They are celebrating in Derry tonight, and most likely will be for some time to come. Word comes that this sometimes troubled city by the mouth of the River Foyle in Northern Ireland has been named the United Kingdom’s City of Culture for 2013.
It’s a well deserved honor. Though the city’s best known reputation has to do with the political divisions that have rocked the island of Ireland through recent years and a divided political history that goes back centuries, Derry also has long traditions of excellence and innovation in the arts, from theater to to poetry to music.
Singer and songwriter Cara Dillon is from Dungiven, a small town to the east of Derry. It was her ‘big town’ while she was growing up, and she plays to packed out crowds when she returns to the city.
“Derry has seen so much, it’s like the walls can speak, you know,” she said of the place which has been the site of important historical events from earliest times up through the Troubles of the 1970s, and which is known as much for its walls dating from the 1600s as its murals dating from the the 1970s. “It’s one of those places that’s quite magical, when you start to read and hear about all that’s happened there,” she said. “But the most wonderful thing about a town like Derry is that people are so proud of their culture, because it’s been threatened for such a long time, so now there’s this lovely tradition where people have passed songs along with great passion.”
Dillon is one of those who passes such songs along. So is Paul Brady, a legendary song writer and singer whose music spans rock, folk, and country. Eamon Friel has been called Ireland’s answer to Bob Dylan. Composer Phil Coulter is from Derry, as are several members of the popular group Celtic Thunder. Poet Seamus Heaney is from Derry as well. There is music in his words, as there is music in the acting of another Derry native, Roma Downey.
Walking the streets of Derry, standing in the shadow of its walls, seeing the murals on both sides of political and religious divides, on both sides of how that history is understood, touching the emigration statues in Waterloo Place, seeing the Guildhall in lights at Christmas, raising a glass at Peadar O’Donnell’s or Bound for Boston, you cannot help but feel the history, and hear it in the cadence of speech, and in the words of song. For me, it is a bit of personal history, too. Part of my family comes from that at times uneasy country along the border, the few miles which lie between Derry in Northern Ireland and Letterkenny in the Republic. When I am in Derry, the music of the language sounds like home.
We are writing a new story, the authors of the city of culture proposal say, beyond the history and the troubles. It does seem as though the divisions of history may be weaving into a new strand, perhaps a strand of renewal and reconciliation other troubled places may learn from. Perhaps a strand that may make the promise of the statue at Craigavon Bridge, where two figures reach out and are almost touching hands, ring true at last.