The city of Londonderry lies in the deep valley of the River Foyle, some one hundred and fifty miles northwest of Dublin. The city centre rises on a hill on the western side of the river and is encircled by its splendidly preserved seventeenth-century city walls. Derry is the second city of Northern Ireland and its history is a long and tumultuous one.
What’s in a Name?
The English name Derry comes from the Irish Doire, meaning ” a place of oaks “. The original settlements at Derry nestled on an island-hill in the river Foyle, which was at that time thickly forested. The monastic settlement founded in the sixth century took the name Doire Colmcille, after its founder St Colmcille (Columba, the founder of Iona). In time, the title Doire was anglicised to Derry. With the plantation of the new colonial settlement at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Derry became Londonderry, in honour of the London merchants who underwrote the expense of this risky enterprise.
Londonderry remains the official name of the city, but the official title of the city council is Derry; and Derry is the more commonly used name. Throughout the Northern Ireland Troubles, the issue became a political one and the people of the city have become accustomed to (and amused by) the fine line over this issue walked by many newspaper and broadcasting organizations: the local BBC radio station, for example, now routinely refers to the city as ” Derry-stroke-Londonderry ” – and wcities.com has followed the BBC’s example! The issue, however, is no longer as fraught as it once was. The tourist authorities now speak of the Maiden City, a coy reference to the fact that the city has never fallen to siege; you may justifiably think that any name is preferable to that.
The Walled City
English and Scottish settlers constructed the walled city of Londonderry at the beginning of the seventeenth century on the instructions of James I. The intention was to place the new city at the heart of the Plantation of Ulster, at that time the only one of Ireland’s four provinces not yet fully under English control. The City Walls in the year 2000 are punctuated by seven gates and remain marvellously preserved, while the land they encircle is still the heart of the modern city. A stroll around the open circuit of the walls takes about an hour and affords wide views of the city and its hinterland.
The city was laid out in a grid pattern, subsequently much copied in the colonies of British North America. The passing centuries have witnessed many changes, but this basic grid remains fundamentally unaltered. Four main streets converge on the city’s main square, the Diamond, which contains the city Cenotaph and the distinctive facade and copper cupola of Austin’s Department Store. Two of these four streets, Shipquay Street and Ferryquay Street, remain the busy shopping streets they have always been; and in a city of hills and sudden views, Shipquay Street is the steepest main street in Ireland. On Bishop Street lies the handsome neo-classical city Courthouse. The fourth street, Butcher Street, is home to a new interpretive centre and (shortly) a new hotel.
Behind these four converging streets lie many beautiful buildings. Most look old and well preserved, but in truth the city centre lay largely in ruins at the end of the 1970s – the result of the euphemistically named ” Troubles ” – and most of the buildings we now see have been carefully and painstakingly restored. The finest examples of restoration are the facades of Pump Street, Magazine Street and London Street – all names that evoke the city’s past. The most unusual and charming example of this careful restoration, however, is probably the Craft Village behind Shipquay Street: this reconstruction of a town street and square is home to small shops and cafes, constructed using the original brick and stone from damaged buildings that once stood on this site. Some very old buildings, thankfully, remain, notably the splendid Cathedral of St Columb (1613) and the small, beautiful Anglican
St Augustine’s Church on the city walls. The O’Doherty Tower – fashioned out of brickwork similar to that of the city walls – will in 2001 become part of the new Spanish Armada Museum at Magazine Gate. Close to Shipquay Gate – today the busiest entrance to the walled city – lies the site of the new Civic Theatre and Millennium Square, a glass-roofed cultural and commercial space that will occupy the last major undeveloped space within the circuit of the walls. This impressive complex is due to open in September 2001.
The Bogside lies below the northern stretch of the city walls and is one of the city’s more densely populated districts. Its name is distinctive and comes from the period when the hill of Derry was an island in the river Foyle. Through the middle ages, the western arm of the river gradually silted up, leaving marshy land behind; this land became known as the Bogside. This low-lying land was gradually drained and, after the foundation of the colonial city and building of the city walls, it became Derry’s first suburb. Catholics were barred from living within the city walls, and so the Bogside has always been a predominantly Catholic district. In modern times, it became a crucible of Catholic discontent: in the period from 1921-1972, when Northern Ireland was governed by successive Unionist administrations, the Bogside had some of the worst housing slums in Europe, and the area witnessed the beginning of the Civil Rights marches, in which Catholics demanded equal rights for their community. The area was also the scene of the shocking events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civil rights marchers were killed by British soldiers. Today, the area has been extensively rebuilt, but remains the most politically aware district of the city: the enormous and artistically distinctive murals which adorn the walls of the area, signify this sensitivity. The most eye-catching monument in the Bogside, however, is Free Derry Corner, a gable wall proclaiming You Are Now Entering Free Derry: a testament to the period in the early 1970s when this district of the city was wholly under the control of the IRA.
St Eugene’s Cathedral, constructed at the end of the nineteenth century in Gothic revival style, lies on the western edge of the Bogside. At the eastern side, and close to the city walls, is the
Long Tower Church. This building’s modest appearance conceals an extraordinarily lavish interior.
Along the River
Close to Shipquay Gate lies the neo-Gothic Guildhall, the largest public building in Londonderry and once the home of the city’s government. The interior is lavishly wood-panelled and contains very beautiful stained glass, chronicling the history of the city and its place in the British colonial adventure. Also close to the river is the Harbour Museum, which details the history of the port of Derry, including its role as an emigration port in the nineteenth century and the vital part it played in World War Two. A few minutes’ walk is the Foyle Valley Railway, a reconstructed steam railway that travels south along the river to Donegal: this is a great trip for the children and on a fine day affords fine views of the green valley of the Foyle. Between the river and the city walls, meanwhile, lies the district known as the Fountain: this is the last predominantly Protestant area on the western side of the river and contains some fascinating political murals.
A few minutes’ stroll north brings you to the Foyle Arts Centre, which has studio space for theatre and dance. Not far from there you can see the rapidly expanding University of Ulster at Magee College. Its hillside campus gives great views of the river and mountains beyond. Two miles north of the city centre is the striking Foyle Bridge, the longest in Ireland and one that has sweeping views of the city and the countryside. Further north – you’ll need a car to make the short trip – is the
Amelia Earhart Centre, a museum which commemorates the unexpected arrival of this famous pilot in the city following her celebrated trans-Atlantic flight. The story goes that Earhart radioed her support staff to tell them she had landed in Paris, so impressed was she by the Georgian elegance of Londonderry. (A true story? Of course!)
The Waterside is the name given to that part of Londonderry on the eastern side of the Foyle. This district is only a stroll from the city centre across the Craigavon Bridge. The area is largely residential but is also home to some of the city’s most distinctive sights, notably the Workhouse Museum, which details the history of the Irish Famine in the north-west. The political murals in Irish Street are also worth a look: they give an insight into working-class Protestant culture in this predominantly Catholic city. They are especially intriguing if viewed against the context of their counterparts in the Bogside. Splendid views of the city can be had from the hill-top Waterside suburbs, while on the southern edge of the city lies the Prehen Boat House. The excellent City of Derry Golf Club is about a mile from the Waterside. The city’s Airport is some eight miles north of the city, near the village of Eglinton; it offers services to London (Stansted), Glasgow, Dublin, Manchester and (in summer) Jersey.
Donegal lies only a few minutes’ drive west of the city and contains some of Ireland’s best-loved and dramatic scenery. The Inishowen peninsula is Ireland’s most northerly district and has traditionally been the natural hinterland of Derry. Only a mile or two from the border lies the marvellous ring fort of
Grianan of Aileach, first mentioned in history in the fifth century and used as a temple and fortress for centuries. The structure was extensively rebuilt in the nineteenth century and is the best place to get your bearings: it affords wide views over Derry, Donegal and beyond. Inishowen stretches north of Grianan to Malin Head, and has some of the country’s best and most deserted beaches, superb walks and championship golf courses. High points include Kinnagoe Bay, Culdaff Bay, the Gap of Mamore and the Ballyliffin Golf Club. The Inis Eoghain 100 drive circles the peninsula and should be driven at a leisurely pace, with frequent pauses!
East of Londonderry lies the gentler landscape of County Derry in Northern Ireland. The Sperrin Mountains rise in the east of the county and Learmount Forest Park and the wild moors of the Sperrin highlands typify the vivid contrasts of landscape that are such a feature of this region. Equally attractive for the visitor is the marvellous Blue Flag beach at Benone, which stretches for miles along the northern coast of the county; and the nearby pretty plantation town of Limavady. Closer to Londonderry, Ness Woods and its waterfalls are pleasant spots for a ramble on a fine day.
Along the north coast of neighbouring County Antrim runs the so-called Causeway Coast. This is home to the Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage Site and one of the geological wonders of the world. The great geometric columns of rock rise from the shores of the sea a few miles east of the lively resort towns of Portrush and Portstewart, while nearby lie the majestic ruins of Dunluce Castle on its cliff overlooking the Atlantic; and the famous Whiskey Distillery at Bushmills.
History of Londonderry
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.
“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.