Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, who worked on the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony with Danny Boyle, has masterminded an outdoor extravaganza celebrating Londonderry’s history. He tells JOANNE SAVAGE about his vision for this unique City of Culture event
Audiences can expect storytelling on a grand scale and an armada of floats with hundreds of local residents in extravagant costume as writer Frank Cottrell Boyce masterminds a gargantuan outdoor extravaganza, The Return of Comcille, to take place in Londonderry on June 7- 8.
Cottrell, a visionary children’s novelist and film writer who collaborated with Danny Boyle on the triumph that was the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, has worked with outdoor art experts Walk the Plank and a cast and crew of 800 people to produce this one-off event on the banks of the River Foyle, a celebration of Londonderry’s history on the imagined return of its patron saint.
This large-scale dramatic procession begins on the evening of Friday June 7 and continues on June 8; it is expected to be a highlight of Londonderry’s City of Culture year and will explore quirky stories about and events in the city’s past.
“The broad narrative is that Colmcille has been away for 1500 years and wants to see what he has missed,” says Cottrell Boyce. “The city is telling him this story and different places will deal with different chapters of the past. The Gasyard for example will tell about all the music that he’s missed, everything from Josef Locke to The Undertones to create a juke box of Derry music.”
Saint Columba (521-597) or ‘Colmcille’ as he is known in Irish is the patron saint of the city of Derry; he was a learned abbot and missionary who founded a monastic settlement here in AD 540 and is therefore regarded as having founded the city. The name of Londonderry in Irish is ‘Doire Colmcille’ and is derived from the native oak trees and the city’s association with Columba. Around 563 he and his 12 companions sailed to Iona in Scotland, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the pagans.
The Return of Colmcille hopes then to enact a summary of the main stories and events that have taken place in Derry during Colmcille’s absence, all captured in a riotous narrative of colour, action, music and carnival elements. The procession will weave through the city along Foyle Embankment, Strand Road and Queens Quay.
“We have engaged with Colmcille’s story quite a lot,” says Cottrell Boyce. “He’s an amazing figure who went from this small place - Derry, to an even smaller place - Iona, and from here more or less saved European civilization. He was engaged in battles; he was an artist, a poet, a singer, a missionary.”
Cottrell Boyce explains that the climax of the action will be when St Comcille fights down the Lough Ness monster on the banks of the River Foyle, and that this will round-off an exploration of lesser-considered stories about Londonderry.
“There are some stories about Derry that have been told a lot,” he reflects. “What we wanted to do was to find alternative stories, stories about Derry that have been forgotten or sidelined. Like with the Olympics opening ceremony loads of people predicted that it would be very boring, but in the end it was amazing - and I think a lot of its appeal was because we remembered and referenced things that everybody else had forgotten about.”
Some of the historical moments referenced here will include Colmcille, of course, the evolution of Derry’s shirt factories, the achievements of The Undertones and the brief visit of American aviation heroine Amelia Earhart, who set off from Newfoundland in 1932, aiming her plane for Paris, and instead hitting a field in Derry.
The marathon of high jinx and pageantry will continue for 30 hours in different locations across the city, and since Colmcille has been away for 1500 years there’s a lot of history and culture to play around with.
“I don’t want to give away too much and ruin the surprise,” adds Boyce, anxious to keep the wonder fresh.
“I’m hoping that Colmcille, the Lough Ness monster, the shirt factories, Amelia Earhart, The Undertones - all these amazing things that happened in Derry and that don’t always dominate the narrative - will add up to something spectacular.”
Music fans will be particularly delighted to hear, though, that Undertones bassist Michael Bradley is just one of Londonderry’s famous sons taking part. The Undertones are playing a live set at the Gasyard.
The renowned band whose rise to fame with Teenage Kicks has been brought into renewed focus following release of Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations, will also feature in the People’s Procession accompanied by punks on subbuteo stands - a nod to an The Undertones lyric in My Perfect Cousin.
Michael Bradley said: “The idea of us playing at the back of a lorry in a big procession is great. I would have been annoyed if I wasn’t asked to take part. It’ll bring back memories of the bands waving at the crowds during the civic week parades.”
Frank Cottrell Boyce added: “I’m hoping that Colmcille, the Lough Ness monster, the shirt factories, Amelia Earhart, The Undertones - all these amazing things that happened in Derry and that don’t always dominate the narrative - will add up to something spectacular.”
The Return of Colmcille, June 7-8, Londonderry. Visit www.thereturnofcolmcille.com for more information.