The best Irish band ever? For a cohort of people who came of age around the New Wave scene of the late 1970s / early ’80s, the quintet fronted by Feargal Sharkey would have to feature in the conversation. As well as a slew of brilliant punk-tinged pop songs that still stand up today, the Undertones were also an important reminder that there was more to life in the North than the Troubles. Teenage Kicks was John Peel’s favorite ever song, Here Comes The Summer became an anthem of the age, and ‘My Perfect Cousin’ gave us some of the best lyrics of the era: “He’s got a fur-lined sheepskin jacket; My Ma said it cost a packet. ”
After the band split in 1983, Sharkey had a brief solo career before working in the music industry in the UK, and his love of fly-fishing had him back in the news recently when he campaigned against the release of raw sewage into rivers by private water companies. The rest of the group formed That Petrol Emotion for a while, and in recent years have been back gigging as The Undertones, with Paul McLoone on vocals.
Séamas O’Reilly’s memoir won Biography Of The Year at last year’s Irish Book Awards for its poignant and often hilarious account of life around the time of his mother’s death. Séamas – one of 11 children – was just five years old when his mother Sheila died of cancer. The title of the book comes from the gathering when people from the parish of Molenan, a few miles south of Derry city, came to the family home pay their respects. Many of the visitors were greeted by little Séamas asking them, ‘Did ye hear mammy died?’
Of course Rory Gallagher belongs to Cork. And yes, Leesiders are so gracious that they are willing to acknowledge that the great guitarist’s birth in Donegal entitles that county to a small sliver of association. But a crucial and little-known part of young Rory’s musical development took place in Derry. His father, Daniel, hailed from the northern city, and the family lived there for a few years until 1956. From a young age in Derry, Rory and his older brother Donal would listen to Radio Luxembourg and the BBC, but they also had an advantage over southern youngsters by being able to hear the music played by the radio station for the US navy base at Lough Foyle.
Northern Ireland also had television before the South, and Donal remembers a regular stroll with his brother at 6pm to the Diamond area of Derry city center, where a shop had a demo version of this incredible new technology.
They’d push their way to the front of the regular crowd who gathered there, and stare through the shop window at the BBC’s very first pop show, Six-Five Special. The fact that they couldn’t hear anything didn’t matter to young Rory.
“He already knew the lyrics to loads of the songs,” remembers Donal. “So, he’d unconsciously sing out loud as the bands were playing on screen, and provide great entertainment for the other people gathered there.” So, Derry can even claim to have hosted Rory Gallagher’s first public performances.
We may scoff at the Eurovision Song Contest nowadays, but it was a hugely significant event when 18-year-old Dana (Rosemary Brown) won the event in Amsterdam in 1970. In her white minidress and sitting on a stool, she delivered All Kinds Of Everything before a TV audience of several hundred million people. Among those left in her wake was Spain’s entry, Julio Iglesias, who finished fourth.
For a rapidly modernizing Ireland, the win was a rare success on the international stage and the government despatched a special plane to bring ‘the girl from the Bogside’ back to Dublin. Not even RTÉ’s concerns about the estimated € 20,000 cost for hosting the next competition could spoil the celebrations.
One of the greatest poets of our age, Seamus Heaney is buried in Bellaghy, the village where he spent most of his childhood, about 40 miles from Derry city. It was that area inspired some of his famous works, including Digging, where he contemplates his relationship with his father and his family’s deep connections to the area. The Nobel Prize winner’s bonds to the county and its main city remained strong throughout his life. He became involved in the Field Day Theater Company, and was even quoted by Bill Clinton during his speech from the Guildhall in 1995.
Though his poems were often rooted in his rural upbringing, Derry’s darkest hour also inspired The Road To Derry, written after a visit to the heartbroken city on the day of the funeral for the victims of Bloody Sunday. “The Roe wept at Dungiven and the Foyle cried out to heaven, / Burntollet’s old wound opened and again the Bogside bled.”
The stars aligned in 1980 when Tyrone playwright Brian Friel and Belfast actor Stephen Rea decided to create a new theater company in Derry. With others such as Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane, they realized that art could be a positive force in a province almost ripped apart by the Troubles.
Their first production was Translations, Friel’s tale of culture clash between Irish-speaking locals and English officers in 19th-century Donegal. The cast at the Guildhall included Rea, Liam Neeson, Mick Lally, and Ray McAnally. Not surprisingly, it was hailed as a triumph. Field Day later expanded beyond theater to become involved in other aspects of culture, including several literary publications.
Up there with Ireland’s finest ever songwriters, Phil Coulter has had his creations performed by the likes of Cliff Richard, the Bay City Rollers and Elvis Presley. The son of an RUC man, he broke through on the international stage when his Puppet On A String won the Eurovision for Britain’s Sandy Shaw in 1967. And as well as catchy pop tunes, Coulter showed he could also do personal and moving when he wrote Scorn Not His Simplicity – brilliantly sung by Luke Kelly – in honor of his son, who had Down syndrome.
Recently turned 80, Coulter has even managed to claim a stake in the country’s contemporary song canon with Ireland’s Call. Sure, the cross-border rugby anthem has its detractors, but for every one of them, there are another thousand people who’ll shed a tear at the right version of The Town I Loved So Well. All together now: “What’s done is done and what’s won is won, And what’s lost is lost and gone forever…”
The Channel 4 comedy has been Foyleside’s most high-profile contribution to popular culture in this century. Kudos to the British channel for commissioning the show– they also took a punt on another Irish gem, Father Ted, in a previous era – but most of the praise really does belong to Lisa McGee. The genius of the Derry Girls writer was to create unpatronizing comedy from an era in the city that was fraught with tragedy. For outsiders, we mostly heard about the shooting and bombings. Obviously, those who lived in Derry had a lot more going on in their lives.
McGee based many of the situations and characters on her own childhood in the city, and turned hyper-local themes into something people all over the world could relate to. As well as providing a huge boost to the city’s tourist trade, scenes such as How Many Bags Of Chips Do We Need, and the Difference Between Catholics and Protestants will be oft-quoted for years to come.