There is so much history, politics and art packed in Derry-Londonderry, a city of just over 100,000 people. We packed a lot into our two days! This incredibly beautiful place on the western edge of Northern Ireland sits on the River Foyle. It has an old-world European charm, with narrow, steep streets that meander in and out of the quaint village.
A bit of random history on Derry…the city was once a European hub for the linen industry, producing the uniforms for both the North and the South armies during the U.S. Civil War. And, the River Foyle was the westernmost port for the Allied forces in WWII and the place at which 60 German U-boats surrendered at the end of the war.
Derry is one of the greatest remaining examples of a medieval “walled city” as its distinctive 17th century stone wall still completely surrounds the city’s center with over one mile of wall, 18 feet thick. The wall, and the city, have withstood the test of time, despite numerous battles. Ever since the early 1600s when the English government decided to colonize Derry with loyal English and Scottish migrants who were predominantly Protestant, there has been a profound tension between the Protestants and the displaced and marginalized Catholics who occupied the region. Through the years, Derry’s Catholic nationalist sentiment (advocating for the end of discriminatory practices and of direct rule by England) grew stronger and during the 1960s they took to the streets
demanding democratic rights. On January 30, 1972, citizens organized a civil rights march. The British claimed the protest was illegal. British soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in the Bogside neighborhood of Derry, killing 14 unarmed people. “Bloody Sunday,” as it became known, ignited decades of continuous conflict in Northern Ireland, with 3,600 killed and 30,000 injured throughout the Troubles. The conflict was quieted in 1998 with the signing of the ‘Good Friday’ Peace Agreement.
(Disclaimer: this is an extremely reduced summary of hundreds of years of layered and complicated history. I suggest you pull up a bar stool next to an Irishman for a longer, more colorful and comprehensive version of Northern Ireland’s history!)
This history, coupled with Derry’s current reality of the highest rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland and one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the entire U.K., presents some pretty steep challenges for the community. However, their arts scene in Derry is vibrant and incredibly rich for a city its size. Perhaps the challenges have created fertile ground for artists, creatives, and voices who have something to say about their world.
“The Bogside Artists” are three voices in the community that have something to say. My conversation with them was filled with conviction and passion. In many ways, they have been positioned as ‘outsider artists,’ but they are very much insiders and at the heart of the community. They were there during the Troubles, they lost loved ones, and they’ve spent the past 20+ years transforming the Bogside neighborhood with 12 murals that tell the pain, commemorate lives lost, and emphasize the sanctity of life. Their work has taken them around the world to communicate these same important messages on other community canvases.
Next, I shared a conversation with James Kerr, Executive Director of The Verbal Group, on the sunny side of the street. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a Pogues reference.) We talked over cappuccino at a sunlit table outside their café on the side of the Derry wall. It was quite lovely. His passion is simple, but audacious…give everyone the opportunity and the means to tell their story, and provide a platform for others to listen. They believe every story matters. Implicit in that is giving voice to the marginalized and unheard. Sometimes these stories are a bit messy and don’t fit in the mainstream narrative. All the more reason we need places like The Verbal Group doing what they do. To address the high rates of illiteracy, they’ve developed a program called ‘The Reading Room’ aimed at putting books in the hands of those who need them most and creating community networks for people to read together. I can’t wait to hear about the next chapter of their work!
Throughout our stay, the town buzz was that Mark Hamill had arrived and filming for the next Star Wars movie was underway just up the road. When the Millennium Falcon lands in your neighborhood, it’s kind of a big (and pretty cool) deal! And if you didn’t know, this is also the region in which Game of Thrones is filmed. Needless to say, the film and creative industries are growing and thriving in Northern Ireland. When I met with organizations such as The Nerve Centre and Playhouse Theatre and Arts Centre and learned of the
extraordinary work they are doing to develop the technical and creative skills of young people in the region, it was obvious how critical their work and how much brighter the opportunities are becoming for the community as a result. The Nerve Centre gives a creative (and state of the art) outlet for the many young people who feel excluded from the “arts sector,” by providing them with hands-on learning connected to popular music, film, video, animation and interactive multimedia.
The Playhouse Theatre and Arts Centre reminded me quite a bit of my organization, COCA in St. Louis, MO. So of course, I loved what they are doing! They produce and present innovative and provocative theatre, they have arts education classes in a variety of disciplines, they train business groups such as IKEA using techniques in the arts, and they have street artists from all over working on a project with the community that was transforming their courtyard…a lot of wonderful programming going on. I also met with and heard about the incredible work happening at Void Gallery and Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company.
The arts and culture organizations in Derry are doing so much with so few resources. It is truly impressive what they are accomplishing. They are rich in art and in heart. They are filling this city and its people with the hope, the skills, the beauty, the perseverance…and the vision it will need to fully realize the potential of its economic and social infrastructure. Clearly, the sky (or a galaxy far, far away!) is not the limit for this city that is pushing forward in creative ways. Best wishes to my arts friends in Derry. I have a feeling we’ll see each other again!