2021 Festivals in Derry: Council unveils plans for COVID-safe outdoor celebrations

Outdoor weekend celebrations, street cafés, large scale exhibits, street installations and wandering musicians will form part of upcoming festivals in Derry after the local Council unveiled plans to move away from online, virtual events towards COVID-safe celebrations to keep spirits up.

Wednesday, 10th February 2021, 7:56 am

A wide ranging report on St Patrick’s Day, the Jazz Festival, Hallowe’en and other festivals was tabled by Head of Culture Aeidin McCarter yesterday at the Council’s Business & Culture Committee meeting.

Councillors approved a raft of newly redrafted plans which take account of the Covid pandemic but which also shifts the focus more firmly away from bringing in visitors to entertaining local people and supporting local businesses.

The report states: “In 2021 it is apparent that a return to normal life is still many months away and the ‘new norm’ will continue to impact on the way that festivals and events can be delivered with social distancing, hand sanitising and mask-wearing, possibly continuing into the autumn months and beyond.

2018: Stilt walkers Audrey Doherty (Brigid), Michael Johnston (St. Patrick) and Sorcha Shanaghan (Suffragette) who featured in the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. DER1118-129KM

“As the pandemic continues, officers recognise that there is an increasing need to facilitate community engagement in a way that supports good mental health and that arts and culture is one of the best mediums through which to do this.

“Although some events were able to be delivered through online programming last year there are a number of issues regarding the sustainability of this medium including on line fatigue, over saturation of the market and the cost of creating quality recordings for online content at a time when budgets are shrinking means that this is not a long term alternative for actual events.”

While some online content to enhance an overall programme will continue, it will not be the sole focus or even the main focus of upcoming festivals.

The report states: “The profile of target audiences has also changed as a result of the pandemic. Cities are looking to their own communities during a time when there is limited international travel and even regional audiences cannot be guaranteed due to travel restrictions. Officers will be cognitive of this situation as it evolves and eases however for the short term at least, our priority audience is our citizens for reasons of practicality and well-being.”

One of the recent ‘Communities United’ St. Patrick’s Day celebrations with the then Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, Alderman Hilary McClintock.

As part of this he Council’s Festival and Events Team have created an ‘Inside Out’ Just In Time animation programme for Derry and Strabane that would support on-street business initiatives and help entice people back into the city and town centres in a safe but engaging way in the coming months.

This will include street animation and music that enhances the experience of visiting shops, bars, restaurants and streets without compromising the health and welfare of the community. This will be carried out over a series of weekends in the coming months when several streets in the urban centres may be closed simultaneously to accommodate outdoor dining and support street café culture.

This will run from March – over two afternoons / evenings each month and will incorporate seasonal themes in both Derry City Centre and Strabane Town. These are:

March – St Patrick’s Day, celebration of Irish culture and modern Ireland which is a fantastic fusion of many diverse and colourful cultures.

April – Easter, Spring, New beginnings

May – City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival

June – Summer Jamm, summer in the city, Colmcille 1500.

In is anticipated that this will be delivered as part of the wider Business Recovery programme, exploiting the opportunities with the planned infrastructure investment in Derry City and Strabane town in the key locations identified in that programme.

Throughout 2021, funding is to be made available to visual artists/ cultural organisations to create exhibitions, displays, installations and experiences that can be experienced outside while adhering to the strictest of lockdown regulations.


The full St Patrick’s Day Spring Carnival programme in both Derry and Strabane will not go ahead in its usual format, but the Council in tandem with the North West Carnival Initiative and others are set to deliver suitable programme content as outlined above for 2021.

Drawing from the experience of the 2020 ‘the Awakening’ Halloween festival, North West Carnival Initiative will develop arts programming entitled “Imagine That… “ which is a combination of artist led creation, online content including tutorials and webinairs, and neighbourhood focused activity. The city centre will be reimagined with multiple creative installations and pop up displays adorning several areas including Shipquay Street, Peace Garden and several quiet spaces within the Walls.


2021 marks the 20th Anniversary of the City of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival, and options are being explored to mark the anniversary and safely deliver the festival in a different format this year from Friday April 30 – Sunday May 2. This will include bringing Jazz music to life in the streets of the City with on street roaming Jazz musicians and Jazz themed animation delivered in a safe way. The Council is also exploring the possibility of small-scale ticketed events and Jazz Master classes working with both the Mayor’s Office, University of Ulster and the North West Regional College. If permitted these events would be delivered both on the ground but also with the option of a digital delivery.

A digital programme featuring local artists who have been involved in the festival from the beginning and will tell the story of the festival and how it started with an audience of 5,000 and has grown to welcome over 70,000 visitors to the City every year. An outdoor Visual Art Jazz Exhibition trail be located in key iconic locations linked to the Jazz festival.

To mark the 20th year of the festival up to five bursaries will be awarded to up and coming local Jazz Musicians in conjunction with the Mayor’s office.


Other events affected by the ongoing pandemic and the guidance in place and which are recommended to not proceed with in 2021 are the North West Angling Fair which is usually held in April and the Strabane Lifford and Waterside Half Marathons.


Halloween 2021- Council officers are ‘tentatively’ drafting a programme plan for Halloween 2021 in Derry and Strabane. Discussions have begun with the North West Carnival Initiative regarding the format this year may take as we are still unsure if large scale parades or crowds will be allowed. It is hoped that by October the city and region will be opened up to allow for a larger scale event. Officers will continue to monitor the situation and bring back a further paper to members with more detail at a later date.


Plans were underway to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of the life of St Colmcille between June 2020 and December 2021 before the pandemic occurred. Officers had secured a small percentage of funding through the North West Development Fund to contribute towards costs of a Colmcille themed showcase for Foyle Maritime Festival 2020. Following discussions with Donegal County Council (DCC), it has been agreed that this funding can be re-profiled to create activity in honour of St Colmcille in or around December 7th this year.

Officers are working closely with the several cultural organisations who won the original tender for the showcase delivery as well as the St Colmcille 1500 Project Officer based in DCC are to draft a programme for this commemorative event.


Discussions with Clipper Ventures regarding any future visit of the current or future races is ongoing and “will be the subject of a further specific paper in the coming months following further consultations with the relevant race partners.”

The Council officer’s report stated: “Despite the restrictions, challenges and impact of Covid-19 the Festival and Events team are optimistic about the positive impact that they can have on the city and region in the delivery of a festival and events programme for the next financial year. It will be different in many ways to the usual calendar of events the region is famed for but no less creative, still ensuring its reputation as the home of great events.”

Welcoming the report, the Chairperson of the Business and Culture Committee Councillor Rory Farrell said that while it was disappointing that festival and events are unable to go ahead in their usual format, he was delighted to see Council being creative and flexible in their approach and successfully readapting the formats to ensure some of the events can be delivered.

He paid tribute to the various officer teams across Council working in such difficult and challenging circumstances to ensure the majority of events that can go ahead, do so in a safe environment.

“It is hugely important that despite the restrictions, challenges and impact of COVID that we continue to place Festival and Events high on our agenda for delivery. Our city and region is renowned for its events and we are very much aware the positive impact they have on the city and region. I welcome the fact that Council is looking at creative and innovative ways to deliver these events and are engaging with the local arts sector, who have been hugely impacted by the pandemic, to help ensure we retain our reputation as the home of great events.”