Dave Duggan Takes Culture to the Community

A new staging of First World War drama Still, The Blackbird Sings underlines how the arts is on the rise in working class areas

Following the success of his compelling anti-war drama Denizen, former Oscar-nominee Dave Duggan has teamed up again with Creggan Enterprises to tour a play examining the crisis of identity faced by many Irish men and women in 1916.

Still, The Blackbird Sings imagines the life and internal anguish of the doomed nationalist war poet Francis Ledwidge while he was a serving British soldier in Derry~Londonderry’s Ebrington Barracks at the time of the Easter Rising.

Ledwidge had been a member of the Irish Volunteers and believed he was fighting for the freedom of Ireland, as well as Britain, when he enlisted in 1914. He would die in Belgium during the Battle of Passchendaele, in 1917, the year after the Rising.

And his story has evoked many discussion points in modern-day Derry, where nationalist support for the British First World War campaign went unacknowledged – and largely unexplored – for generations.

A number of shifts have occurred, however, in Derry's cultural sector in recent years, which have allowed, and in some cases prompted, much more open discourse on some of the uncomfortable paradoxes in the city’s political history.

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Firstly, thanks to the efforts of activist writers like Duggan, and a drive towards greater community involvement in the arts led by the likes of the Big Lottery Fund and Creggan Enterprises, participation in the arts - and attendance at cultural events - is on the rise in working class areas.

Initially, cynics dismissed this ‘edge-to-centre’ approach as a trite and patronising notion, with few tangible benefits other than to satisfy the box-tickers at Stormont. But over the past few years, communities in the North West have begun claiming back the arts as their own, with plays, exhibitions and concerts now taking place in all manner of local facilities – from shopping centres to courtrooms.  

And this has, in turn, allowed facilitated dialogue and discussions to take place about work that before now would never have been seen outside The Grand Venues. Writer Jonathan Burgess, for example, who is currently Production Manager on Duggan’s Blackbird, has been to the fore in bringing his own plays about the recent Protestant experience, such as Exodus and The Pride, to staunchly nationalist communities.

Another major factor in Derry’s cultural glasnost has been the sensitive and strategic way that the Decade of Centenaries has been embraced by the city as a means of promoting commonality and not division. At the heart of this has been the Nerve Centre’s epoch-marking Creative Centenaries programme, rolled out across the North, which has already produced iBooks, digital storytelling initiatives, animated films and several graphic novels - including one on Ledwidge.  The project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has also partnered with Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Museum Services Department to produce an acclaimed series of lectures and exhibitions. 

Other initiatives have included Guildhall Press’s touring exhibition, The Orange and The Green – originally developed by Seamus Breslin and the late Michael McGuinness, and re-conceived by Breslin for 2016. This work provides a comprehensive overview of Derry’s role in the First World War, rediscovering the nationalist story for the first time. And it opened recently in Creggan’s Ráth Mór Centre to a packed house. 

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Conal McFeely of Creggan Enterprises is particularly delighted to be involved with Dave Duggan’s latest venture. ‘We believe that plays like Blackbird promote dialogue on challenging issues facing communities and wider society here,' he says.

‘In recent years, Ráth Mór and the Hive Studios have become established venues for cultural events, particularly those servicing the Creggan community.

‘Working with artists of the calibre of Dave Duggan and Johnny Burgess allows local communities to have a tangible connection with top-drawer theatre practitioners. And this will leave a cultural legacy within the Creggan area which will bode well for future cultural projects.’

Still, The Blackbird Sings stars five local actors - Gary Crossan, Sharon Duffy, Francis Harkin, John Mulkeen and Andrew Porter. Written and directed by Dave Duggan, the play is produced by Creggan Enterprises, with Jonathan Burgess as Production Manager.

It will be performed as a staged reading in seven different venues across the North West from September 12 to September 16. Admission is free. Tour dates as follows:

  • Monday, September 12: Noon, Eglinton Community Centre

  • Monday, September 12: 8pm, Ollie’s Cafe (Ebrington Square)

  • Tuesday, September 13: 7:30pm, Irish Street Community Centre

  • Wednesday, September 14: 8pm, New Gate Arts Centre (Hawkin Street)

  • Thursday, September 15: 8pm, Studio 2, Skeogh Industrial Park;

  • Friday, September 16: 4pm, Royal British Legion Marquee (Ebrington Square)

  • Friday September 16, (Culture Night): 8pm, Ráth Mór Centre.