A city’s future

Shona McCarthy
Shona McCarthy

Writer Dominic Kearney continues his efforts to get to know Derry before moving here from Liverpool. This week he finds City of Culture boss Shona McCarthy enthusing about her own move back to the city...

I’m not stupid. I’ve read books and newspapers and magazines about Derry. I’ve watched documentaries and talked to people. But I wasn’t born and brought up here, and as yet I don’t live here. So – to an extent – I don’t understand the fuss about the Peace Bridge across the River Foyle. When it comes down to it, it’s just a way of getting from one part of the city to another, isn’t it? Like a road?

Well yes, it is. And no, it most definitely isn’t.

When I first visited Derry the bridge was under construction. With each subsequent trip over it came nearer and nearer to completion. And then finally one visit it was done, and I walked over it, and it made me smile. I smiled because it was a beautiful day, and because it’s a lovely bridge. Most of all I smiled because everyone else on the bridge was smiling. Strangely enough, to me, as an outsider, it felt both new and as if it had always been there, which shows the cleverness of the design, I guess. But maybe it also suggests that it should have been there all along.

I mention the Peace Bridge because it’s been such a constant theme every time I’ve visited. It’s something people mention a lot, a source both of pride and pleasure, as well as some surprise, both that there’s another half of the city across the river and that it’s actually quite easy to get to.

Shona McCarthy mentioned the Peace Bridge too, when I met her the other week. She’s the chief of the Culture Company 2013. Her office, in a corner of Ebrington Square, looks out onto the bridge and the Cityside beyond. And the Peace Bridge is one of two places in Derry that holds special significance for her. It has opened Derry up, and expanded it, she tells me.

“If you stand in the middle of the bridge you can see that it incorporates and connects. Derry is a big village. You can’t walk over the bridge without seeing neighbours.”

Shona McCarthy is not a native of Derry. She’s from Portaferry, in Co Down, although she’s keen to narrow that down to Ballycran, and gives special mention to the hurling team there. This is her second spell in the city, having lived here in the mid-nineties, when she ran the Foyle Film Festival. Now though, she’s back for good.

“It’s a genuinely beautiful place. When I was here before, I didn’t appreciate the river.” And now? “Now? It’s a different city.”

Derry is a city, she tells me, that is being freshly defined by a series of moments: David Cameron’s speech to the Commons after the Saville Inquiry; the construction of the Peace Bridge; the renovation of the barracks at Ebrington; and, looking to the future, the completion of the walkway along the east side of the river. Like no other place I’ve ever been to, Derry resonates with every gesture, event, and word. Nothing is without some added significance. So the Prime Minister’s use of the word “Derry” becomes the subject of newspaper articles. So the atmosphere at the opening of a short bridge can be described as “electric”. And electric jolts continue to shock the city into consciousness, blinking into the new light.

More light was let in when the fences and walls enclosing Ebrington Barracks were removed and more space was returned to the city. I listened to Radio Foyle’s outside broadcasts throughout the day of the official opening, and I wandered with thousands of others around the square on Valentine’s night. It felt exciting - even to me, a stranger to the city’s emotions. February 14th felt an appropriate date as citizens and city saw their affair continuing to grow.

“Much of the Waterside was barriered off,” says Shona McCarthy. And now the giant plot of land that is Ebrington is opened up, and so are the areas beyond. From the Guildhall newly-stripped of its scaffolding, over the bridge to Ebrington, and back again, the beauty of the city is being revealed. It’s hard not to think of a period of hibernation ending.

“Derry used to feel closed, a bit cut off. Now it’s opening up and looking beyond.”

Beyond there are further moments. In 2013, for the first time in its history, the Turner Prize will be held outside Great Britain. Derry will host it. Derry will also host the 2013 Fleadh, when an estimated 300,000 visitors will flood the city. These are big things, which will bring attention and interest from all over the world. But the plans for the year as City of Culture don’t simply include events plonked in from outside. Shona is keen to stress the organic, homegrown nature of so many of the events. It’s a city of art, and music, and literature, that is continuing to produce new work. Derry’s talent will be showcased; there’ll be a chance to connect outwards.

Shona’s conversation is full of energy and excitement, and engagement with ideas and possibilities. She feels that the work being done for the city of culture is creating a new layer of “cultural leadership” and a “cultural regeneration” which can carry Derry into the future. “We’ve 30 years to catch up, and we’ve been on the periphery.” But Derry has “a brilliant education system” and there are things happening – the science park, the expansion of the university, the events of 2013 which could provide one whole, year-long “moment”.

The word “potential” occurs frequently when talking to Shona McCarthy. Derry has “undiscovered potential”. There is “huge tourism potential” in Derry. Derry is in a “hinge location with the potential to draw people to Northern Ireland”. Regeneration gives the opportunity to release “personal and economic potential”. Looking to the future, she sees a city more confident in itself, full of people who see themselves differently. It’s a place where education and the creative industries – digital, film, games, music – are the way forward.

She is absolutely convinced that Derry has a bright future. That’s why she’s committed to staying here.

But. There’s a but.

And this is a tricky subject. Hope is something all very new to Derry. The city needs entrepreneurs. There are opportunities. There needs to be a shift from ‘something must be done’ to ‘I must do something’ to ‘I can do something’. Visiting Derry I can see what Shona means. Derry seems to shut down at 5pm. And walking round Ebrington on opening night, I would have expected to see so many food and drink stalls, stands with merchandise, things to do, ways to spend money, basically. In some ways it was refreshing. In others…

The Peace Bridge is just one of the places in Derry special to Shona McCarthy. The other is the Cityside walk beneath the Foyle Bridge. You get the impression this is a place she comes to remember what the long days and hard work is all for. From here, you can see the whole way down the river. From here, you can sense a city that goes out into the world. From here, you can see the silhouette of the city against a sky where the light changes from blues to greys to pinks to purples. It is Shona McCarthy’s own cinema screen, with a soundtrack of cars and lorries rumbling over the bridge above, showing a special feature of a “gem of a city” sitting on the edge of Ireland, on the edge of Europe, just beginning to wake.