City of Culture countdown

City of Culture media director Garbhan Downey on this history of the humble potato, the BBC’s interest in the town we love so well and the success of the Feile.

Could a new Derry book be about to debunk a long-held worldwide myth?

City chef Emmett McCourt, who has been researching the Northwest’s culinary heritage for his soon-to-be-published “Feast and Famine”, is about to challenge a centuries-old legend about the humble spud.

The Elizabethan explorer Walter Raleigh has always been credited with bringing the potato to Europe from the Americas.

But according to McCourt’s research, potato crops had never been successfully cultivated in North America until grown in New England by Scots-Irish emigrants from Derry.

McCourt’s proof comes in the form of both history books and museum exhibits which he unearthed in our twin town of Derry, New Hampshire.

He explains: “Potatoes had been introduced to the United States several times throughout the 1600s, without much success and were regarded as unfit food.

“They were not grown successfully until almost a century later in 1719, when they were planted in Derry, an area of Londonderry, New Hampshire, and from there cultivated widely across the United States.

“The value of the potato as a nutritious food source was not known until the Scots Irish from Derry cultivated it.”

McCourt also argues that Derry settlers could well be the inventors of America’s signature dish – the apple pie.

He comments: “Those first settlers also brought with them apple trees to Londonderry.

“These trees would thrive into massive orchards and by the early 1800s became a major crop to many local farms. The famous ‘American’ dish, apple pie, seems to have originated in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

It would seem therefore that those first pioneers from Ireland could be attributed also to this famous dish.”

Cracking programme for this year’s Féile – everything from sport to drama to politics to music to the visual arts.

Particularly sorry I missed Irene Melaugh’s brilliantly-named new play, Nightmare on Elmwood Street on Tuesday night. If ever a production deserved an award for its title alone, it was this one.

The event, however, that wins first prize for quirkiness and making best use of Derry’s hilly demeanour has to be tomorrow’s Big Ball Bonanza at Fahan Street.

At six o’clock, hundreds, if not thousands, of numbered plastic balls, will be tipped from a trailer at the top of the banking adjacent to the city walls.

The balls – the little light articles you’d find in the Fun Factory – will then race down the hill, overcoming various obstacles, with the winner scooping its owner a cool £1,000 in cash money.

Balls cost a fiver a throw, with proceeds going to Divert, the Feile and the Pink Ladies.

Divert’s Leona McMenamin said the event, which forms part of tomorrow’s Big Bog BBQ, was open to everyone – and balls will be on sale up until showtime: “It’s something a little different – a Divert worker saw a similar event in Donegal a few weeks ago, and thought it would really work here. We’ve been selling the balls in Quayside and getting a lot of interest. It’s a great way to fundraise.”

Divert are also organising away-day fishing trips for young people, a pool competition at the House in the Wells, and a Biggest Loser competition as part of the Feile events.

The Big Bog BBQ, which is being staged at Free Derry Corner, gets underway at 3pm tomorrow.

Another unmissable Féile event will be Sunday morning’s soccer challenge between Derry City Legends and Sean Collins’s Community United. (Kickoff 11.00 a.m. at the Showgrounds.)

There’ll be some pretty handy players on display, with reps from Divert, CRJ, the Old Library Trust, Brandywell Residents, Bogside Residents, NIHE and APEX all lining out against the Candystripes XI.

Expect to the odd politician in the mix as well; Collie Kelly and Mark H Durkan are reported to be quite useful. And Derry City Council might also chip in a power-horse or two – Tommy McCallion and Anthony Tohill are both on the staff there.

Clearly though the Community United selectors aren’t overly fixating on the result, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve asked this columnist to line out for Culture Company. (Tag, Stewarty, you’re it...)

Word reaches us that the BBC’s City of Culture season could now start as early as autumn 2012, with the airing of a new documentary on The Undertones on BBC4.

The network is set to broadcast a massive slate of programming to mark Derry’s year of celebrations. This will include major coverage of the city’s music heritage, from the writing of Danny Boy, through the hymns of Cecil Alexander, right up to our hosting of next year’s Fleadh and the roll-out of the Music Promise.

The Undertones doc, which is being made by Alleycats Productions, will feature interviews with band members John and Damian O’Neill, Michael Bradley and Billy Doherty.

There will be commentary, critique and insight too from the likes of journalists Paul Morley and Eamonn McCann – and from the band’s producer Roger Bechirian.

And it’ll feature lots of music from Derry’s greatest ever pop band, including rare footage of concerts – plus, it’s alleged, a cameo of Feargal Sharkey (described by one critic as “the greatest voice ever to come out of punk”) singing Get Over You with a smoke in his mouth.

Always on fire, as the poet might say...

The Maiden City Festival has been bringing lots of colour to the city over the past week. And organisers are already working assiduously on major plans to mark the 400th anniversary of the awarding of the city charter in 2013.

Next year’s calendar will include a landmark Siege Pageant at Ebrington, plus the opening of the new £4million Siege Museum at the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall.

As part of this week’s events, the Craft Village hosted a special “Scotch-Irish Farewell”, where traditional musicians offered the final farewell as Presbyterians left for the New World after the Siege. And this again will be a central theme of next year’s offer, as the city bids to get its many diaspora to return.

Culture Company is currently working with the Ulster Scots Agency to research and commemorate the huge impact made by expats from the Northwest on America and Canada

And the historian and Ulster-Scots authority, Billy Kennedy, is writing a new book about the Ulster-Scots “farewell” from the Northwest, which it’s hoped will help promote the city on the international market next year.

Ever wanted to play alongside one of the world’s top dance troupes? Well, here’s your chance.

The Hofesh Shechter Company, who are staging Political Mother: Derry~Londonderry Uncut in the city as part of the 2013 celebrations, want local musicians to provide the live soundtrack.

To that end, the company will be hosting auditions for talented emerging musicians, who have worked, lived or studies in the city, at the Nerve Centre from September 11 to 13.

So, if you’re a string, drum or guitar player stick the date in your diary now.

Political Mother has been described as “a howling beast of a dance show”, and the Derry cut of the show will be performed for the first time at the city’s new venue at Ebrington next March 8-9.

This performance will feature a live, 30-strong band, made up of 20 young Derry-based musicians alongside 10 musicians, and 16 dancers from Shechter’s internationally acclaimed company in a work that has won five-star reviews from the international press.