DERRY, which lies at the foot of Lough Foyle, is a crossroads city in more ways than one: roads from all cardinal points arrive here, but it was also a major point of emigration from the eighteenth century onwards, an exodus that reached tumultuous proportions during the Great Famine. Derry is the fourth largest city in Ireland and the second biggest in the North, but it has a markedly different atmosphere from Belfast, being two-thirds Catholic. While roads into the city are signposted in Irish welcoming visitors to Derry, the city still appears as “Londonderry” on many road maps and signs, a preference adhered to by the British government, Unionists and television news bulletins. Indeed, it has also acquired the nickname “Stroke City” – a reference to the tactful placating of both Nationalist and Unionist traditions by entitling it “Londonderry/Derry”. Whatever the case, locals of both persuasions now generally refer to their city as “Derry”.
Outside Ireland, the name of Derry recalls the Troubles and savage events like the Bloody Sunday massacre. Unlike Belfast, the cutting edge of violence receded considerably here even before the ceasefires, and the city is still imbued with a real sense of optimism, despite losing trade to nearby Letterkenny whenever the euro falls against the pound.
Approached from the east in winter twilight or under a strong summer sun, the city presents a beguiling picture, with the vista of the River Foyle and the rise of the city’s two hillsides, terraced with pastel-shaded houses and topped by the hueless stone spires of the ever-present religious denominations. With its rich history, Derry has several worthwhile attractions, mostly enclosed within the seventeenth-century walls, one of the best-preserved defences in Europe. A mile in length and as high as a two-storey house in places, the walls are reinforced by bulwarks and bastions and a parapeted earth rampart as wide as any thoroughfare. Within their circuit, the original medieval street-pattern has remained, with four gateways surviving from the original construction, albeit in slightly revised form. A tour of the walls also includes views of the Catholic Bogside area, whose political murals symbolize key moments in Derry’s history during the Troubles.
Though St Columba established a monastery here in 546 AD, the development of Derry (originally called Doire Calgaigh, “oakwood of Calgach”, after a legendary warrior) only really began in medieval times, when in the fourteenth century it was granted to the Anglo-Norman de Burgos. By 1500, the power of the O’Dohertys had spread from Inishowen and they constructed a tower house, which was later absorbed into the seventeenth-century walls.
Towards the end of the sixteenth century the uprising of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, provoked an English invasion. Doire’s strategic position on the River Foyle was quickly appreciated though it took some years for it finally to be captured. In 1600, the English commander Sir Henry Docwra began fortifying the remains of the medieval town as a base for incursions against the Irish, but in 1608 Sir Cahir O’Doherty rebelled against Docwra’s successor, Pawlett, and burnt Doire, by now anglicized as Derry, to the ground. This destruction made the city ripe for the plantation of English and Scottish settlers, and the financial assistance of the wealthy businessmen of the City of London was obtained to achieve this. A new walled city was constructed and renamed Londonderry in 1613 in honour of its backers, the Twelve Companies of the Corporation of London.
The seventeenth century was the most dramatic phase of Derry’s evolution, culminating in the siege of 1688–89. Following this, many Derry people emigrated to America to avoid harsh English laws, and some of their descendants, such as the pioneer frontiersman Daniel Boone, achieved fame there. Derry’s heyday as a seaport came in the nineteenth century, a period when industries such as shirt-making began to flourish – by the beginning of the twentieth century the city was the largest shirt-manufacturer in the UK. However, after Partition, the North–South dividing line lay just a couple of miles from Derry’s back door, and the consequent tariffs reduced much of its traditional trade. The shirt industry began its long decline, finally being phased out in the face of much cheaper imports from Asia, and while the city has seen growth in chemical industries, it still suffers from high male unemployment.
Though Derry remained relatively peaceful after Partition, its politics were among the North’s most blatantly discriminatory, with the substantial Catholic majority denied its civil rights by gerrymandering geared towards ensuring the Protestant minority’s control of local institutions. In October 1968 Derry witnessed a two-thousand-strong civil rights march. Confronted by the batons of the Protestant police force and the notorious B Specials, rioting spilled over into the Catholic Bogside district and over eighty people were injured. The clash is seen by many as the catalyst for the modern phase of the Troubles: faith in the impartiality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was destroyed once and for all, and the IRA was reborn a year or so later. The following year’s Protestant Apprentice Boys’ march was another significant step and, on January 30, 1972, came Bloody Sunday.
Nowadays, Derry is a lively and unexpectedly entertaining place to visit. The city has also undergone dramatic changes, with the construction of huge shopping centres and the Millennium Forum theatre, plus the developments of pleasant riverside walks along the Foyle. Its people, however, remain very much physically divided, with Catholics living to the west of the Foyle and Protestants mainly residing to the river’s east.