A Personal View
by Paul Gosling
It is 2020 and we are taking a walk around Ireland’s most fabulous heritage city – Derry. What do we see?
The Walled City is, of course, what has made Derry a top tourism destination for visitors from across Europe, America and Asia. They walk around the traffic-free city, and on the walls, buying mementos from the bustling shops. Much of the city’s non-tourism commerce has now moved out of the Walled City, which in summer months is clogged with sightseers.
But visitors expect more than their walk around the historic heart of the city and the still excellent Tower Museum. They saunter through the packed Guildhall Square and down to the prize-winning pedestrian footbridge that crosses the Foyle, which has become a symbol of the healing of the city’s divisions.
Once over the bridge, tourists find themselves in the city’s Ebrington Heritage Quarter. It is the transformation of the former Ebrington Barracks that has enabled Derry to get in with a real chance of becoming a future European City of Culture.
As visitors walk across the Foyle they begin to absorb the feel of the Ebrington Quarter. The historic military buildings have been carefully renovated and look superb. At the heart of the renovation project has been the imaginative use of the old parade ground. This is now an open air seating area for the restaurants that surround the square. It is particularly popular with guests of the boutique hotel that was converted from the former officers’ mess, just up the hill from the parade ground.
But often in the evenings, the restaurants have to pull back their tables and chairs and let performances take place. During the day you will see various performance artists, ranging from acrobats and jugglers to opera singers and other musicians. It is in the evening that Derry’s reputation as a performing arts centre is gained. A few days a year the Royal Shakespeare Company does open air productions, while at other times there is opera and contemporary drama. Except when it rains – which it still does, often – the square is always buzzing.
Ebrington’s value to the city is not just through it being an additional performance venue and as a location for a new hotel and several restaurants and cafes. It also contains the Irish Tate Gallery, has an arts cinema and a museum that explores several dimensions of Derry’s history of involvement in conflict – looking in particular at the Siege of Derry (Ebrington was first used as a fort during the siege) and the Foyle’s importance in the Battle of the Atlantic, leading to the surrender of German u-boats at Lisahally.
Waking up from this 2020 vision, we recognise that none of this is inevitable – but it is possible. Indeed, there is nothing in this vision that cannot be seen in other modern European cities today. Derry has enormous potential as a city of heritage, the performing arts and tourism. Some will complain that this is not the city they want and it is true that the city’s economic future must not rely only on tourism. But it is part of the package that can produce prosperity, if Magee delivers top quality graduates and, with the college and schools, a highly skilled workforce.
Having had the opportunity to walk around the Ebrington site, though, I am convinced that something like this vision is possible. Anyone who doubts this still has the chance to contact Ilex and request a guided tour around the site – but hurry, because the renovation work will soon begin in earnest and prevent site visits until the barracks’ regeneration and redevelopment are near to completion. I challenge readers to take the chance of the site visit and not emerge as excited by Derry’s future as I am.
* This article originally appeared in the Derry Journal in August 2007 and was subsequently reused in a special edition of the Derry Journal on the future of the city.