Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Flavoured with music, art and talent the Derry city of culture was mostly a year to marvel over

Lumiere, the Return of Colmcille and the Fleadh glistered as highlights of Derry's year as UK City of Culture. But council harassment of the organisers was deplorable, and plans to raze the Ebrington venue are philistine, says Eamonn McCann

The Loch Ness Monster breathing fire arrives on the River Foyle during The Return of Colmcille

Derry's year as UK City of Culture has been an enormous success, but that doesn't mean it's been beyond criticism. The programme produced by the Culture Company dazzled even the most determined sceptics, of whom we have just about our fair share.

Some sceptics were never available for dazzlement, their discontent deriving from the appellation 'UK'. "Only a week to go," a friend remarked, "and I've managed to miss everything so far." She's part of Derry, too. And entitled.

Overwhelmingly though, citizens swarmed to embrace almost everything on offer and reach the end of the year confirmed in the conviction that Derry is an extra-special place, which it is, a bit.

The biggest impacts were, naturally, made by events which called for mass involvement and created a sense of communal joy.

Lumiere, in November, set the town ablaze; buildings we look at every day aglow in marvellous, multi-coloured light; Austin's of the Diamond encased in shifting images that fitted exactly, impossibly, around the ornamentation and windows of three storeys.

Some of us stood transfixed for an hour. St Columb's Park, in the Waterside, was transfigured into a garden of unforgettable fire.

The Return of Colmcille extravaganza in June required participation of more than 1,500 mostly young people, and drew tens of thousands onto the streets. Somewhat iffy on the history, perhaps, but not with regard to its sumptuous scale, or the sheer pleasure it generated.

The Fleadh, in August, was everything fans of fleadhanna wished for, even if some of the music in the more opportunist venues was a far cry from the truly traditional.

The first major event of the year, Philip King's Other Voices, on tour from Dingle, set the scene and the standard in February, revealing two of Derry's treasured secrets to the world – we give as well as take – Soak, slip-of-a-girl genius, and Little Bear, a band abreast of Bastille and with a brilliant clutch of songs.

And Other Voices introduced us to Savages, four young women from London who came on dark-clad and demure and then shattered the Glassworks with a beautifully-crafted set of aggressive, melodic rock. Plus the wonderful Beth Orton, worth walking a hundred miles for, so full of wistful power.

Everybody to their own: the items I found most thrilling tended to be relatively small-sized. This was particularly true in visual art.

Hype apart, and hopes that it would raise general awareness of art, the Turner Prize was a disappointment. None of the four pieces on exhibit made the soul rumble.

But there was Andrei Molodkin's Catholic Blood at the Void gallery, dollops of gore pumped into a replica of the Rose Window at Westminster and the image then projected onto the gallery wall, shockingly original, thought-provoking and beautiful to behold. Catholic Blood was the best single thing I saw all year.

Dublin artist Jesse Jones's The Other North, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, comprised a split-screen presentation of a 1974 therapy session involving 11 people from Belfast affected by the Troubles, translated into Korean, re-enacted by Korean actors and filmed with sub-titles close to the border between North and South Korea. Unbearably moving.

And there was Willie Doherty's Unseen at the City Factory, Colin Darke's The Year of Revolution at the CCA, and more.

The Field Day production of Sam Shepherd's A Particle of Dread, a riff on the Oedipus story, about fleeing from truth and guilt that we know will pursue us forever, was the most powerful invocation of the Troubles that I have ever experienced on a stage. A major moment in Irish theatre.

All in all, in any perspective, a year of living deliciously. A pity, then, that the Culture Company was subjected to a degree of harassment throughout which threatened, at times, to disrupt the operation and might have demoralised a less-committed staff. The problem arose from the power-grabbing and control-freakery of some council officials, backed up by the Strategic Investment Board, whose inexpertise in cultural matters was dismayingly obvious.

The last-minute appearance of the PSNI band at the Fleadh represented, at the least, a questionable use of culture. More generally, relentless suggestions the year could be seen as the solution, or part of the solution, to Derry's economic ills were misplaced and politically suspect.

The hospitality industry has certainly benefited and it is possible that the glow of City of Culture will linger and make Derry a generally more attractive proposition. But the notion that this can be a major factor in economic regeneration makes as much sense as the blithe forecasts a few months ago that broadcast pictures of the gorgeous scenery of Fermanagh during the G8 summit would entrance foreigners with footloose money to direct it towards Enniskillen.

What's more, the suggestion is a distraction, possibly deliberately contrived, from the task of encouraging resistance to the austerity measures pushing thousands in Derry, as elsewhere, deeper down into poverty.

It is not the role of culture to achieve objectives, or solve problems, which politicians find themselves unable to deal with. If City of Culture didn't attract a single new job to Derry, would it thereby be accounted a failure? Only if you have no appreciation of culture. What's left to deal with is the legacy. Obviously, far too early to make any judgment. But we can say this: that if plans to rip out the refurbishment of the Ebrington buildings that housed the Turner Prize go ahead, the idea of legacy will be made into an unfunny joke.

The space has been transformed, at considerable public expense, into as well-appointed a gallery as there is in these islands. Transforming it into offices – and that's what's planned – would be an act of philistinism casting a backward shadow on the brightness of the last 12 months. Derry artists shouldn't allow it to happen. Now that would be a legacy.

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