Friday, 22 June 2012


A LA CAT MENU: What starving citizens of
Derry were forced to eat during the siege

During the 105-day Siege of Derry by the forces of ousted Catholic King James II in 1689, the starving defenders loyal to the Protestant William of Orange were reduced to eating anything they could lay their hands on to survive. The menu was limited and far from appetising — dogs destined for the pot had fed on human corpses.
However, it kept enough of the burghers and members of the garrison alive long enough to withstand the Jacobite army until the Royal Navy relieved the city on August 1. If the nine skinny horses that remained on that day had known how close they came to being turned into horse d’oeuvres, they’d have been relieved too.
The siege, which began on April 18 following a defiant cry of “No surrender!”, cost the lives of 7,000 of Derry’s 30,000 civilians and 3,300 soldiers, mostly from hunger or disease.
Despite the best efforts of the Jacobites, Derry’s walls — built between 1613 and 1619 and 1.5 kilometres in circumference — were never breached, and that’s why it’s known as the Maiden City. Confusingly for overseas visitors it’s also known as Londonderry, Doire in Irish, Derry/Londonderry and, in reference to that forward slash, Stroke City. Call it what you like, but I call it a class act.

FOYLESAFE: City's formidable walls were never breached.
Below, cannons dating from the lengthy siege of 1689

Long overshadowed by Belfast, which is enjoying an anno mirabilis thanks to its Titanic centenary events and the opening of the £97 million Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, Derry will soon graduate from habitual bridesmaid to bride when it assumes the mantle of 2013 UK City of Culture. Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield were in the running for the title and put forward strong cases, but I can exclusively reveal they were on a hiding to nothing. When the selection panel met behind closed doors to evaluate the shortlist of four, it took them 20 minutes to reach a unanimous decision. The process usually takes days.
Derry is intent on rising to the occasion and delivering the goods big time, but the city on the River Foyle’s 12-month stint in the cultural spotlight will be no one-hit, soon-to-be-forgotten wonder. The year-long arty party that kicks off next January 1 is just the latest step in Derry’s march from a dark past to a brighter future.
In the Free Derry Museum in the city’s Bogside, an infamous episode in that dark past is depicted in overwhelming starkness that reduces many visitors to tears. Here you’ll learn of the events of Sunday, January 30, 1972 — Bloody Sunday — when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters, killing 13 males including seven teenage boys (a man who was wounded died 14 weeks later). Five of the 26 protesters who were hit by bullets were shot in the back.

REMEMBERED: Bloody Sunday
memorial with names of 14 victims
The museum’s 63-year-old education and outreach officer John Kelly greeted our tour group with the jarring words: “I’m the brother of Michael Kelly, who was murdered on Bloody Sunday. He was 17.” An American woman beside me gasped and grabbed her husband’s arm, perhaps expecting a stream of bitterness, but softly-spoken John simply smiled.
“Welcome to the Free Derry Museum,” he said. “I’m here to tell you what happened. I know. I was there. I witnessed it. I was there when Michael was put in the ambulance. I was there in the casualty department and I was there when he was pronounced dead. I was there in the mortuary with my young brother and 10 other bodies.”
The American woman clasped her free hand to her mouth.
“This museum is here to educate people,” said John. “It’s a story that has to be told. Take your time and have a wee look around. If you’ve any questions, feel free to ask.”
No one said a word. No one moved. John smiled again and nodded to the doorway just beyond the reception desk.
“Through there to the left. Oh, and the soundtrack you’ll hear on your way round, that’s from a young woman radio reporter from the BBC who walked with the civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday. She left her tape recorder running. Everything you hear — the chatting, then the gunshots, the screams and the panic — that’s all real.”

DYING: Teenage victim Michael Kelly and the
bloody baby-grow that was pressed to his wound
Among the most poignant exhibits is the blood-stained baby-grow that was pressed to Michael Kelly’s stomach (the bullet that killed him was lodged in his spine) after he was carried into the house of a young mother. But perhaps most telling of all the items on show is a copy of the discredited Widgery Report that was published 11 weeks after Bloody Sunday and supported the soldiers’ claims that they’d acted in self-defence. Resembling a pamphlet, it runs to a mere 36 pages. Next to it is the 5,000-page Saville Report, published in June 2010 and resembling a pile of telephone directories.
Lord Saville’s inquiry, which was established in 1998, lasted 12 years and cost £195 million, concluded that the soldiers had lost control and fired on fleeing civilians and those who were aiding the wounded. The civil rights marchers, he said, had posed no threat, and the soldiers had lied to cover up their actions.
In the housing estate surrounding the museum, many gable walls sport artistically-rendered murals commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday while others depict civil rights marchers and hunger strikers. The most photographed, however, is the Free Derry Wall, all that remains of a row of terraced houses that were demolished in the 1970s. The wall, an internationally-recognised symbol of people power, sports the legend “You are now entering Free Derry”, which refers to the three-year period from 1969 to 1972 when community activists declared the Bogside and Creggan neighbourhoods an autonomous nationalist area.

and, below, mural on gable of Bogside house

When I was there last month it had been painted black and red for the 10th anniversary of the death of Belfast-born anarchist and civil rights leader John McGuffin. The wall is usually white with black lettering, but in 2006 it was painted black for the Bloody Sunday commemorations and the following year pink to mark Gay Pride Week.
My visit coincided with the annual City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, held every May in various venues including the 3-star Ramada Da Vinci’s Hotel where I stayed and caught gigs by the Jive Aces with Rebecca Grant and, next night, American singer Mirenda Rosenburg. Elsewhere, Van Morrison played two sold-out concerts at the Millennium Forum, but I missed seeing the fabulous King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys at Da Vinci’s as they were arriving in Derry the day I was leaving.
Which was maybe just as well. The last time I saw this Birmingham-based outfit, years ago at the Cork Jazz Festival when I worked on the Evening Echo, I over-indulged at their post-gig party, went into the office next morning the worse for wear and wrote a glowing review — of Big Cheddar and the Cream Crackers. I’ve never been allowed to live it down.

FESTI-GAL: Jazz singer Mirenda Rosenburg
A 15-minute walk into town along the riverside from Da Vinci’s Hotel takes visitors to the £14.6 million, 312-metre-long pedestrian and cycle Peace Bridge across the Foyle that opened last June.
It’s an impressive S-shaped structure linking the east (mostly Protestant) and west (overwhelmingly Catholic) banks of this religiously and politically-divided city of 100,000 people. The bridge was built with the intention of helping to bring both communities together in mutual understanding, but there are those on either side who refuse to set foot on it. They have their reasons, but the hope is that sooner rather than later they’ll join everyone else in focusing on the future rather than lingering on the past.
In Carlisle Square at the western end of the double-decker Craigavon Bridge stands another symbol of the reconciliation so many people yearn for. Local sculptor Maurice Harron’s work, Hands Across the Divide, which was unveiled in 1992, shows two bronze figures on separate stone plinths reaching out to each other, their fingers tantalisingly close to touching. It would be nice to think that 65-year-old Maurice, whose failing eyesight was saved two years ago by a revolutionary transplant procedure that gave him new synthetic lenses, will one day be asked to make a minor adjustment and have his figures shaking hands.

SYMBOLIC: Peace Bridge and, below, Maurice
Harron's Hands Across the Divide sculpture

I was doing a fair bit of shaking when I paid a visit to the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall in Society Street. Climbing to the open-air roof of the tower for great views of the city is easy-ish, but the descent can prove a nerve-jangling challenge. If you suffer from vertigo, content yourself with a tour of the hall’s ornate meeting rooms and the siege museum, because there’s a wooden flight of stairs in that tower that’s almost vertical. Looking down from the top step often gives visitors the heebie-jeebies, but until they install a fireman’s pole there’s no other way out.
Built in 1873 and extended in 1936, the neo-Gothic hall with a Scottish baronial facade commemorates the 13 apprentice boys who in December 1688 shut the city gates against James II’s troops, an event that’s marked each year with a march and other celebrations on the first Saturday in December. The Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant fraternal organisation founded in 1814 that has 80,000 members worldwide, also celebrate the lifting of the siege with an annual parade on the second Saturday in August. In the new spirit of live-and-let-live the marches, which once sparked riots by nationalist youths, now pass off virtually trouble-free.

Another building well worth seeing — once they remove the scaffolding and nets encasing it — is the red sandstone Guildhall which is closed at the moment for renovations. Opened in 1890, it houses the mayor’s office and the meeting chamber of Derry City Council and has some of the finest examples of stained glass windows in Ireland. Many of the windows were destroyed by terrorist bombs in 1972, but artisans working from the original watercolour designs were able to recreate them. When it re-opens it will again be a star attraction on the tourist trail. Meanwhile, kids can get a thrill-filled thorough soaking while running in and out of the dancing fountains in the square outside.
Also not to be missed are the award-winning Tower Museum where visitors can learn of Derry’s history from its earliest habitation 5,000 years ago to the present day, and Saint Columb’s Cathedral where the original keys of the city are on display. Dedicated to the sixth century missionary monk Saint Columba — the Donegal-born patron of poets, bookbinders and, strangely, floods who established a Christian settlement in the area — it was completed in 1633.

SPOUT AND ABOUT: Dancing fountains outside
the Guildhall and, below, St. Columb's Cathedral

As the westernmost port in Europe, Derry was the main base for Allied warships protecting merchant and military convoys crossing the Atlantic during World War Two (at one point 140 Royal Navy, US Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and French and Indian escort vessels were moored along the Foyle). The city’s strategic location made crucial its role in the Allies’ victory in the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic, an outcome helped by the Germans underestimating the Foyle’s importance and failing to launch major bombing raids on it and nearby airfields.
On May 14, 1945, six days after V-E Day, a representative flotilla of eight U-boats (which were to be followed by 52 more) was escorted into the Foyle by three Allied battleships. After mooring their vessels at Lisahally, the U-boat commanders stepped ashore and threw in the towel. In the city where 256 years before the beleaguered citizens had cried “No surrender!”, the defeated Germans saluted Admiral Sir Max Horton and acknowledged that the war which had cost 60 million lives was over.
The Northern Ireland Troubles, which cost more than 3,500 lives including nearly 350 in Derry city and county, are over too. Streets that people once feared to walk along are filled day and night with locals and visitors from all over the world. Restaurants, pubs and hotels are hopping. Behind the scenes, a team of dedicated people are gearing up for December 31 when they’ll count down the seconds to midnight. As soon as the hands on the Guildhall clock hit 12, fireworks will shoot into the night sky and Foyleside’s year-long City of Culture celebrations will begin.
Dogs might be startled by the pyrotechnics, but they can rest assured that, unlike in 1689, the only dish on the Derry menu for 2013 is fun.

HIGH EXPLOSIVES: Fireworks light up night sky

June 27 to July 1: North Atlantic Fiddle Convention. Hundreds of fiddlers and thousands of visitors will descend on various venues in Derry and Donegal for this huge celebration of music and dance from around the North Atlantic, headlined by The Chieftains (
June 30 to July 8: Clipper Maritime Festival. Derry is an official host port for the 10-strong fleet, including debutant vessel Derry-Londonderry, at the end of the final transatlantic leg of the 64,000-kilometre Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (
August 4 to 11: Maiden City Festival. A celebration of history and heritage, community and diversity, in and around the city walls (
August  5 to 15: Feile 2012. More than 100 music, sports and drama events, various venues (
August 31 to September 2: Foyle Gay Pride Festival, various venues (
September 9: Waterside Half-Marathon, Gransha Grounds (
September 1 to 14: The Big Tickle Comedy Festival, various venues (
October 27 to 31: Banks of the Foyle Hallowe’en Carnival, various venues. The biggest street carnival in Ireland and one of the world’s top Hallowe’en celebrations (
November 21 to 25: Foyle Film Festival, various venues (

FLY: Ryanair flies to City of Derry airport from Glasgow Prestwick, Birmingham, Liverpool and London Stansted (
RAIL: Northern Ireland Railways operates regular daily services between Belfast Europa Centre and Derry (
BUS: Ulsterbus’s Goldline express service 212 (the Maiden City Flyer) operates throughout the day between Belfast Europa Centre and Derry Foyle Street and takes 1hr 45mins. Don’t take the Goldline 273 service that also links the two cities but goes via Omagh and takes 3hrs (
FERRY: Stena Line has daily sailings from Liverpool and Cairnryan to Belfast ( P&O Ferries sails daily from Cairnryan and Troon to Larne ( Derry is 115 kilometres by road from Belfast and 120 from Larne.

ALL ABOARD: The LegenDerry Road Train
While Derry is compact, making it ideal for strolling, the live commentary provided during a hop-on, hop-off open-top sightseeing bus tour is hard to beat, with local guides combining expert knowledge of the city with humour. Ticket sales and boarding at the Tourist Information Centre, 44 Foyle Street (0044 2871 377577,
A more recent addition to Derry’s attractions is the award-winning NITB LegenDerry Road Train that offers 30-minute tours of the main sights with live commentary, on-board video presentations and a soundtrack of music from the city’s greatest composers and singers. Fun and fascinating, it’s a shame the tours, which leave from the Tourist Information Centre, aren’t a bit longer (0044 7813 043147,
Among the most popular walking tours are those provided by the city’s only Blue Badge Guide Michael Cooper and his team (0044 2871 361311, and award-winning guide Martin McCrossan (0044 2871 271996,
For a view of Derry from the river, board the Wee Blue Boat at the Foyle Pontoon for a cruise beneath the city’s three bridges (0044 7882 233911,

Ramada Da Vinci’s Hotel, 15 Culmore Road (telephone 0044 2871 279111,; Hastings Everglades Hotel, Prehen Road (0044 2871 321066,; for golfers, the Roe Park Resort, Limavady, 25 kilometres east of Derry on the A2 road (0044 2877 722222,

Encore Brasserie, Millennium Forum, Newmarket Street (0044 2871 372492); Fitzroy’s Bistro, 2-4 Bridge Street (0044 2871 266211); The Grillroom Restaurant, Ramada Da Vinci’s Hotel; Brown’s Restaurant, 1 Bonds Hill, Waterside (0044 2871 345180); The Exchange Restaurant and Wine Bar, Queen’s Quay (0044 2871 273990); Timber Quay Restaurant and Wine Bar, 100 Strand Road (0044 2871 370020); Greens Restaurant and The Coach House Brasserie, Roe Park Spa and Golf Resort; The Grill Restaurant, Everglades Hotel.