School concert at Coventry Cathedral.

The year 2021/2022 saw the UK City of Culture go to Coventry. Derry got it a number of years ago.

This major industrial centre has had much change like Waterford but is endeavouring to bounce back.

We can recall some Coventry links with Waterford, mainly soccer when some great football stars back in the 60s came to Waterford to settle here like Peter Thomas and Johnny Matthews who played for the Blues and got Irish national honours as well. The famous Jimmy Hill, broadcaster, was manager of Coventry FC then.

Coventry has strong links with Ireland.

Later, ska music would put Coventry on the map. Owen Kavanagh, Tramore plays in the ska band Skazoo. He organises the Tramore Ska Festival annually and says Coventry is the home of ska and brought Pauline Black of The Selecter band to Tramore a few years back. She was in the launch group for the Coventry City of Culture and a great supporter says Liz Wainright of Coventry Council Arts.

Ska and teenage kicks also feature in some contemporary art shows in the Coventry city museum near the bombed out remains of Coventry Cathedral, that is left as a peace memorial to World War II.

It would be great to see more contemporary exhibitions too in Waterford celebrating popular culture too. They are hosted here from time to time, but a popular cultural themed exhibition space would work here too, even Tramore could be considered with its ballroom history, music and sports.

But back to Coventry. this city still produces cars like Land Rover and others. It has a great industrial past but suffered in the 1980s onwards as did much industry in UK. It has managed to adapt as they must and being close to Birmingham, there are commuter options too.

Liz Wainright told us the CIty of Culture was a way of building on the legacy of the city and building cultural activity. One theme was Coventry grooves, using its musical history.

They started from scratch and last summer had to start during Covid. No live events were allowed but they made up with online and radio/TV broadcast with the BBC.

The particular goal themes were health, wealth, education, ethnicity, culture and religion.  The city is multi-cultural and there were lasting benefits from bringing various communities together and creating understanding.  They also had some Irish events too with music and sport.

Liz said that they did all they could in a limited way due to Covid but kept going. This contrasts with Galway, where Covid had a bigger effect the year earlier in 2020. A mid year start date for Coventry may have helped.

One of the themes was digital innovation and doing some experimental stuff online for music and other art genres.  May 2022 was the height of programme delivery, when they had 3 key events like a French aerial circus, called the Grate Ciel. This was a fantastic open air event   which culminated with a tonne of confetti being sprayed across the city. This followed an earlier parade on that day – might be an angle for Spraoi another year, instead of fireworks.

Another innovation was a drone show at night, where there were great images, 27,000 people arrived in the city centre for this spectacle in what was a collective event, despite it not being advertised heavily due to Covid and more also watched online.

Volunteering had a big part to play in the success with 12,000 hours committed in total.

Overall, 141,000 tickets were issued for various events, many outdoors, and 260,000 online.

There were huge funds involved with £170m in direct investment to support the programme of events, Trust partners investment and upgrade of public realm and cultural assets.

This was the 3rd city in the UK to get City of Culture status after Hull and Derry. Bradford is to follow.

The National Lottery played a big role in support financially and the Arts Council. This was far more than the Galway budget for Ireland a few years ago.

They are doing up analysis now and found that there were in total 1,500 community performances and every ward area got events.

It was seen as a “hyper local”, “Coventry model” bringing long lasting social value and co creation with faith and community groups, schools, libraries, arts groups, police and local media.

The City of Culture ensured pride of place boosted cultural energy and valued creativity.  There were even some Shakespeare plays too, as Stratford upon Avon, his birthplace, is not far away.

Another spin off was making Coventry special in welcoming migrants and understanding their culture.  They have a special immigration and integration day in August.

They have special groups involved in Positive youth foundation, Grapevine and Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre that worked in the year helping those marginalised.

They like to have an open door to minds and beliefs. After our meeting we saw a local school have a concert open air in the bombed out Cathedral from World War II, that is a memorial, and an Indian group of school children sang and danced as one of the acts, cheered on by white parents of their school class.

After the war in 1945, there was a conscious effort to rebuild Coventry, make it more open to outsiders and nationalities. The Irish were 10 per cent of the population in parts of the city in the early sixties, coming to work in the car industry. Asians and West Indians would follow.

There is little racial friction in the area and as a result the mix of cultures created the two tone sounds of reggae and ska.

The city is also forgiving and also has a strong peace element. After World War II they linked up with a twinning with Dresden, where 40,000 died and many were injured in 1945 bombing raids.

They also had exchanges with Stalingrad in Russia. There’s a very good story in the city museum on this one.

Digital Gallery

We also visited the local cultural quarter that houses the UK’s first Digital Gallery.

This is called the Reel Store and is in the former paper store for the Coventry Telegraph newspaper. The main offices is now a 4 star hotel and was completed by a local developer.

The Digital Gallery Features music and live art images on walls and floor and is supported by the city council. It is only open a short time. We went to the Van Gogh exhibition in Dublin in the RDS in May and it is a similar experience but in a smaller setting.

You feel really immersed into the show, as there is movement on the walls with lots of different colours, like being in the sea or in a forest.

The digital art was created by a Turkish artist based in New York city and there is a smaller digital art show upstairs.  They use 14 different projectors that are synchronised and kids can like it too but supervision is needed, if you are queasy. This is popular too for school visits in particular and opens their minds to culture.

The exhibition title for this is Machine Memoirs by Refiz Anadol, from Turkey but based in New York city. He has done collaborations with NASA in their jet propulsion laboratory. You can encounter the beauty and spectacle of space.

Machine Memoirs exhibition sees Space investigating the relationship between data, memory, knowledge and history in cosmic dimensions.

Upstairs there is another smaller one called The Tides Within Us- an exploration into the world beyond limits. We felt we were under water at times as a sea diver within an abstract world. Kids love this stuff and there were queues of them and adults after our visit, you could also see how blood flows through a body with 2700 litres running daily.

So pretty amazing stimulation at these exhibitions, you will need to settle with a coffee after wards.

This new venue will attract new people to the city and is a cultural city spin off and regular jobs are created here. Nice book store and care here too.

Other attractions

Coventry Transport Museum: Known as ‘Motor City’, Coventry has an impressive transport museum. They still build London black cabs in the city and an Electric Vehicle battery plant is planned. They did build, in the past, Triumph, Jaguar and Peugeot. Now there are component plants and classic car restorers, where thousands still work in what was like a UK Detroit motor city.

A Jaguar museum is seen from motorway signs as you leave the Birmingham area.

Cathedral Memorial And Blitz Museum:

In 1940 the Cathedral was hit by massive bombing. The Blitz Museum is well worth the visit, great local culture items here too.

The Herbert Museum has much about life in the booming fifties and sixties when there was much optimism, music, new working life styIe improvements for home and entertainment, sport and music for people of the time, how women’s role changed and society opened up with more freedom in the post war period.

Great photos and story lines to read and enjoy.  There is also a story line about the Irish GAA, Feiseanna, Music and celebrations with Clancy Brothers visits.

In 1961, there were 20,000 Irish born in Coventry and many made it their home in the post war here working in factories and the NHS, building and the public services.

They had many clubs and a great social life around schools and church as well as pubs and musical entertainment in what was an open minded city in this time, where immigration was encouraged.

It is very multicultural  and has a unique character as a Midlands city after the scars of war, which we see again  in the East.

The city is open to working with other cities from their experience of Culture year, its digital art innovation and how an industrial city can evolve in a post industrial era, where there can be lessons for Waterford, smaller but comparable in many ways as an industrial city.

This point was noted by David McWilliams, economist, after he spoke at the Waterford – Best Place to live” seminar last May in the Theatre Royal Waterford.


Kieran Walsh 
The Munster Express
First for News