‘Derry – the UK City of Culture!’ That’s what they will probably announce tonight, and I know I shouldn’t find that funny but I do. Not because Derry isn’t a cultured city. It is – certainly in terms of song and dance, it always has been. When I was incarcerated in Bishop Street during the 1950s, we had visits from the Little Gaelic Singers, and even though lust made it difficult, we couldn’t help but thrill to the harmony produced by those rows of girls. The college itself had a formidable choir which sang Palestrina Masses and more, and back then the Derry Feis had the same fierce level of competitiveness it enjoys today.
You notice the dominant characteristics of the culture back then? Right - Irish and Catholic. What culture the Protestants of the city had, or if they had one at all, was a mystery. And the Derry bid to be UK City of Culture fifty years later is still overwhelmingly Irish if not Catholic. Of course you have that video where the two guys stand side by side and say ‘I’m from Derry’ and ‘I’m from Londonderry’, and I’m sure the Different Drums of the bodhran and the lambeg feature somewhere in the bid, but Derry’s claim to cultural fame is still notably unBritish. With its tradition of song and well-founded sense of grievance, it's more like Cork than Sheffield or Nottingham.
So yes, the town Phil Coulter loves so well probably will get the award today. Regardless of the merits of the bid, the Brits would feel uneasy about not giving it to the city which only weeks ago finally wrung an apology of sorts from the British PM for the murder of fourteen of its citizens by British troops. And when they are declared UK City of Culture, will this Irish nationalist city feel uneasy about the UK bit? A little, maybe. But they’ll make a joke about it as they do about so many things and pass on, eager for the financial benefits that should flow from the award. If their MP can swallow a vow of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and her successors, Derry people can swallow a little piece of UK for the sake of some big bucks.