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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 1 November, 2014

Column: The Derry of my childhood was shrouded in sadness – now the city can breathe again

Derry truly is a symbol of the “profound transformation” of the relationship between Ireland and Britain, just like President Higgins said last week.

Image: John Purvis via Flickr/Creative Commons

THE PRESIDENT’S OPENING remarks in the Guildhall, with its heavy focus on Derry, reinforced the considerable progress made in developing the city, which is now in a much different and no doubt better place.

Growing up in Donegal my own perception of Derry was centred on the historical sadness of emigration via the Derry boat, a city brimming with confidence in the creative arts and the indelible scars of Bloody Sunday. Bridie Gallagher transformed Percy French’s verse into song in the now famous “they’ll be cutting the corn in Creeslough today” – a song about leaving from Derry on a boat to America is deeply ingrained in the emigration psyche of the north west. From the ‘tatty hokers’ bound for Scotland to Seamus O’Faolain’s Seimi’s departure to the Yukon in search of Gold, Derry was synonymous with leaving and with the very distinct possibility of not returning.

Bloody Sunday is also deeply ingrained in the DNA of the citizens of the north west and was possibly the single biggest catalyst in the ensuing recruitment drive by the provisional IRA. And through all this, the spirit of Derry still prevails. And a major precursor to the phenomenal success of the Fleadh/City of Culture was the genuine and sincere apology delivered by the British Prime Minister David Cameron following the Saville enquiry.

Reconciliation and healing

Derry is alive again. The boundless opportunities in economic regeneration, community relations and cultural celebrations will lead to brighter days. The Peace Bridge is much more than a physical infrastructure. It is a symbol of reconciliation and healing, and has created a new space for people to exorcise the pain of the past and a cornerstone for the prosperity of future generations.

President Higgins understands Derry. In his speech he acknowledged the literary heavyweights of Heaney and Friel. He understands the magic and cultural creativity of a city brimming with a newfound confidence. He yearns for the maiden city to reach new heights – and, yes, if Derry is doing well the benefit to the County of Donegal, its closest neighbour, will be enormous.

The stage was set for President Higgins. In the Guildhall in London, at a banquet hosted by London Corporation it was a time to reflect; a time to remember the strong links between Derry and London; the decision by James I to have an intrinsic bond between Derry and London Corporation, hence the advent of Londonderry. The fabulous Guildhall in Derry (funded by London Corporation) emphasises the shared history, the blacked out history between two great cities.

Our interwoven history

President Higgins’ stewardship during the first ever Irish State visit to the UK has been conducted in a spirit of generosity. A mature reflection on our collective past and appreciation of our interwoven history combined to create a new space for new thinking, new engagement and certainly new challenges.

The weight of the past still prevails in the north west of Ireland. However, the great city of Derry (the fourth largest city on the Island) has the potential to lift an entire region so decimated by political and economic neglect for too long. I applaud President Higgins for his words in the Guildhall and it was an honour to share such an occasion with the first citizen of Derry, Martin Reilly, a Fermanagh man. A man who knows only too well that a prosperous Derry will have a ripple effect on his native county and mine.

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Read: American choir girls sing haunting version of The Parting Glass in Derry bar

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