C o m m o n w e a l t h
A s s o c i a t i o n o f
M u s e u m s
May 1, 2003
Dermot Francis was Director of Heritage and Museum Services for Derry City Council. He passed away suddenly in May 2003 at the tragically early age of 43. Dermot will of course be remembered by all his colleagues across the globe but he will be remembered in particular for changing the face of this city as it emerged from over thirty years of violence.
Dermot began his career as a curator working with Brian Lacey. He attended university at Magee College in Derry and at Boston College in the United States. Working with Dr Lacey in the field of heritage in a divided community he faced difficulties which would have daunted a lesser man, but he was more than up to the challenge. Although Dermot was at all times courteous he was never a man to suffer fools. His determination to succeed, his indomitable spirit and his passion for Irish history helped Brian and he overcame the many obstacles in the path of museum curators in a society at war. Dermot's character drove the ambition required to open the Story of Derry in the Tower Museum. Of course this is much more than just the story of a city in the north of Ireland, it is the story of Ireland. Dermot's consummate professionalism is clearly evident here in the sensitive presentation and interpretation of the history and heritage of a divided city. Both Dermot and Brian Lacey could take pride in national and international awards won by the Story of Derry: the Tower Museum won a number of national and international awards including the Gulbenkian Irish museum of the Year Award for 1994. But Dermot was perhaps even more proud of local approval. The Museum was applauded across the political and religious divide. It has in fact become a model and a guide, an exemplar to others, at home and abroad, how best to interpret sensitively the contested heritages of other communities riven by civil strife.
Dermot was also custodian of the Harbour Museum which tells the story of emigration from the port of Derry, the Workhouse and the Railway museums. Like the Tower Museum these all became a common ground for the people of Derry and under Dermot?s custodianship the divided heritage of the city has instead become to a large extent a shared heritage which now plays a central role in the economic regeneration of Derry.
This concern to promote the social and economic well-being of his fellow citizens was always an integral part of Dermot's motivation. He was himself generous by nature and fundamentally could not begin to understand why all people should not be given the opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest. His other major contribution in life was as Secretary to the Credit Union. This citizens' bank provides for the ordinary working people of Derry an economic lifeline which funds not only the necessities of life but also education. Dermot worked tirelessly to build up the Credit Union from its earliest years. Even with a busy schedule he happily spent hours of his time helping other people. The welfare of others always took precedence over his own.
Throughout his life Dermot fought a continual battle against ill-health. He bore all this without complaint with a sense of humour and a joi de vivre that ensured an evening in his company was always memorable. Only those closest to him knew of the debilitating nature of his condition. This became clear to me when we were invited to attend the UNESCO Walled Cities Conference in Suwon, Korea in 2000. Medical advice was that he should not even fly and the long journey took its toll but Dermot never missed one session nor, indeed, any of the social gatherings. There was always the sense that Dermot lived life to the fullest in the conscious knowledge that his ill-health would terminate his own prematurely.
Dermot will however be remembered also as a husband and father, a son and a brother, and an irreplaceable friend. He was always available at any time of the day or night to offer commonsense advice and help. His generosity of spirit and in particular his humour made him a joy to know. Like many others I have been privileged to know him both as a friend and colleague. There was much more Dermot had planned to do but his life was tragically cut-short at such an early age.
In the last years of this life Dermot worked assiduously to expand the Tower Museum and the Story of Derry by creating a new museum on the history of the Spanish Armada. These plans initiated by Dermot for the development of the city and the protection of its heritage are now being realised. In May 2005 Derry City Council Museum Services will open a new museum on the Spanish Armada. At the same time the newly-refurbished and enhanced Story of Derry in the Tower Museum will be re-opened. As a result of his work Derry City Council also intend to put in a bid for World Heritage Site status in the next few years. It is hard to imagine that any of this would have happened without the vision and drive of Dermot Francis. It is not an overstatement to say that his legacy is evident everywhere in the rebirth of this city.
Dermot is survived by his wife Siobhan and their three children, Kevin, Sean and Grainne.
Dr William Kelly,
University of Ulster
CAM will miss Dermot Francis. He was a wonderful addition to our CAM family and made many friends when he attended CAM 99 in Barbados. CAM is sending this tribute out now so all of Dermot's friends will be able to know a little more about his life. A further CAM tribute will appear in the next Bulletin.