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Derry on the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday

It is a good time to reflect on how the City of Culture in Derry, the cradle of political creativity in the 1960’s, reckoned and grappled with, rather than skirted over or denied, the recent past - as there was much pressure to do.

Ed Vulliamy
2 February 2014
A projection entitled 'Twice upon a time' by Ucobo in Derry as part of UK City of Culture celebration

A projection entitled 'Twice upon a time' by Ucobo in Derry as part of UK City of Culture celebration, 2014. Gonzales Photo/Michael Hornbogen. All rights reserved.

A chill, pluvial wind off the Atlantic whips the streets around Rathmoor shopping centre on the slopes of the Creggan estate in 'Derry-Londonderry' - as the parlance now calls the city on the Foyle river, just over the border between Eire and six counties of Ulster. The Creggan, famous over decades as the largest housing estate in the republican heartland of 'Free Derry', one-time stockade of the IRA and Irish National Liberation Army.

This is no normal November day at the shops in peacetime Derry, nor is it a normal mall. Located on the spot from which the Jacobite camp besieged Londonderry's walls, and whence the Bloody Sunday civil rights march set out, this is a co-operative built by, and belonging to, the local community - managed by Conal McFeely, brother of a long-time Republican prisoner who joined the IRA after his best friend was killed on Bloody Sunday. And who today presents a programme of films by British director Mike Grigsby, including The Silent War, a surreal documentary record of everyday life under an army of occupation.

McFeely explains his further plans for music in the atrium and projections on the glass frontage of the mall, visible across the city. It was another afternoon in Derry's year as UK City of Culture, with Danny Boyle to visit next weekend and Sam Sheppard to premiere his new play a week later. By any standards, this has been an effervescence of the arts.

But beneath the surface of cultural prestige, the resounding achievement of Derry's year lies in the way the City of Culture has not only refused to airbrush the Troubles and scars of Bloody Sunday with arty-farty gloss, but engaged in reckoning with the recent past, beyond the politicians' patois of 'reconciliation'. And on this first anniversary of Bloody Sunday since ‘City of Culture’, it is worth reflecting on how Derry grappled with the violence: “We've tried to forge a relationship to the Troubles, face them and deal with them in such a way that overcomes them”, says Martin Melarkey, one of the organisers, “creating new narratives and telling new stories in this city, but without forgetting that we live in a haunted place, without insulting the dead and bereaved”.

As Derry-born film producer Andrew Eaton, whose father was killed by the IRA, put it: “I've always thought we needed to confront all this head-on, and City of Culture has been like some  South-African-style truth and reconciliation process, but through a belief that art really can change society – resurrecting a notion of public art that we all signed up for in ‘the 1960s’, but which got a bit lost along the way”. 

Derry's year was not 'luvvy', nor was it crassly commercial – it was creatively edgy, subversive, joyful, funny and new, propelled by a genuine belief in the veracity of music and movies over bombs and bullets; that outdoor showings of Metropolis in pouring rain or of Psycho with full orchestra can help inform “a new identity beyond Catholic v Protestant, British v IRA, Loyalist v INLA, or whatever”, says Bronagh Gallagher, from Derry and now Ireland's foremost young actress (singer also, in fact, with the bloating of U2).

Looking back, a tumultuous year began on the February night Gallagher played a hurricane of a homecoming concert - throbbing soul music in a long-disused church turned into a venue called the Glass Works, then another to inaugurate Peace Plaza right beside the barracks from which the killers of the British parachute regiment launched the Bloody Sunday massacre, and to which they demobilised afterwards. The voltage and depth of feeling at those concerts was palpably auspicious as Derry's youth of whatever creed or label embraced their city's First Daughter.

But for Bronagh herself, the moment of germination was the day in 2010 that the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday acknowledged the truth, after decades of British cover-up. “You take on the big man”, she says, “and the big man runs you down. But here in Derry, we stayed standing until the big man apologised. After that, we found our voice, and that's where City of Culture begins – with the voice”.

The return of Paul Greengrass

So that among the most cogent events was the return of Paul Greengrass - the film director from Kent taking Hollywood by storm - bringing 'home' his film Bloody Sunday, premiered here in Derry eight years before Saville, for a screening. Greengrass's career followed the Troubles from their darkest moment to this one: he had in 1980 researched a Granada TV World in Action programme which penetrated the Long Kesh/Maze internment camp to interview the first hunger strikers for political status, and filmed an unforgettable scene of the inmates clad only in blankets, their excretia smeared on the cell walls, shouting their demands.

Greengrass had kept in touch with one of the 'blanketmen', Ray McCartney: “I'd seen quite a lot of him while I was making Bloody Sunday, but not seen him for six years”, he says - and there was McCartney in the audience for another screening, of Greengrass's latest film Captain Philips. “We went for coffee afterwards”, recalls Greengrass, telling McCartney's own incredible story: how “towards the end of his 25 year sentence, Raymond became IRA Officer Commanding inside the Maze prison, and played a crucial role in the secret negotiations which eventually lead to the peace process. He helped persuade the large numbers of IRA men inside the H Blocks to accept a peace that respected both traditions inside Northern Ireland”. McCartney is now a Sinn Fein member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“Derry was the same and it had changed”, says Greengrass. Bloody Sunday was this time screened at Conal McFeely's Rathmoor shopping mall, “which didn't exist when I was last in Derry. There we were, in the Creggan, which still has desperate problems and not much of a peace dividend, to be honest. And there's still a significant amount of, you know … activity” - the area remains a redoubt for the Real IRA and paramilitary cells defiant of the peace process. “But we're in this amazing place. Yes, it was wonderful to see everyone again, very moving to see the families at the screening. But what really impressed me was this place built by the community, serving the community with local shops, movies, music”.

During his visit to the Free Derry museum, Greengrass learned something from John Kelly who curates it (his brother Michael was killed on Bloody Sunday).  “He told me about an arrangement they have, now that tourism is part of Derry's economy and a lot of that is 'Troubles tourism': they send their visitors to the [Loyalist] Apprentice Boys up the hill, and the Apprentice Boys send theirs down to the museum! Hilarious – and very good sense”.

But Greegrass's salient point is wider, and political: “Derry”, he says, “was the cradle of political creativity in the 1960s, where the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland began but was driven underground by Bloody Sunday. After that, the British Army and the Provisionals shared the stage, and it would take 30 years for the idea of RIGHTS rather than competing nationalisms to re-emerge, fuel the peace process and now all this”.

Greengrass calls his Bloody Sunday “my homage to Bruno Pontecorvo's great film Battle of Algiers, made in 1966, the politics of which were that the solution to Algeria's problem was the expulsion of the French colonialists – the people taking over the Casbah at the end. That made sense growing up in the '40s, '50s and '60s. But we who grew up in the 1970s could see that problems were not solved just by booting out the colonial oppressor – we had the example of Northern Ireland, which taught that you won't solve your problem by choosing between two nationalisms staking a claim for the same territory."

“But in Derry”, he continues, “they had already advanced the idea of shared rights as a solution. They'd realised back in '68 that you can't send the protestants home, because they ARE home. And now, Derry's come back to that, the idea of shared civil rights – this is Derry claiming back its best tradition, cradle of the animating idea for most conflict resolution into the world today”.

I too cut a professional tooth in Derry for World In Action: researching a programme banned in 1981 by the Independent Broadcasting Authority for a shot it contained of hunger striker Patsy O'Hara in his coffin, surrounded by an INLA honour guard. “Ah yes”, says Martin Melarkey, coolly, “I know one of the people that was in that picture. He's a taxi driver now”. It took me a moment to register what he was saying – of course, one of the hooded guard; everyone knows someone, and the Troubles, unlike football matches, don't end when the whistle blows. (Also, I'm booking a 'reunion' and tour of town with the taxi driver!). 

According to Martin Melarkey

The City of Culture had simultaneously to “reckon with the Troubles and reflect the fact that our artists had been living in a police state and a war zone, but also create a new image for the city”, says Melarkey. “There was always that tension between the reality of the city's experience, and those people saying: 'move on'. You could not be entrenched in one of the other, but you'd get criticised by both. One one hand, if you just take the murals on the walls, you're missing something; on the other, if all you want to do is sell a new image internationally, you insult those who went through this or lost family – as did that recent suggestion for an amnesty for those who killed people”.

The raw truth, says Melarkey, “is that even people who weren't born during the worst times live in that haunted landscape. Paramilitaries and paramilitary culture is still with us” he says, citing one film he programmed which tells the true story of a boy suspected of drug-dealing and taken by his own father and uncle to be kneecapped only last year. “And yet”, says Melarkey, “we had people saying: 'the less said about that kind of thing, the better'.

“Derry”, insists Melarkey, “did not become City of Culture overnight, nor can the City of Culture end overnight”. And this is precisely because the narrative of grass-roots arts in the city has always and inevitably been entwined with the Troubles, as its legacy will be their aftermath. “The renaissance began”, he says, “when the city was on the edge of apocalypse, people trying to reclaim our own story from the British media, which had distorted Bloody Sunday”.

In 1980, year of the first hunger strike filmed by Greengrass for Granada, Brian Friel, Stephen Rea, Seamus Heaney and others were involved in establishing the Field Day theatre company in the Guildhall to present, as Melarkey – then a drummer in a punk band - puts it: “world class theatre about what was happening right outside the door”. During the 1980s, the Derry Film and Video Collective was formed with help from Channel Four (which then flinched after the banning of a film called Mother Ireland about Republican women fighters). A Foyle Film Festival was held and Melarkey's own musicians’ collective formed that cultural hub, the Nerve Centre, in 1990 - which became just that on the Derry scene, innovative enough to attract the faith of – and secure funding from – Michael Hamlyn, heir to the arts trust bequeathed by his father, publisher Paul Hamlyn, long before City of Culture was a twinkle in anyone's eye.

One of the players in this renaissance was Willie Doherty, twice-nominated for the Turner Prize which this year moved out of London for the first time, to Derry. As a child, Doherty watched the killing on Bloody Sunday from a window, and his pictures at a retrospective exhibition are a revelation. The most haunting are those of the border, cutting across country by-roads between Derry and the Republic, ten minutes out of town. Concrete bollards on remote, muddy tracks – the debris of partition, gun-running, division. Some pictures are eerily prescient: a fork between two small roads – one leading to the Republic, the other to the UK - would later be chosen by the Real IRA to dump the body of an informer.

An art historian called Declan McGonagle established the Orchard Gallery before moving to Dublin to become director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. And in a special edition of the arts Journal Field Day Review, McGonagle sets Derry's year into the deep and radical context of epic struggle between a “colonial” aesthetic epitomised by the city walls – that of  “occupation, as exercised to a greater or lesser degree by English authority” - and what was seen to be “the disordered native Irish environment beyond”.

He talks about the “region of the Pale” in Irish social geography, and that which lies “beyond the pale”, arguing that a “reconfiguration” of this colonial landscape “has to begin in the realm of cultural activity. The fitful peace process and the designation of Derry as the first UK City of Culture are evidence of this sort of cultural reconfiguration in action”. Action, he argues, which will “think anew the concept of the 'disordered forest' so that it is no longer a primeval hinterland, but a forest of relations in which thrive other ways of ordering human experience” in defiance of the occupation and its walls.

All of this was, says Melarkey, “questioning the image of Derry in the mainstream media after Bloody Sunday”. Indeed, “the decision to award the City of Culture to Derry was made in Liverpool on the day the Saville report was on every front page of the papers. We were up against Birmingham, Sheffield and major cities with populations the same as all Northern Ireland”, he recalls, “and there was a joke, that the judges would ask: 'Where's Derry?' But that morning, everyone knew where and who we were”.

The longed-for tidal wave of justice

The film bidding for Derry's honour was shot and directed by Mark McCauley, for years one of the BBC's leading war-cameramen, and contained the last-ever footage of County Derry-born Seamus Heaney reading his poetry, the world's last real giant of twentieth century literature who then gave what turned out to be his valedictory public reading at the City of Culture, pleading: “Once in a lifetime  / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme”

McCauley included the footage in his latest film, shown to a standing ovation after stunned silence. It is a poetically heart-wrenching homage to Derry entitled 'A City Dreaming'; a spoken memoir, illustrated by archive film, of a man called Gerry Anderson who posits the notion of Derry as a separate city, distinctive in that way frontier cities are: “Monaco without the money”, he says. He emigrated to Canada in the early 1970s, after watching the police break up a St. Patrick's day parade and a 13-year-old girl he knew assaulted by an officer's truncheon, then civil rights marches on which “those wanting to avoid trouble were the first to get it”. After which, Anderson believed: “the well-meaning and the just slipped quietly way” - that battle might begin.

McCauley and I walk in the rain a while, and talk on that theme, which is also that of Paul Greengrass; and McCauley says something really insightful: “A lot of what's happened this year in Derry”, he reflects, “came from the same urges as the movements of the 1960s. But that idealism was subsumed for decades by the violence of the troubles. It couldn't survive; this city is too small to take that level of warfare for so long. Human beings hurt one another, they become hard; eventually, the hard men take over”.

This year, however, says McCauley: “I've seen people awakened by just the scale of these public events. Our city centre has for years been made of dark, dangerous streets; people had become conditioned into being frightened. But now those streets were full, people taking back the streets that were dark and fearful. And during the 'lumiere', they were literally illuminated by balls of flame, trees dressed with hanging baskets of fire, the peace bridge packed, teenaged kids on top of all the buildings. I saw my city with different eyes and thought: this is incredible, and it's happening.

The Traveller’, an installation made by Cédric Le Borgne, in Derry for UK city of culture celebrations 2014.

'The Traveller’, an installation made by Cédric Le Borgne along the peace bridge in Derry for the UK city of culture celebrations in 2014. Gonzales Photo/Michael Hornbogen. All rights reserved.

“People talk about economic revitalisation and all that”, he continues, “but there was a bigger thing, something's been left in the air that could not be planned until it actually happened. Something that did take us back to before the Troubles when this was a great place to be for all the hardship. And it's been some process that deals with the hurt, and turns towards something positive”.

The executive producer of McCauley's film was Andrew Eaton, who after his father's murder by the IRA “always wondered what it would be like to meet Martin McGuinness, if he was the IRA's Chief of Staff”. In the event he did meet him: “In fact, I was the first person to break the Sinn Fein ban”, imposed by the Thatcher government, obliging actors to speak the party leaders' words on television. “We were interviewing him about the Field Day theatre, and it was decreed that the ban didn't apply if we were talking about art. Weirdly, it was okay to meet him. My father's death was so pointless, and it felt even more so afterwards, somehow. We have to face up to these things, and that's what Derry's done this year”.

Eaton - BAFTA-award-winning producer of In this World – left his native Derry soon after his father's death, aged 16, but “returned many times and for many reasons: family, work, stuff for Marty”. But back as recently as five years go, he says: “I found it utterly depressing, fallen off the edge”, even though the war was over. The city had even lost the cache, he says “of being on the news every night”.

This time, Eaton was back to speak at an event with the widow of journalist Daniel Pearl, executed by the Taliban, about whom he had made a film, A Mighty Heart. And also, he says: “to re-acquaint myself with my home town, with my three daughters. It's been my good fortune to work with Seamus Heaney, who always emphasised this sense of place, and I came to try and close some kind of circle”.

The return was like Derry's anthem The Town I Loved So Well, but with the ending changed: “We went to the house I grew up in, and I could feel those wounds healing for the first time. I went to the barracks that the British Army used as its base for Bloody Sunday, now a venue for all those events – what a feeling. My mother had served there as a wren, and my Dad came to pick her up at the gate for their first date. I felt I was getting my home town back”.

The timing could not be more historically apt says Eaton – with the co-incidental re-surfacing of some of the Troubles' scars: a book ('Lethal Allies' by Anne Cadwallader) and a BBC Panorama special investigated British army undercover death squads murdering unarmed civilians, while another television film charted the narratives of people 'disappeared' by the IRA. “Northern Ireland has been so quick to close ranks over these things”, reflects Eaton, “but less so now. And none of this could happen – not to me or to the city - in any other context than what people like Marty and Shona were doing all year, around the place”.

In the Nerve Centre: what next?

The issue remains: what next? Now that 2013 and its back-to-back events are over, and Hull the new UK City of Culture. There is no pretence that - after all the fun - Derry has this year agreed to share its history. Indeed, along with Eaton, I was invited to a gathering last month organised by the Nerve Centre, at which teachers of commitment and bravery discussed their work, as defined by the title of the conference: 'Teaching Divided History'. They heard peers from Kashmir and Lebanon talk about “our history books in which Germany is still divided and Russia is still the USSR, because no one can agree on a history of our own”. (They even put up with me talking about divided history in Bosnia.) More importantly, the teachers contributed their own discourse about teaching Shakespeare in Creggan or civil rights on the Protestant Waterside.

For Marty Melarkey, this Nerve Centre project is at the core of the City of Culture's 'legacy' which, he says, “must live on in the schools. Yes, there must be music and theatre, we want young people to do drama and make films together – but Field Day was a theatre company and not everyone can play in a band.  This needs to get into the classroom, as living history, drama, understanding and reckoning with our city's past and how it fits into the wider world.

“I was at school with Ray McCartney's brother when he was on hunger strike”, he recalls. “And it was as though this wasn't happening. We won't talk about it because it's not on the curriculum, although a hunger striker's brother is sitting here in class. We need to make sure that attitude never pervades our school system again. We need the next generation to learn: what were the root causes of the Troubles? Why did it go so wrong? And use creative expression to find the answers”.

Paul Greengrass visited the Nerve Centre's digital workshop, where he found talented enthusiasm for his own craft – infused by the recent past, but neither in denial of, nor dependent upon it. “So many of the photographic exhibitions and films that were showing reflected the Troubles back at all of us”, he says. “News reports, documentaries and photographs which have embedded those images of the city among young people. As a result, it was very clear: there's a huge amount of interest in the art of film - it was striking. Derry's always been a culturally vibrant city – the WORD and music have always been important – Seamus Heaney, the Undertones for Chrissakes – but now all these young are people manipulating images and playing with sound in a very sophisticated way. They're not trying to make films about the Troubles: one kid showed me a re-make he'd done of The Bourne Supremacy [a Greengrass film about a CIA assassin] lasting 60 seconds. It was pastiche piss-take of course, but very clever, very skilful”.

“Derry's problems, apart from the obvious, have been geographical”, concludes Greengrass. “On the edge of the Kingdom and the edge of Ireland with mountains between it and Belfast. And once the shirt factories had gone, economic isolation was going to be part of that remoteness, so that not long ago it was hard to say to a young person in Derry: 'you should stay'. I know it's easy to be optimistic from the outside, but there's a chance now you'd win the argument and persuade them to remain”.

Much has been written, and more said in anger, about the Derry local authorities' apparently wilful determination to minimise the legacy, its decision to demolish the historically cogent concert venue at Ebrington Barracks and wind of the City of Culture company earlier than planned, next month. The city council has throughout had a churlish relationship with the City of Culture organisers, with politics and jealousies choking the works: in the background, the old patronage machine of the ruling Social Democrat and Labour Party has been rendered gradually bereft - initially by the rise of Sinn Fein as the potent nationalist voice, and now simply outflanked by the new spirit of the city and those driving the year's events.

Last words to Bronagh

But Bronagh Gallagher sheds no tears over lost venues or committees. She had returned to Derry as soon as the bid was announced, “to establish initiatives that would outlive the year, whether we got it or not”: Creative Village, a collective of artists, and Home Grown, a group of local bands working with schools and young people. “A venue is a building”, says Bronagh, “what we need to work on is the voice that's been liberated, keep investing and liberating each other, give confidence to that voice, and funding for it when there is something to fund, not venues haemorraging money. We need passionate people who have their ear to the ground also – and we have them.

“We're post-conflict people, she says. Some communities steeped only in the debris of tribalism, and a legacy for the City of Culture must mean a new understanding of Northern Ireland beyond tribalism”. She rails against British Army recruitment drives around Protestant schools in poor areas, “trying to appeal to the old identity of a lost tribe – the Protestant working class which was never represented but by British interests that have now abandoned them. What they offer to the youth is: 'Be a hero!' says the army. But we've had enough of who they call a hero and who they call a terrorist here. Any man can send another man to war and I know its complicated and stuff but I'm sick of cowards in government. I only hope that for all our futures in every community we can offer these young people a better future. I just wish human life was given precedence over all else. It takes brave people to change a hurt place like this - where some people will never have peace, where there's pain in every home - and it has to be done.

“Derry”, she concludes, “has now seen beyond the war. Think of Derry as a child with a new voice. A place of thousands of nests with wee eggs about to hatch”. At the end of McCauley's film, Gerry Anderson notes: “Now I see a people with positivity and energy in their hearts. I hope they're right”.

 An abridged version of this article appeared in the Observer last December.

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