Can culture help break chains of the past in Derry?

THERE’S something in the air in Derry. The great city of St Columcille is the first UK City of Culture, a cultural extravaganza that began in January and will extend all year.

Derry, climbing high from the banks of the mighty River Foyle, has always been known as a cultural capital brimming with native talent. From Dana to Phil Coulter and the punk sensation The Undertones to actors Roma Downey, Bronagh Gallagher and Amanda Burton: talent oozes from the Maiden City’s pavements and her famous stones.

A year of cultural novelties for the city await: the Turner Prize travels outside of England for the first time and the Fleadh Ceoil na-hÉireann will finally cross the border.

But is it a departure from the divisions that have plagued Derry? This is a city that can’t even agree on what to call itself, as proven with the naming of the year long programme: Derry-Londonderry 2013 UK City of Culture. Can the ancient city look forward, or is it doomed to be stuck in the past? Whilst there is no doubt on the range of the cultural programme, there are questions to be raised. Do the celebrations serve to cement Derry’s position in the United Kingdom? 2013 UK City of Culture marks the 400th anniversary of James I forming, by Royal Charter, the new county of Londonderry, with the Honourable Irish Society established to build the city of Londonderry.

Just as Ariel Sharon’s concrete wall snakes across the broken land of Palestine, Derry has its own walls of occupation. The city is dominated by some of the most massive and intact fortifications anywhere in western Europe, built in 1618 by the financiers of the City of London livery companies to control England’s troublesome Irish subjects.

Like the cities of Palestine, Derry is repeatedly redolent of its history and culture: monument after monument, street after street, the lines of ancient division. The boundaries of the territories of Catholic and Protestant, of the Irish Nationalists and the Loyalist Unionists and all their factions are marked out by their flags.

The very kerbstones of the streets are boundaries, not of roadsides but of politics and cultural affiliation, painted in the green, white and orange of Irish Nationalist Sinn Féin, and the red, white and blue of the Loyalists, to mark out their own enclaves.

On the street walls of Nationalist Derry are the great mural paintings, icons of protest and IRA rebellion against British occupation, and in the pubs are the photographs that record the military reality of British rule.

If one were to peer closely into the most deprived parts of the city — Bogside and Brandywell — the spectre of dissident republican military activity can be found in the midst of all the celebrations. When three of the four main Republican dissident groups formed a new umbrella organisation in July 2012, claiming the title of the IRA, it declared its intent to intensify attacks on security forces. The Real IRA has been joined by Republican Action Against Drugs, which has been responsible for a violent vigilante campaign in Derry, and an amalgam of independent armed republican groups — leaving only the Continuity IRA (CIRA) on the periphery.

On another note, my concern would be that the festivities are culturally elitist. There is ballet, and the Turner Prize: but what relevance have these for the ordinary mhuintir Dhoire? The culture in the city has a strong Gaelic and traditional foundation, the population mostly having roots in the natural hinterland of Tirconnell. The Fleadh Ceoil na-Éireann may well be crossing the border, but many regard this as a means of placation of an often neglected Nationalist community.

Taking the long view, the real stars of Derry’s tenure as UK City of Culture will not be the luvvies and cultural elite, but the good people of Derry with their lilting brogues, raw talent and bonhomie.

* Pól Ó Geibheannaigh is a writer and freelance journalist from Derry. He has been Middle East correspondent and analyst for Al-Ahram, Al-Jazeera English, Ettela’at International Daily and various other Middle Eastern based media outlets. He spends his time living between London and the Middle East.

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