Why The Arts Matter: Nerve Centre
Garbhan Downey on why the multi-media centre was essential to Derry's cultural awakening
There’s a picture hanging on my study wall, taken in the mid-1990s, of our Monday night indoor football squad. There’s nothing unique about the players, other than the fact they’re from Derry and are therefore preternaturally handsome. It’s just nine young men aged from about 23 to 40, standing in washed-out t-shirts under Brooke Park’s giant ‘NO SPITTING’ sign.
What is a little different about this group, however, is that all of the players have at one point or another pursued a career in the arts. Of the nine, two are now full-time writers, two are BBC producers, one is a music producer, one is a film editor, and another is an award-winning animator. The remaining two are former musicians. Absent from the photo are a film engineer-turned-lecturer, an architect, and the man who ran the game – a non-artist, who knew more about music than any of us.
When the game began in 1990, all of us would have had some tangential connection to the fledgling Nerve Centre. But none of us could have envisaged just how central it would become to our lives and, indeed, the wider community.
We had grown up in a city with no arts venue, either for music or theatre. And there was little or no support for would-be arts professionals. Talent had to emigrate – that was a simple fact of life.
Then in 1988, a few far-seeing young musicians, including the singer Declan McLaughlin and the Fear of Gods’ drummer Martin Melarkey, took it upon themselves to approach a sympathetic council official, Kevin McCaul, and ask for help. He literally walked around the town with them until they found a building that could serve as their headquarters - for practicing, storing gear, and arranging gigs. It was basic, bordering on rundown, and had no performance space. But it would be the start of great things.
Jim Curran, one of the linchpins of our indoor squad, had played bass in the Fear of Gods with Melarkey. He would eventually take charge of the new centre’s film department. I use the word ‘centre’ loosely here as it would be some time before there was a purpose-built facility. But, despite the sceptics, Jim and Martin delivered on their visionary blueprint, just as surely and sweetly as Curran used to do with his right foot and only the keeper to beat.
I’d been at school with Jim, and he continuously badgered me to write about their plans for his (then) imaginary ‘multi-media arts complex’. Alternatively, he would hassle me to cover bands from the Musicians’ Collective, or review films at the annual festival he helped organise. And what started as a hobby for me, penning pieces about Derry’s developing music and arts scene, rapidly evolved into a full-time career.
Jim himself went on to direct countless Nerve Centre productions and festivals, and to run all manner of new training courses for the next generation of film-makers and enthusiasts. Dessie McCusker, a flying winger with a nose for goals, was an early guitar tutor at the Nerve Centre. But he was probably matched for pace by Karl Dunnion, the Fear of Gods frontman, who, famously, once partied all night and then went out and ran a cross-country race, coming in fourth in a field of international athletes.
One day in the changing-rooms, Dave Duggan, a colossus in a Brazil shirt at the back, quietly mentioned he’d been asked to write a screenplay for a new film the Nerve Centre were producing. Most of us thought little of it – who wants to watch a movie about Irish dancing? Dance Lexie Dance? Less than two years later, we were waving Dave goodbye as he got on the plane to LA for the Oscars.
Dave and John McCloskey, the Nerve Centre’s resident animator (and the best all-rounder we ever had at indoor) then collaborated on the Cu Chulainn series for the BBC. That was before John, in turn, went on to win a couple of Celtic Film awards for Midnight Dance and The King’s Wake, and a BAFTA nomination for The Crumblegiant. He also, I’m very proud to say, designs the covers for my novels, in-between kicking centre-halves into the air.
Rory Donaghy, a robust defender, and Marty Burke, a pugnacious utility player, were slightly younger than the rest of us but every bit as committed. Rory now runs the Blast Furnace recording studio and moonlights as a guitarist with the Happy Enchiladas, when he’s not producing his own Sullem Voe albums. Marty B, meanwhile, was a techno-whizz in both film and video at the Nerve Centre, before sadly emigrating to the land where football must be called ‘soccer’.
Standing beside me, in the back row of the picture is Mickey Bradley, a tough-but-fair tackler and awesome ‘slarger’ of the ball, whose band were asked to headline at the official opening of the Nerve Centre back in late 1999. It was his group’s first concert in the city in more than 15 years, but the Undertones were only too delighted to oblige. Mickey’s band-mate John O’Neill had served as a consultant and tutor at the centre in its early days.
The other Mickey in the picture, Mickey O’Donnell, was a legendary ball-wizard who once nutmegged four opponents during one mazy run. He was also a keen music journalist in Derry in the days before such occupations were fashionable – and was even, briefly, a member of the city’s iconic punk band Dick Tracy and the Green Disaster. But they threw him out when they discovered he knew all three chords. Seriously.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that the Nerve Centre was integral to all of our lives. It’s quite possible we would have pursued our various vocations without it – though perhaps not in Ireland. And the road, I have no doubt, would have been a whole lot duller. In one way or another, the centre provided opportunities and a focus for all of us, where none had existed before.
Yes, there were only about a dozen or so of us in the football panel, but we weren’t unique. The same story held true for scores, if not hundreds, of our friends and contemporaries across the Northwest. The Nerve Centre managed, at different levels, to become part of our lives, involve us all and inspire us all. It became exactly what it said on the tin.
Crucially, the Nerve Centre is still providing those same opportunities, and that same focus, for thousands of people who now use the facility every year.
Media professionals – both in-house and from the corporate world - use it to produce films, music, animation and multi-media packages. Students and teachers take accredited courses there in a huge range of the creative arts – to such an extent that the centre’s own modules were adopted into the mainstream schools’ curriculum. Musicians use the Magazine Street facilities for band practice or sometimes just to hang out in a safe, friendly environment. And, fans of film and live music queue up in their legions to enjoy movies and gigs in the centre’s two cinemas and concert hall.
In short, the Nerve Centre has built a lasting legacy; fostering the arts, the local economy and the well-being of the community. And, significantly, it has never stopped thinking of new ways to improve and re-invent itself. The CultureNorthernIreland website you’re reading at this very moment is a Nerve Centre production.
It hasn’t always been perfect, though. My long association with the Nerve Centre has definitely had its Faustian moments. Back in the early 1990s, when the centre was based in a semi-derelict factory, the committee would take it in turns to sleep on the floor of the building at night – to ensure no-one snuck in to steal any gear. And when it was Jim’s turn, he would always prevail upon a couple of us to stay with him. Boy, it was cold – no matter how pre-fortified you were.
But if you were to ask me to state in one line why the arts matter, my answer would be this: I remember Derry before the Nerve Centre, and I remember Derry since the centre was brought into being – and I know for sure which Derry I prefer.
A Nerve Centre select circa 1996. Back row (l-r): Marty B, Mickey B, Garbhan, Dessie, Dave. Front row: Rory, Karl, Mickey O, John. Missing from picture, Jim, Mickey H and Jimmy.