St. Joseph himself. This was St. Joseph’s Primary School. The Sisters of Mercy taught here for over 100 years and the structure itself went back to the 18th century.”

The man arranged a bank loan, bought the building, and allowed Pauline to buy it back from him over time. In 1992 The Playhouse, proclaiming “arts in the community together,” opened with a  production of Brian Friel’s play The Enemy Within, based on the life of Derry’s 6th-century founder St. Columcille.

“The building came complete with a guardian angel,” Pauline says. “Sister Aloysius, a Mercy nun and icon painter, was still in residence in an attic room way at the top. She stayed. She was our luck.”

There did seem something supernatural in the Playhouse’s ability to go from strength to strength. They attracted patrons such as actors Gabriel Byrne, Niamh, Sinead and Sorcha Cusack, writers like Frank McGuinness and Jennifer Johnston and television star Roma Downey. Most appropriately The Field Day Theatre Company also became a patron. In 2004 The Playhouse represented Northern Ireland on the BBC show “Restoration” in which millions of pounds are awarded to the most worthy redevelopment scheme for a historical building. The Playhouse reached the finals but didn’t win. But the publicity they got set off such a groundswell that they were able to raise £4.6 million.

“The American Ireland Fund helped us and we got letters from all over England and Scotland with £20 notes stuck in them wishing us all the best,” Pauline said. “They wanted to help with our work, reconciliation through the arts. We’ve always been a cross-community endeavor. The Playhouse is a place where divisions can be explored and then put aside.” In the current “Theater of Witness” program, victims of the Troubles as well as security personnel and ex-combatants tell their stories in ways cathartic for performers and audiences.

Walk through the Playhouse and you’ll see members of the Lilliput Theater Company made up of adults with learning disabilities rehearsing for one of their popular tours throughout Northern Ireland. You’ll find Irish dancing and ballet classes. See yoga and tai-chi postures. Watch painters and craftsmen of all kinds. During my visit in December 2012, Sam Shepard was giving master classes in acting.

Yes, the world has come to The Playhouse. Awards are piling up. Universities have become partners. Artists from other countries torn by conflict have asked to come to Derry and learn how the arts can heal. Pauline hopes to raise enough money to buy the adjoining old convent so she can offer them resources. “We could have a Field Day Library, the Brian Friel Playhouse Studio, the Seamus Heaney Poetry Room, the John Hume Auditorium,” she says.

The Playhouse has a full program for 2013. Sam Shepard will premiere a play he wrote on commission. Stephen Rea will direct the Field Day Theatre Company in a series of pieces, and another one of Derry’s sons, the boxer turned actor John Duddy, will make his hometown debut in For Love.

So here’s the true power that Derry/Londonderry possesses as the UK City of Culture. Yes, it’s great that the city will host the Turner Prize, the Royal Ballet, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Elvis Costello and the Fleadh Ceol, Ireland’s traditional music festival and all the other wonderful events (listed on www.cityofculture2013.com). But other cities could do that. No place else has the backstory that Derry has.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the hundreds of thousands who are expected to come are aware that the outdoor concert venue was a British Army barracks. And why think too much about what was done with “tanks and guns” to “the town I loved so well?” But remembering the storms the people of this city have come through makes “the bright new days” of 2013 even sweeter. One thing I’ve always noticed about Derry over the last 30 years: The rain can be fierce, but usually there’s a rainbow.

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