Walking through Ebrington Square this evening, the Christmas lights have been switched on. The white bricked buildings gleaming in the warm white lights wrapped around the bare trees, alongside the giant Christmas tree providing a beacon of Christmas hope and cheer.
Beyond the shining lights, the darkness of the square and the inside of the buildings becomes apparent; the square and its buildings are empty and have been for some weeks now; closed for everyone’s sakes.
The Christmas lights provide an effective façade, allowing people to believe everything is okay, masking the sense of desperation of business and the worry of a community. From a distance, it is as if everything “normal”; upon closer inspection these lights are the only thing left standing in this barren square.
Across the peace bridge, it is time for the rest of the lights to be switched on, just in time for many of the remaining open businesses to close. As the Christmas lights switch on, shop lights go out.
The only noise in these city streets is the noise of the rain falling onto the road and of darkened windowpanes of a usually bustling and bright city centre.
Along Derry’s walls there is not a soul to be seen, where in years previous this was prime Santa-spotting territory, with smaller children using the ancient cannons as their stepladder to witness the countdown, and watch their city explode with colour.
Into the guildhall square, a few figures stand where normally there should be hundreds. Derry City and Strabane District mayor Brain Tierney and his family come out to join Santa in switching on the town’s lights. They stand in the rain, smiling and waving into a camera set up to live stream the event into the houses of families across Derry.
The countdown commences, and suddenly the guildhall square and beyond is flooded with lights, large Christmas trees become like lighthouses, and buildings and streets are draped in warm white lights.
The Christmas lights take all the glory this year, the focus is on them. There are no people to obstruct its reflection in the puddles below, and no shops open to dim its lights.
The mayor’s camera shuts off, and those who aren’t already there, make their way home, to stay there and stay safe.