Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Derry at peace with the past

Northern Ireland's intensely cultural city puts Troubles behind

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Derry has ghosts.

They breathe down your neck as you walk the streets they walked. They whisper their stories in your ear as you stand in the churches where they worshipped. But there's something else, too: intimations they have found a measure of peace.

Because call it what you may -- Derry or its 17th-century rebrand of Londonderry -- the city has worked hard to resolve the sectarian tensions between Catholics and Protestants that have long haunted it, emerging in the process as a world-class destination.

In Northern Ireland, but with deep ties to the Republic, the small metropolis's designation this year as the inaugural United Kingdom City of Culture and its rank as Lonely Planet's fourth-best city to visit for 2013 are external signs of this shift. Its bustling cafés, restaurants and pubs that line the sloped streets, along with its vibrant arts and cultural scenes, are internal signs.

This reinvention might be surprising to those who still associate the city with the years of strife known as the Troubles, peaking with Bloody Sunday in 1972, when the British army fired on protesters marching for civil rights for Catholics, killing 14.

But talk to the people now, and they'll make it clear the visually arresting city is moving forward. Whether in Catholic or Protestant areas, everyone from pub-goers to retirees on the bus are quick to engage a stranger. Talk turns fast to the City of Culture designation, and a sense of readiness for the world is apparent. Given the roster of more than 160 events slated for the year, the world might very well show up.

"This is a city that has transformed," said City of Culture communications executive Chris McCann. "People before would have thought of us as a city of conflict, whereas now we're letting people know we're a city with a large cultural offering," he added, referring to theatre, music, arts and sports communities that persisted throughout the Troubles and beyond.

Filling the bill with the locals will be the likes of the Hofesh Shechter dance company, the Royal Ballet, the awarding of the Turner Prize for visual arts and Stephen Rea's Field Day Theatre Company, which has its roots in 1980s Derry, creating a cultural space that brought both sides of the Troubles together through challenging theatre.

"It's going to be mad, the music, it's all going to be mad, the music and all," said Philip Devlin, 60, a self-described "Derry man through-and-through," while enjoying a drink in cosy Peadar O'Donnell's, one of the city's many live-music venues.

Busking nearby under one of the majestic gates to the 17th-century walls that enclose the city's core, Tiarnan McGarrity agreed. There are the big acts coming, he said, but "the best thing is the small acts that no one has ever heard of. The talent level here is very, very high, and they'll be in all the wee bars."

The city's compact layout makes it easy to walk to those wee spots and much of this walking can be done on the historic walls themselves. Originally built to keep out Jacobite armies, the 11/2-kilometre stone-and-slate structure is now a main tourist draw.

Four hundred years of history are put into full relief from the vantage point of the walls, which are up to eight metres wide and nine metres high and are generally accepted as one of Europe's most notable examples of preserved city walls.

The 1633 St. Columb's Cathedral within the walls -- the first Anglican Church built in the British Isles after the Reformation, refitted with a stunning Canadian pine ceiling in the 19th century -- and the 19th-century St. Eugene's Cathedral outside the walls, come in and out of view.

Meandering photogenically in the background is the massive River Foyle, a deep, navigable body that has made Derry an important port city for centuries.

(A bit of the Foyle probably runs through the veins of many Canadians of Irish descent, as Derry was a main point of emigration for more than 200 years, with ships sailing directly to Quebec and New Brunswick.)

A few steps down one of the walls' many access points brings you to the award-winning Tower Museum.

Armed with its comprehensive history of Derry, you can take in the neighbourhoods folded into green hills, home to the city's population of about 110,000 living on or around one of Ireland's oldest settlements.

From the vantage point of the walls' 24 cannons -- reminders of the city's history of sieges and one of Europe's most impressive cannon collections -- is a view of the green, white and orange of Irish flags flying in some areas and the Union Jack's red, white and blue painted on curbs in others.

The tricolours mark the city's distinct historic groups, and "peace fences" at "interface areas" act as uncomfortable reminders of more divisive times.

The famous Bogside political murals and the You Are Now Entering Free Derry sign summon visitors into the area where that division hit the streets violently 41 years ago on Bloody Sunday.

The large murals evoking the Troubles have become synonymous with Derry, and retain their power to move, notable among them the hollow cheeks of a hunger striker and a little girl caught in crossfire. The Museum of Free Derry, tucked into the iconic streets, is a must-see, as it documents the city's 1960s civil rights era and the movement into the Troubles in the early 1970s.

A short walk toward the River Foyle brings you to the pedestrian and cyclist Peace Bridge, opened in June 2011 and fast becoming a new symbol of Derry. Its graceful S-shaped design suggests the coming together of two sides -- which is the case, as it connects the mainly Protestant Waterside with the mainly Catholic Cityside.

More than 1,500,000 people have walked the bridge, the flow of bodies echoing the flow of energy that is palpable in the city itself -- a place that, after all, gave birth to two Nobel Prize winners, Seamus Heaney and John Hume.

You might get a bluesy serenade midway as Londoner John Vanek strums away from his favourite busking spot in his adopted city. His song, Legenderry Sky, is inspired by what he describes as the fantastic light that falls over the river.

A powerful sign of forward vision is the Peace Bridge as it opens up onto the expansive former parade ground of Ebrington Barracks, a 300-year-old military base that is now a main venue for City of Culture events.

Where helicopters once reigned during the Troubles from behind a now-dismantled iron-and-barbed-wire wall, sounds of the London Symphony Orchestra will soon be heard, as well as the grace notes of the best traditional Irish musicians in the world.

Is Derry ready for all of this?

"Is, aye, is," Devlin said.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A1

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