“I’m sorry were the greatest words the people of Derry ever heard uttered,” said our tour guide, Martin Crossan, as we crossed into the Bogside on a whistle stop tour of the Maiden City.
Having got the chance to snag an overnight stay in the second-biggest city in the North, I wanted to immerse myself, as much as limited time would allow, in the history of a place that will be taking on the mantle of City of Culture for 2013.
Martin was referring to the day that British Prime Minister David Cameron stood in the House of Commons and exonerated all those who had died during the Bloody Sunday massacre.
It was clear from talking with Martin that that day was still resonating deeply with him and the people of Derry.
We were in exceptional hands as it was clear from the offset that Martin, who had been at the helm of his business, City Tours, for 19 years, knew his stuff.
Having given Hollywood actor Will Ferrell and singing sensation Susan Boyle a tour the week before we arrived, this guy was clearly the “go to” on the historical aspects of the city.
“There has been a new confidence in the city, there is no doubt about it and we are getting our well deserved acknowledgment in 2013,” said Martin.
“Derry, Londonderry or Doire, however you want to call it, has its history, and like Belfast some good, some not so good I guess. But take this with you: America would still be undiscovered if it wasn’t for our city.”
Cue looks of bewilderment from myself and my travel companion as Martin explained.
“Derry was one of the biggest European emigration ports to America during the 18th and 19th centuries. The city is surrounded by water as well as the famous walls. We were known as ‘the back door to England’ by the queen herself.
“The east coast of the states is hugely populated by the descendants of those who made their way from the city’s quay dating back hundreds of years. There are over nine million people who can claim Derry ancestry,” said Martin.
Sitting in the back of Martin’s tour cab and drinking in the many sights, including a weekly bustling Friday market that was operating from the forecourt of the Guildhall, we stopped at the recently opened Peace Bridge.
Opened in June by our first and deputy first ministers and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the 235 meter long structure is playing a crucial part in the city’s regeneration program.
“This bridge now links two communities and it’s a symbol of welcoming people and our natives towards a shared and welcoming city. So far, 1,0001,000 people have walked over and back and there will be thousands more to come.
“The great and the good have come from Derry, our own deputy first minister, Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and Seamus Heaney, not too mention our cacophony of musicians. Phil Coulter still talks to this day about how writing (Eurovision Song Contest entry) “Congratulations” for Cliff Richard helped to rear his family. He is still taking the royalties from it,” he said with a laugh.
Before departing from Martin to explore the city’s walls for ourselves, he turned and said quite simply, “there are many names associated with Derry, Londonderry, the Walled City and Doire, but it will always be ‘legend’ Derry to me.”
It was surreal walking in the city, among the streets, as shops, bars, restaurants and the iconic Millennium Forum are all nestled inside the walls. Overlooking the Bogside, and staking its claim as the only hotel located within the historic city walls, The Tower Hotel, were we stayed for the evening, was the perfect base to put our heads down for the night.
“We are building a legacy in the city,” said Conor Page from the Tower Hotel.
“Derry is not just a place where we put on a cluster of festivals here and there. We are developing a culture and economy for our city.”
Conor, along with hotel manager Mike Gatt, are lately welcoming throngs of tourists to the hotel, visitors who are keen to come and sample the city for themselves.
“We are right next to the city’s walls so immediately people are right next to history. You can open your bedroom window and touch the walls, said Mike.
“Visitors come here, but friends leave,” he said.
“One of the main attractions of this city is that everything is within walking distance. Derry is now awake, and I think that has a lot to do with the findings of the historic (Bloody Sunday) Saville Inquiry. There is no tension in the air anymore and people are coming together. They want to come together to share in Derry’s momentous potential, and with Belfast celebrating the centenary of the
Titanic next year, visitors can make Derry their next stop for 2013.”
At the helm of Derry’s City of Culture celebrations is Garbhan Downey. He explained, with tongue firmly in cheek, how Derry is quite literally the center of the world.
“Basically, the rest of the planet wouldn’t actually exist except for Derry – or at least not in its current form,” he said with a smile.
“Derry is completely steeped in history. We are the only walled city in the North, indeed maybe even in Ireland. There is a real legacy to Derry and our chance to show the world what we are about, that platform will be celebrated from January 2013.
“Our city taught the world to sing and we are proud to have produced two Eurovision Song Contest winners, Phil Coulter and Dana. The legends that are “The Undertones” performed in many of the local bars dotted around the walls and we can lay claim to having “The Derry Air” covered by Bing Crosby, The Beatles, Glenn Miller and even the Muppets,” he said.
“This year we are celebrating the 400 year anniversary of the city’s walls. Since the publication of the Saville Inquiry in
June, Derry has been re-energized, transformed and we are working to show Derry as the true capital of the North.
“The peace bridge connects our city now and for a place of just 100,000 people 2013 will be an opportunity to showcase Derry not only to Europe but the world.”
For more information on Derry/ Londonderry visit www.derrycitytours.com and www.towerhotelderry.com.