Derry – Opening the Gates of the UK’s City of Culture

Be advised his passport's green. . .

So. This week Derry was selected as the UK’s first City of Culture. Setting aside my natural state as a Tyrone man and considering the fact my wife is from the City, I think this is great news for the citizens of Derry.

There are all sorts of predictions of the benefits that it will bring to Derry. Jobs. International profile. A programme of cultural events that will be the envy of the rest of the North. It is to be hoped that the marketing people in the City make the best of this, extending the City’s reach beyond being the top place to go for your Halloween Night.

I was involved in a rebranding project a few years back, and in a workshop in the Everglades hotel I used the phrase ‘latent hint of violence’ to describe the atmosphere one can encounter in Shipquay Street during the wee hours of a weekend. My nephew is one person who got a good kicking for their troubles. Some of the people there were intrigued at the spectre I had raised, this set a discordant tone alongside some of the claims being staked for the City.

I made the point that the City’s assets far outweighed these negatives, but also that they need to maximise their assets. And you should be able to stroll through a city late at night or leave a bar after a night out without someone mistaking your ear for a kebab.

Other things like the signage within the City are atrocious. You could dander through the entire place without ever knowing that one of its schools is the alma mater of two Nobel Laureates, the only school in the world that can make this claim. Think of the public tourism trails in Boston or the richness of Edinburgh in celebrating its past tastefully.

That the likes of Brian Friel, Seamus Deane, Paul Brady and co also were educated there. (That the Undertones originated there; yep I think that is noteworthy!) All of these things are to be celebrated, but currently are ignored. In my opinion.

That it was the scene of an outrageous human rights abuse. Think Tiananmen Square, think Bloody Sunday. That the siege of Derry is still a subject of closed minds and closed hearts across this part of the world.

My sister-in-law tells me some town planning genius in the Seventies wanted to demolish the City’s walls as they got in the way of the proposed development of tenements. Foresighted or what?

And so it is over to the City Marketing folks, and the likes of Ilex and the Visitor Centre people to maximise all of this. They have all of the opportunity and hopefully some of the rest of us may get a slice of the action in applying our own appreciation and understanding of the City’s culture.

The one slightly jarring note in all of this is the fact that it is the ‘UK City of Culture’, with the emphasis on the ‘UK”.

Remember Seamus Heaney’s riposte in ‘An Open Letter’ when included as a ‘British’ poet in the 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry:

“Be advised.

My passport’s green.

No glass of ours was ever raised.

To toast The Queen.”

I suppose it depends on how green your passport is; or perhaps whether it is a passport of convenience that determines whether this nomenclature bothers you. But then I’m from Tyrone.

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