History of Londonderry

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Monastic Derry

The valley of the river Foyle has been inhabited for thousands of years, with new evidence confirming the region's extensive history. In August 2000 an archaeological dig on the outskirts of Derry brought to light remnants of a farming community dating back to circa 4000 BC (a discovery that has great international as well as local significance). But if people had already settled then in the Foyle basin area, the date of the foundation of the city is traditionally set at 546AD, when St Columba (also known as Colmcille) founded a monastic settlement on an island in the river.

The locality was at that time thickly forested, and so the saint called his infant settlement Doire, meaning in Irish " a place of oaks ". The settlement quickly became known as Doire Colmcille. The monastery thrived from its inception, and very quickly a settled trading community sprang up around the monastic buildings. Derry was placed advantageously: the island in the river commanded the passage of the Foyle, at that time the main route into and out of central Ulster; it also stood at the meeting place of the lands of the O'Donnell clan of Donegal and the O'Neill clan of Tyrone, and the people of Derry were not slow to appreciate their settlement's strategic location.

Columba did not settle at Derry: he left the infant monastery for Scotland and went on to found the famous settlement at Iona, from where monks fanned out across Europe, spreading the Gospel as they went. He wrote of Derry: " The angels of God sang in the glades of Derry and every leaf held its angel ". The monastery was an important player in the federation of Columban monasteries that spread across Europe, and after it became an Augustinian congregation it maintained its important position.

We may surmise that the Vikings largely left Derry alone and the town continued to thrive into the middle ages, during which the Great Church (Tempull Mor) was built on the crown of the hill. At this point, Derry was an island no longer: the western arm of the river had dried up and the marshy area which remained became known as the Bogside. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, the town was in its heyday, but in the late middle ages, Derry began a slow decline and the ancient monastic buildings began to fall into disrepair. A 14th-century fire destroyed the great cathedral, of which no trace remains; at this point the town reached its nadir.

Colonial Londonderry

"If stones could speake, then London's prayse should sound
Who built this church and cittie from the grounde."

The old settlement may have fallen on hard times, but it remained strategically vital, and in the 16th century political events began to overtake the region. The English occupation of Ireland, which had been developing since Norman times, had proceeded apace until only the province of Ulster remained outside English control. Elizabeth I determined to subdue the entire island once and for all by military force. Derry was a key to this operation and English garrisons and colonies were established on the hill above the Foyle in 1566 and 1600. Both lasted only a few years before being wiped out in local uprisings.

Elizabeth died in 1603 but the new king, James I, continued her policies. The result was the Plantation of Ulster, in which Protestant settlers from Scotland and England were brought in and given lands confiscated from their original Catholic owners. This expensive operation was funded in part by the guilds of the city of London, who took charge of the planning of a wholly new settlement at Derry. The new settlers arrived in 1612 and immediately set about establishing the walls of the city, which would protect it from assault. The city was laid out as a grid, with four principal streets meeting in a central square: the grid pattern was carried to America and in Derry remains unchanged to this day. So the city was established, and was renamed Londonderry, in honour of the merchants who had given their backing to this risky enterprise. At the heart of the new city was St Columb's Cathedral (1613), one of the most important 17th-century buildings in Ireland and Britain. The new city was the largest town in Ulster but was nevertheless slow to prosper, surviving two sieges before the famous Siege of Derry of 1688-1689.

The Siege of Derry

The Great Siege must be seen in the context of a wider British and European struggle for power. The Siege and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 were bitter conflicts for the thrones of England and of Scotland between Catholic James II (the rightful king by blood) and Protestant William of Orange (the popular choice in England), played out on Irish soil and against a background of French interventions. In the autumn of 1688, James controlled most of Ireland and planned to use it as the base from which to reclaim his throne.

The Siege began in December 1688, when the gates of the city were shut in the faces of James's emissaries - much to their consternation. The Protestant people of the city had feared that they would be massacred by the Jacobites but as they were engaged in anxious discussion, 13 young apprentice boys seized the initiative and closed the gates. Londonderry was quickly besieged and the policy of 'no surrender' confirmed. The Siege continued until the following August, during which time the people of the city suffered from appalling conditions and starvation. Cannonballs rained into the city - many crashed through the roof of the new cathedral, and one is on display in the building today, while along the city walls today are ranged the cannon which were used by the defenders. Outside the city, the Jacobites - many in no condition to withstand the privations of an Irish winter - also suffered terribly. Thousands of citizens of the city perished and all the stores remaining in the city had vanished before the Siege was broken by English ships in August 1689. These broke the boom that had been laid across the Foyle to stop any ships leaving or entering Derry, and the city was relieved.

The Siege is one of the most important episodes in the history of Britain and Ireland: it confirmed the ascendancy of William and signified the eventual defeat of James and of Jacobite and Catholic attempts at recapturing the thrones of Scotland and of England. The Battle of the Boyne in the following summer only confirmed what had already been decided at Derry.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Derry

Londonderry was rebuilt in the 18th century and its gracious Georgian terraces date from these years. The city began a period of rapid growth that has never stopped, spilling over the city walls and expanding north and also east across the Foyle. In the 19th century, Derry was industrialized, becoming a centre of shipping and linen production: the city's great industrial buildings date from this period. It also became one of Ireland's principal emigration ports: the quays of the city were choked with vessels bringing the produce of the world to Derry - and carrying away thousands of people to new lives in New Zealand, Australia and North America. In the middle of the century, Magee College was established on its hillside campus just north of the walled city. For many years affiliated to Trinity College Dublin, Magee is today a campus of the University of Ulster.

The 20th Century

The partition of Ireland in 1921 saw Londonderry unexpectedly become a border city. It was a calamity for the city, depriving it, as it did, of trade with its natural hinterland in Donegal. The city suffered in the general global economic disasters of the 1930s before witnessing its fortunes restored in the Second World War. Derry was bombed by German planes, but the war years in general were kind: the port of Londonderry was one of the most important Allied harbours in Europe and the city was flooded with American and Commonwealth servicemen, adding a little glamour to otherwise grey years. The economy boomed - though only briefly, for in the post-war years, economic difficulties returned.

In the 1960s, many factors combined to create a powder keg of discontent. The lack of civil rights for Catholics, the absence of housing for a rapidly-growing population, the gerrymandering of the city council in favour of the Unionist minority, the ending of three of the four railway lines into the city and the decision to downgrade Magee University College by the Stormont administration in favour of a new University of Ulster to be located in the Unionist town of Coleraine. All these contributed to a rising tension throughout the late 1960s. The Civil Rights marches of these years were a response to the injustices, and the lack of a satisfactory response to the issues raised led to the explosion of the Troubles in 1968.

The 1970s were disastrous for Derry. The urban fabric of the city was ravaged by repeated bombings; and Bloody Sunday of January 1972, when fourteen unarmed civil rights marchers were killed by British soldiers, was only one (though the most shocking) of many episodes in which people in the city lost their lives. The 1980s and 1990s, however, were better years. In 1980, Brian Friel's play Translations premiered in the Guildhall, marking the beginning of a period of energetic cultural activity that has continued to this day. The status of Magee College was restored in the 1980s, and today the rapidly growing university plays a vital role in the economic and cultural life of the city. In the last 20 years the fabric of the city has been restored, and the damage done (for the most part) painstakingly repaired, so that Derry/Londonderry can face the future in better heart than for many years.

Cultural and Literary Derry/Londonderry

Throughout its tumultuous history, the city and region has produced fine artists, singers and writers. Londonderry is famous for its traditions of choral excellence; old and young get a chance to perform at the annual Derry Feis, held in the city at Easter each year. The city is also home to the "Derry Air", popularly known as Danny Boy, the unofficial anthem of Northern Ireland and sung nostalgically by millions of Irish exiles around the world. Latterly, the city has produced singers of high pedigree and one - Josef Locke - emerged from poverty in the city to become one of the great singers of his day. Dana warbled her way to success in the Eurovision Song Contest and used her famous victory as a springboard to all kinds of everything, including recent political fame. The Undertones are remembered by a generation of teenage kickers, who were more than happy to see them reform briefly in the summer of 2000.

The influential novelist Jennifer Johnston (How Many Miles to Babylon?) has made her home in the city; and the region has also produced Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney, born in the village of Bellaghy and educated at St Columb's (which he immortalized in his poem 'The Ministry of Fear'); the novelist and scholar Seamus Deane, who painted a vivid picture of the city in his great novel Reading in the Dark; and dramatist Brian Friel, who bases his influential works in Donegal. His play The Freedom of the City emerged from the trauma of Bloody Sunday, while Translations is popularly regarded as one of the most important works of drama to emerge from Ireland in recent years. The 1980s saw the cultural energy and vibrancy of the city become harnessed by the Field Day Theatre Company, headed by Deane, Heaney, Friel and Stephen Rea. The premiere of Translations in the Guildhall in 1980 - the very darkest period of the 'Troubles' - electrified the culture of the city and of Ireland; it was also an explicit vote of confidence in a city beaten down by years of civil unrest. Today, the cultural life of the city is flourishing as never before - and the opening of a new civic theatre and cultural centre in the autumn of 2001 holds yet more promise.