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Our City of Culture Story

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Between 2011 and the start of this year, I've worked with a close and talented team in Derry~Londonderry to build a programme of over 200 events. The schedule is both world class and home grown, that's what makes it so unique and makes the city worth a visit. Only recently we heard the shortlist for the lucky contenders in the running for 2017 competition and many colleagues can remember the anticipation of Derry's bid process vividly.

The bid took much inspiration from Seamus Heaney and these words from The Cure at Troy:

So hope for a great sea change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.

We may not have achieved a great sea change yet but the whole city is witnessing small ripples of change across the wide River Foyle. In June these ripples really gathered force. The city participated en masse in two huge events which will be talked about for years.

The first was The Return of Colmcille which Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Derry man Martin McGuinness called 'the best event in the city for a hundred years' (he's older than he looks!)

Colmcille, or Saint Columba as he is known to some, is the patron saint of the city. We wanted an opportunity to tell an epic Derry~Londonderry story with a cast of as many locals as possible, one that would unfold over time. We needed a writer to shape it, to bring to life a historical saint who believed in the power of storytelling, art, poetry and song - this turned out to be the very brilliant Frank Cottrell Boyce. At that stage we had no idea he was writing the London 2012 Opening Ceremony which Danny Boyle directed, and we all know how that story ended.

Frank had a lot of legend and stories to work with - the myth that Comcille had defeated the Loch Ness monster was one, the fact that he glowed as a baby another, then there was the great work of Irish art and scholarship that is the Book of Kells, or the cloths of heaven and how these might relate to the Derry shirt factories. Frank likened Colmcille to a modern day superhero.

The story reached the 'farther shore' as Colmcille had done because the event began on the Scottish island of Iona. From here 30 people rowed a currach carrying a gift made by the children of Iona's only school across the Irish Sea for 10 days. The gift and boat were small but the welcome was massive as crowds of thousands lined the River Foyle to cheer them into the city like heroes. The next day 850 local participants brought the city alive with stories of our past including punk rock as The Undertones played on the back of a lorry, American GIs danced with shirt factory ladies, Amelia Earhart flew in, there was a return Flight of the Earls and even a tribute to a stranded killer whale. All this was a mere warm up though for the 'far side of revenge' moment to come. The Loch Ness monster and Colmcille had unfinished business to sort out which resulted in a showdown on the Foyle complete with magical lights, a fire breathing monster and the ethereal sound of a Derry choir on the Peace Bridge.

The next breathtaking event took place on summer Solstice day, where music lined the streets of Derry~Londonderry. The city awoke to a dawn chorus at the historic An Grianan fort on the outskirts of the city, at breakfast they were serenaded by music descending from hot air balloons, then every school in the city and 53 buskers among others took to the streets to perform during a day which ended with the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. On top of that, 5000 people of all ages gathered to give the most moving rendition of Danny Boy (or the Londonderry Air, 100 years old this year) you are likely to hear.

The proud people still have another six months to enjoy, with a new Sam Shepard play by legendary Irish theatre company Field Day to look forward to, the first edition of the Turner Prize outside of England in the autumn and a wintery wonderland created by the lights of the Lumiere festival in November. Derry~Londonderry is buzzing like never before and the momentum grows daily. Such an exciting journey to be part of and I'll keep you posted along the way.
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