Joy bells ringing as made-of-Culmore Community Partnership looks forward to its big opening
In May 1600 the Elizabethan conquistador Henry Docwra changed the course of Irish history when he sailed into Culmore and used it as a base from which to establish his Derry garrison.
Eight years later Cahir O’Doherty raided the English-controlled fort at Culmore and afterwards burned Derry in a daring rebellion against the occupying forces Docwra had embedded there.
For many years Culmore (the big corner) so named for its unique geography has been steeped in history. For centuries it was famed for its fishing. Generations earned their livelihoods and sustained a thriving economy by taking the plentiful salmon from the Foyle before the era of dwindling stocks, controls and bans.
The village, set on a picturesque circular bay and natural harbour, has even been immortalised in song through the traditional ballad ‘ The Maid of Culmore’. Suffice to say Culmore will forever occupy a deserving place in any telling of Derry’s history.
Today, in April 2021, the next chapter of that history is already being written. A few years ago a group of like-minded local organisations and individuals came together to establish the Culmore Community Partnership (CCP).
The idea was to bring together people from voluntary groups, schools, residents, businesses, sports and cultural organisations, as well as elected representatives, in order to focus development and provide community programmes in what is one of the fastest growing areas of Derry.
In just a few years the CCP has been a key driver in a number of exciting projects with its transformation of the derelict Victoria Hall into a fit for purpose multi-services hub for the local community perhaps the jewel in the crown.
The ‘Journal’ caught up with CCP manager Una Cooper to chat about the overall vision for the area and the important role the partnership has been playing in supporting the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Una explained that the group was set up in 2015 as a grassroots initiative born out of a desire to improve amenities in the Culmore area.
“Our board are all people who were involved in various organisations, say the local football club or the local churches. They were different people from different walks of life. But the common goal was services and supports for the local community,” she said.
One of the initial points of focus was the landmark Victoria Hall. Occupying a prime site at the corner of Culmore Point Road and Coney Road the old Orange Hall had been derelict for years. It seemed a no-brainer that the large building should be brought back into use for local people.
“So a couple of years back we approached The Honourable Irish Society who owned Victoria Hall,” Una said.
The approach, as we now know, was successful. The group has since received hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding from a variety of sources including the Department for Communities, Derry City & Strabane District Council, the National Lottery Community Fund and the The Honourable The Irish Society, in order to undertake a refurbishment programme and make the dream a reality.
“The building was handed over to us about August/September time,” said Una.
Unfortunately, the persistence of the worst health crisis in living memory has meant the CCP have not yet been able to exploit the new facilities to the extent they would have wished.
“We managed to have our doors open to the public for the grand total of three weeks and then we were locked out.
“It has been really strange. The staff came in but we didn’t really have time to do that face-to-face engagement with the community. Whenever you are starting anything from scratch it is difficult when you throw a pandemic into it.
“It’s less comfortable to be meeting over Zoom and talking to you on the phone than it is face-to-face. But we managed it anyway.”
CCP has been providing an important lifeline and social outlet for young and old in the burgeoning northern suburbs of the city during what has been a trying and isolating time for many people.
“In those early days we set up a parent and toddler group. We also set up our ‘Leading Lights’ over 50s group and arranged to meet them in Culmore Country Park. We went for walks and that gave us the opportunity to meet the locals.
"It gave young mums and dads the opportunity to meet with new parents. It was just lovely. They were all crying out for it. Just to see the young people loving seeing the other young people. The wind was howling and the rain was beating down but we did it anyway. That was lovely, that wee bit of engagement.”
Una said a major priority for her and the CCP board is ensuring that the new Victoria Hall is a community hub that everyone can enjoy and access. Naturally, this was tricky with an old Orange Hall that had been empty for years.
“There has been so much to do in our building in terms of getting it accessible for people with disabilities or mobility issues so we have been doing a lot of building work while we haven’t been open to the public. We had a new roof put on, we’re getting a lift installed and we have just started that work. We are getting our car park re-tarmacked. We are putting in baby-changing facilities. There is a lot going on in the background.
“By the time we open the doors - we’re not entirely sure when we will be open again - and I think probably realistically you are looking into the summer - by that stage our building will be totally accessible. For the board that has been a major priority.”
Louise Boyce, DC&SDC’s Access and Inclusion Coordinator, who has bee assisting on this aspect of the project, said: “It is great to see that CCP has completed accessible grant aid work in Culmore Community Hub (Victoria Hall) to ensure that the cultural hub is inclusive and accessible for our pan disability community. It is very welcome news and also highlights the importance of collaborative partnership working to enhance participation in cultural activity, promoting access for all.”
Una said the local Culmore councillors have been very supportive in helping drive the project forward.
Over the past year the partnership has made a point of engaging with the young people of the areas based on the ‘nothing about us, without us’ principle.
“We’ve set up our youth club and youth forum for children from 8 to 17. We have a young leaders’ group as well. It’s all been over Zoom. It’s been difficult for the kids,” she said.
“We’re a registered Education Authority (EA) youth club so they’ve given us a lot of support in setting up our youth forum. That’s a group of young people and children from the Culmore area who are representing all of the kids and are feeding through what it is the youngsters in the area want.
“That gives us the scope to bring in the funding for the support and activities that they want. We’ve been working on that and will be opening our youth club, bringing them into the building, in the week beginning May 10.
“We’re delighted about that. It will be the first time our youngsters will be in the youth club in the hall.”
An important aspect of the group’s work throughout what has been a lonely time for lots of people has been its Culmore Connected telephone support service.
“That was set up for our most isolated and vulnerable residents, mostly older people. We’ve been giving them a wee catch-up call once a week. That can range from anything from two minutes to an hour.
“It’s just being there, a friendly voice at the end of the phone. If they needed any shopping or if they needed anything sorted, our staff provide that support for them. That has worked very well.”
Equally, the economic pressure the pandemic and the restrictions have placed on local families has been a focus - not least over the Christmas period a few months ago.
“At Christmas we did our charity appeal. We were supported by the local school and churches and shops, the whole community.
“We did a food collection and we got the names of families who needed that wee bit of extra support. We provided hampers of shopping and vouchers and cash to families who really needed the support. That was a great success. The support from the community was so lovely. We could not believe how much was donated.”
Christmas was a magical time notwithstanding the year that was in it.
“Santa and his elves came. We had two days when Santa was in the back of a pick-up truck and the next day he was in a beautiful wedding Limousine. We went around every street, dressed as elves and gave out sweets to all the kids in Culmore. It was so beautiful and the wains loved it.”
Another highlight was Good Relations Week which was able to go ahead last September just before the second COVID-19 surge shut the city down again. CCP used the occasion to celebrate the diversity of the area by embracing the culture of some of the district’s newer citizens as well as the traditions of some of Derry’s longer-established East Asian and South Asian communities.
“We delivered a lovely multicultural programme. That was our first major event.”
The new hub has just finished a programme with Culmore Youth FC and Cú Chulainn GAA that built resilience among young people.
“It was a cross-community programme to support ten-year-olds with their mental well-being. It’s laying that ground work for those younger age groups to become more mentally resilient and to let them know it is okay to talk about this stuff and it’s okay to be in bad form.”
With a fair wind and the lifting of restrictions these young people should get a chance to enjoy the facilities in person over the coming weeks and a new chapter in the history of Culmore will be written.
“The reception from the community has been just amazing. They’ve been brilliant and so supportive.