Last January a collection of faces appeared on the back wall of a Derry-Londonderry pub – the five stars of Channel 4’s Derry Girls. Set in 1990s Northern Ireland, during the tail end of the Troubles, the comedy series follows their ordinary lives in these far-from-ordinary circumstances.
The tribute to the show’s cast – a collaborative project by Channel 4’s creative agency 4Creative and the local social enterprise group, UV Arts – landed in a city not unfamiliar with murals. Walls across Derry-Londonderry showing the events of the Troubles have in recent years turned the city into a tourist destination, particularly since the 2013 City of Culture Festival put it on the cultural map.
According to a recent NI Tourism report, 22% of visitors to the country are attracted by Derry-Londonderry, with the murals the 8th most visited attraction. Tours are available of the People’s Gallery, a series of 12 murals narrating the conflict, while the Museum of Free Derry, which opened in 2007, welcomed 35,000 visitors in 2018.
“Derry as a city has gone from being almost surprised that tourists want to come here to developing an entire industry around tourism,” says the museum’s manager Adrian Kerr.
The museum tells the story of the city, focusing especially on the years from 1968 until 1972. A key event in its narrative is the Battle of the Bogside – fighting that took place in August 1969 between the mostly Catholic Bogside residents and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the rioting, but challenges surrounding it and other aspects of the Troubles persist. In April, the killing of the journalist Lyra McKee, who was hit by a stray bullet during a riot, was a painful echo of the violence of the past.
“This is still life for so many people here and we have so many outstanding issues from the conflict that we have still to resolve,” said Kerr. “Learning from the past and discussion of the different perceptions of the recent past is a very important part of that resolution. We have to look at it as if we’re looking back on it but we’re not looking back far.”
At the same time, along with producing work such as the Derry Girls mural, UV Arts aims to bring young people in the community together through workshops and street art which facilitate discussion of wider social issues.
“We’re looking at the bigger picture,” says the group’s co-founder Karl Porter. “Internationally what’s happening at the moment? What’s causing the high suicide rate in the city here? Why is there such a problem with drugs and alcohol? We’re trying to bring in a contemporary feel, a contemporary style and imagery, a contemporary philosophy of what art should be and how space should be used.
“It’s a safe space. There are no links to anything – religion or politics. No matter what background you’re from, you go in with a clean slate.”
Kerr, of the Museum of Free Derry, also sees this scope for tackling broader issues. “Derry isn’t only a city that was once at war,” he says. “There’s room for addressing our own issues but also addressing other issues. It’s good to see both things being done. Maybe the fact that we are a society that has been through so much makes us more attuned to what other societies are going through and what the world in general is going through.”
One such challenge is Brexit, which has left Derry in a state of flux. “There’s a lot of fear,” says Kerr. “This is a border city – it’s a couple of miles down the road. We get a lot of visitors from Europe and we don’t know if they’re going to have to get visas. If we knew what was going to happen we could take it into account, but you can’t plan for something you don’t know.”
Dealing with the subject head-on, UV Arts recently worked on a Brexit project in collaboration with Derry City Council. With a wide demographic of youth participants, the project considered different ideas of borders, says Porter. “We looked at transparent borders and boundaries, inherent prejudgements of people, the safety zones we fall back into for comfort because of colour and flags.”
The city’s murals are not just a record of the past – they’re a living reminder that history is never set in stone.