The Walled City of Derry Experience
The first name for this ancient city was Daire Calgach, meaning 'oak grove' which is still an apt description as there are sturdy oak trees scattered across the city.
It’s an old city with a young heart. Londonderry’s population is one of the youngest in Europe: sixty per cent of city dwellers are under thirty-nine. This youthful profile gives the place optimism and enthusiasm which is evident by the thriving creative arts and music scene.
Derry has an industrial, rugged and scarred cityscape indicative of its querulous past. The city can trace its roots back 1,450 years to the days of the early Christian church in Ireland. It’s a small city and easy to walk around. There are great walking opportunities along the walls and up the steep streets which lead to The Diamond, where Austin’s, on the corner, is the world’s oldest department store. From the walls, the visitor can view the distant past and witness the forward looking present. The city acknowledges its tumultuous past with exhibitions and re-enactments of painful episodes but prefers now to walk forward, bringing all its conflicting interests together.
Bruised by many battles, harsh social and economic decline, and more recent strife, Londonderry is a city with something to show. Over 1,450 years’ of history has bequeathed five museums, notable medieval, Georgian and Victorian architectural features, two cathedrals and several different names.
Colm Cille began a settlement here in 546, founding a religious order and building a monastery on a hill. Saint Augustine’s Church now stands on the same hill. This church was built in 1872 and is still an active Parish in the Church of Ireland. Saint Columb’s Cathedral commemorates the Saint’s mission. This is the oldest building in the city. Completed in 1633, this was the first cathedral built in the British Isles after the Reformation. The original foundation stone is still there along with a stone from an earlier twelfth century, Columban church. Later features added to the cathedral include intricate, Victorian stained glass windows and marble memorials to clergy and benefactors of the cathedral. In the North and South aisles, hang military flags from regiments once connected to the city.
Visitors are often impressed by the City’s medieval walls. Still intact and retaining the original gateways, this is the best preserved walled city in Ireland. The settlement of Scottish and English Protestants in Derry was part of the Plantation of Ulster. This was a deliberate settlement of skilled townspeople, loyal to the English crown and parliament throughout Ulster. The walls were built between 1613-1618 to defend the wealth and prosperity of settled English and Scottish planters from marauding Irish clans. Guilds from the City of London financed the walls, hence the origins of the name Londonderry which is still used today.
The Maiden City title is derived from the unconquered walls’ status. The walls were never broken, withstanding several sieges, most notably the siege which lasted from December 1688 until July 1689. Thirteen quick thinking young apprentices locked the city’s gates against approaching Jacobite invaders. The besieged city dwellers defended against the onslaught and held out until food and relief arrived by boat at Shipquay Gate. Today the Apprentice Boys’ Association has 10,000 members who re-enact and perpetuate the action of those thirteen apprentices. The Memorial Hall is open and keeps a small collection of remnants and artefacts from the Siege, treasured by the Association.
For an overview of the city’s history and evolution, all is explained in The Story of Derry at the Tower Museum. This permanent exhibition is the city’s journey through many centuries from its geological origins through its Christian, maritime, emigration, economic and more recent vociferous political events. An Armada Shipwreck: La Trinidad Valencera is another permanent exhibition presenting a collection of objects salvaged from La Trinidid Valancera which sank off Donegal in 1588.
Within the Walled City, the visitor soon learns about the city’s contentious past. There is another aspect of life within the walls: a progressive, dynamic arts environment where new writing, film and dramatic arts flourish. The Verbal Arts Centre, Nerve Centre and The Playhouse are venues for artistic expression by local and international writers, singers, dancers and theatre groups. The pretty craft village is another example of the city’s progressive arts scene where artists create hand-crafted jewellery and crystal gifts.