Paul McElhinney reflects on the great cultural well that is Derry

Brian FrielBrian Friel
Brian Friel
They say that great works of art and cultural merit tend to emerge out of straitened times.

Weimar Germany’s cultural explosion of the 1920s, for example, was partly a result of the devastation and dislocation caused by World War One.

The gospel tradition and the Mississippi Delta blues owe everything to the cruelties and sadnesses of slavery in the US Deep South and later of ‘Jim Crow’.

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Great art needs an ‘edge’, an irritating stone at the bottom of the shoe, in order to flower.

The UndertonesThe Undertones
The Undertones

Derry, has seen many travails over its long history, particularly in the days of unionist-dominated politics up to the late-1960s.

Life was not pleasant for those of a nationalist, Catholic background before Partition, but the formally institutionalised nature of discrimination during the years 1920-1972 was particularly brutal.

Denied access to channels towards advancement and success, the nationalist population sought success in less traditional pursuits where economic, social, political and religious backgrounds were less of a hindrance to success.

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Entering positions of real power and influence was effectively barred.

Phil CoulterPhil Coulter
Phil Coulter

Availing of the benefits presented under the 1947 Education Act and the opportunities for advancement of a grammar school education, nationalists in Derry (and throughout the province) saw the doors which education could open.

Integral to the growth of cultural talent in Derry over the last century indisputably, has been St. Columb’s College.

It was (and continues to be) a centre of excellence, entry to which depends on the quality of individual applicants – not on one’s parents’ bank balance.

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The college has a long and proud tradition of admitting and developing talented students from more deprived backgrounds.


Eamonn McCann, politician and activist who came from humble beginnings, speaks proudly of his St. Columb’s education and how it allowed pupils like him to aspire to higher things through education.

It has become a cliché that Catholic/nationalists have placed more focus on educational attainment than their unionist/Protestant counterparts.

This is not asserted in any triumphalist way, but to state simply that the former community was more well-attuned to educational attainment’s key role.

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St. Columb’s also stands out among other top schools in Ireland for having such a high per capita number of illustrious and accomplished alumni.

John HumeJohn Hume
John Hume

The South has colleges like Clongowes, Belvedere, Blackrock, Castleknock and Mount Anville which have produced many top alumni, but these are more or less, situated in or around the metropolis of Dublin.

None of the other cities or main towns of Ireland come close to Derry on this metric – a credit to those who carry on the vision and mission of St. Columb’s.

Without St. Columb’s educational generosity, would the world ever have benefited from the life and works of a John Hume or a Seamus Heaney?

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Side by side with the educational establishments in Derry are the places of cultural interest and their long-standing traditions.

Derry has a long and proud tradition in music and literature. Friel, Heaney, Deane, Sharkey, Coulter, Dana and Locke are products with national and international reputations. Its ‘City of Culture’ status in 2013 gave a huge boost of self-confidence to the vast wells of talent already there.

Derry’s ‘edginess’ continues, a status fed by its remote status slightly beyond the mainstream in Ireland, but on the geographical cusp of two Irelands. Even the city’s name is still a matter of contention, fortunately without being a subject of bitter enmity.

Eamonn McCann.Eamonn McCann.
Eamonn McCann.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Derry nationalists chanted the very same ‘We Shall Overcome’ that the oppressed black people of the US Deep South chanted only a few years previously – hope linked in the common experience of oppression.

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Black colleges there played a huge role, like St. Columb’s, in educating a population suffering the long-term effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A baton was passed from Martin Luther King to John Hume.

The culture of Derry owes much to its history of oppression, and discrimination, as does the Deep South. Yet, it also owes much to the resilient talents of its people, its outward-looking seafaring tradition, its links with Donegal, Scotland, Canada and the United States and a resulting outlook that stretches well beyond the mere parochial.

Hope and determination were seen ultimately to point the way forward in both places, above and beyond the bitter effects of inequity and oppression.

Paul McElhinney

May 2024

Paul McElhinney is a writer who lives in Wexford. He is a former official of the Department of the Taoiseach in Dublin, an oil and gas executive and a college lecturer. He writes on matters historical, political and cultural and also takes an interest in sports writing. He has written one book and is currently writing a history of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club. His family has strong links with Derry where he spent many pleasant summers during his youth.

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