Northern Lights: Derry

Garbhan Downey makes the case for his hometown to win UK City of Culture 2013

About 18 months ago, I landed myself in a whole heap of bother when I agreed to collaborate with the acclaimed pianist Declan Carlin on his book City of Music: Derry’s Music Heritage.

I can honestly say that, since the history was published last Christmas, I have barely been able to leave the house without somebody challenging me on its contents. And specifically, on what we were forced to leave out. It’s not as if it were a small tome either. Aimed at your coffee-table, it weighed in at more than 300 A4-sized pages, and featured 100,000 words of text plus 400-odd meticulously-captioned photographs.

But Derry is a city that generated a million great songs, from ‘Danny Boy’, the 17th century anthem played at John F Kennedy’s funeral, to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, the 20th century anthem played at the Conservative party’s. And that’s before you take into account its hymn-writers, rock musicians, tenors, girl-groups, Eurovision winners, world-famous choirs, brass bands and modern-day composers. So something, somewhere, was going to have to give.

Indeed, we barely had enough room left for Celtic Thunder, who had two number one albums in the US in 2008 and performed for President Obama at the White House. That quintet, of course, have two Derry singers in their line-up and are also produced by The Son We Love So Well, Phil Coulter.

In short, there probably isn’t enough paper in Ireland to publish the compendium we wanted. So to all those stars we omitted or gave less space to than we should, my heartiest apologies.

And the problem’s not just confined to music either. When Sean McMahon released his compelling history of our city’s literature in 2002, The Derry Anthology (Blackstaff), I suspect he faced similar strictures – despite extending his efforts to a meaty 480-plus pages.

He had to contend with a Nobel Laureate for literature, a Tony award winning playwright, a Whitbread prize winner, an Irish Times international fiction award winner hideously overlooked for the Booker, and a rogue saint accused in the world’s first case of plagiarism (Colmcille). And that’s before you mention the philosopher Dean of Derry, who went on to give his name to an American city, George Berkeley, or latter-day icons like Nick Cohn, Our Nell and Eamonn McCann.

I could spend a thousand words listing the names of writers and musicians who could make a much more eloquent case for Derry’s elevation to UK City of Culture in 2013 than me. Or I could write another thousand explaining how the northwest is a world leader in film (Oscar nominations and Bafta awards), fine art (Turner nominations), dance (Riverdance producer), animation (Celtic Film awards) and architecture (last complete set of Elizabethan battlements in Europe, first cathedral built after the reformation, etc, etc). But the fear, once again, is who, or what, do you leave out? The city, whether it ever wears the crown or not, is a true and endless originator of arts and culture.

Importantly, Derry also manages to satisfy all the criteria laid down by the new contest’s box-tickers – and then some. We have an age-old connection with Liverpool, the European Capital of Culture 2008, via our port – Derry was the key emigration point for tens of thousands heading to England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Moreover, the city, which is already a hive of professional arts organisations, is planning to establish a brand new cultural quarter as the centrepiece of the economic regeneration strategy being rolled out by Ilex. Derry also has a track record of delivering huge cultural events. It currently runs the biggest annual Halloween celebration in Europe, and in 1992 it hosted the year-long international arts festival, Impact 92.

And as regards the economic impact the City of Culture award could bring to the city? Well, without pointing any fingers, let’s just say that if Derry were an artist, he would be living in an unheated, windowless garret, with the arse out of his trousers. So yes, a few bob wouldn’t harm us either.

The roll of 25 or so other UK cities vying with Derry for its rightful title features some worthy contenders. It also includes some utter chancers. Bradford, for example, under its wikipedia heading for Famous People includes Albert Pierrepoint, Gareth Gates and Kimberley Walsh – a hangman, a washed-up talent show finalist, and the one whose name you can never remember in Girls Aloud. (And no, I haven’t even played our Nadine card yet.)

Aberdeen’s wikipedia entry (I kid you not) is so full of flannel it includes the line: 'A portion of Ian Rankin’s novel Black and Blue is set in Aberdeen'. Whereas Chester’s list of notable people contains only two names I recognised at all, Daniel Craig and Russ Abbott – and let’s face it, superb and all as Dan was at smoking the bad guys in Quantum of Solace, neither gent is known as a doyen of culture.

Also throwing in caps are the likes of Sheffield, Birmingham and Manchester - cities virtually indistinguishable under their industrial smog, and Carlisle, whose only claim to fame that I could detect was that it stands at one end of a big Roman wall.

Oxford and Brighton I could see as serious challengers - not least because of their accessibility to the London arts community who are barred from competing but will be backing the nearest substitute. And though I’m not a gambling man, I reckon the City of Dreaming Spires will start as racing favourite.

Derry’s challenge, however, will be a very serious one and is helped greatly by Belfast’s decision not to take part this time, thus avoiding our traditional internecine war. So, it makes perfect sense for the 'capital' to throw its weight behind its north-western sister, not least because it’s in its own selfish interest.

In sheer practical terms, if Derry gets the nod, every hotel in Belfast will be needed to cope with the spill-over and the city’s airports will be busier than a bookie’s on Boxing Day. But also - and most importantly - Belfast, and the rest of the north, will do the right thing by Derry because it is the right thing to do. We can win this thing. And we deserve to.

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Many thanks and brilliant to know that our folks from the City are prepared, not only to sell / market our City and throw their full weight behind it, its also brilliant to know that people like Garbhan go out on a limb and give their time as well as talent.

He is a proud Derry man and rightly so! Heres hoping!