The Earhart Festival Celebrates American Flight Pioneer

Greater Shantallow Community Arts commemorate the iconic American flight pioneer and her connection to Derry~Londonderry

On May 20, 1932, Amelia Earhart – born in Atchinson, Kansas in July 24, 1897 – took off in her scarlet Lockheed Vega from a field in Newfoundland, heading out over the Atlantic for Europe.

Charles Lindbergh had made the same journey five years earlier. Alcock and Brown, the British airmen, had been the first to fly the Atlantic, in 1919. Earhart herself had been a nominal co-pilot on a transatlantic flight in 1928.

But this was different. Like Lindbergh, Earhart was alone. Unlike Lindbergh, she was a woman. Her mission was to break down barriers, to show that a thing could be done that others said couldn’t. She wanted glory, to be the first. She wanted to face danger, overcome risks, and to feel alive and connected in the face of solitude and death.

Her aim was Paris. But after 2026 miles and nearly 15 hours in the air, with her engine failing, all she wanted was to land. Seeing ground beneath her, she searched first for a landing strip, and then simply for a field that would do. The field that served the purpose was Gallagher’s Field in Ballyarnott, on the outskirts of Derry~Londonderry.

Amelia Earhart


To the men who first approached her on landing, who thought she was a man and who asked if she had come far, she replied, 'From America'. Earhart’s flight had connected. News of her achievement spread round the world, her immortality assured, alongside Derry’s place in her story, and Earhart’s place in Derry’s story.

Events such as this confirm the west of Ireland’s role on the global stage. On the edge of Europe, next stop America, last departure, first arrival – hope for the new world, memory of the old. Alcock and Brown, St Brendan, Christopher Columbus, Valentia Island, the Lusitania.

The city of Derry’s location in the north-west of the island of Ireland has seen it brushed by sadness, achievement, war, hope and triumph. Thousands departed from Derry on their way to America and new lives. The city saw the surrender of German U-boats towards the end of the Second World War, and the role played by Derry in the Battle of the Atlantic has been commemorated by the erection of a statue honouring the International Sailor.

No such statue exists of Amelia Earhart. An annual festival named in her honour does take place, however. This year’s Earhart Festival begins on Saturday, May 18 and runs until Sunday, May 26. Its theme for 2013 is 'Connecting Worlds Apart'.

It was a grey day in May that saw the launch of the festival. Schoolchildren and organisers stood shivering and damp on a banked verge in Shantallow, flanked by flags and fronted by the mayor, while photographers got the shots they needed. Somewhere over the way was the spot where Earhart finished her journey, now, perhaps, somebody’s back garden.

But while there may be a lack of glamour, there’s energy and smiles. This is a festival organised by Greater Shantallow Community Arts. Although events spread to other parts of the city, its feet are planted firmly on shantallowed ground.

Festival co-ordinator, Ollie Green, and his fellow workers may live in the very first UK City of Culture and embrace what it can offer, but they know that – in a place such as Derry~Londonderry – culture must be rooted in and belong to the community. It can’t simply be dropped on people; the people must start it and carry it and connect with it.

So the Earhart Festival is designed to be a celebration of local fun, participation, achievement and culture in all its guises. It’s a mixed bag – not in the sense of quality, but variety. On Saturday, May 18, novices are invited to follow the Foyle Golf Trail and learn the fundamentals of the game from Foyle Golf Centre professionals.

Amelia Earhart


At the same time, members of the Amelia Earhart Flying Club will compete in a 250-mile pigeon race from Skibbereen to Derry. The Speaking to the World Carnival Parade assembles at Shantallow Community Centre at noon on Sunday, May 19, ready to make its way to Ballyarnott Country Park for dancing, music, and a range of activities.

Throughout the week there will be a series of music and dance workshops. There is a senior citizens tea dance. There’s a flypast – of planes rather than pigeons – by local flying clubs. The world’s biggest comic book, created by Joe Campbell, is on display at Shantallow Library. The Craft Village is hosting the Earhart Story and Exhibition on Friday, May 24.

Amelia Earhart Medal of Achievement Awards will be presented by singer and actress, Bronagh Gallagher, in a public celebration of the young people of the city, with every school in Derry invited to nominate two students. After the ceremony, local songwriter, Danny McGilloway, will perform songs from his new album, Donegal Shore, recorded with the support of local musicians at Studio 2 at Foyle Business Park.

In bars and streets and venues throughout the city, the festival presents 22 traditional music gigs from early afternoon onwards, providing a showcase for musicians and singers. That same Saturday will see the inaugural Amelia Earhart Open Golf Tournament, at Foyle Golf Centre.

The Earhart Festival is an eclectic collection – pigeons, painters, pilots, and pars – a real all-sorts. It’s people who should know better but don’t having a crack at zumba dancing. It is life and fun and local, and its aim is to connect.

The Earthart Festival runs in various venues across Derry~Londonderry from May 18 – 26. View the full programme of events.