History of Derry

Original Official Site of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Derry is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland. The earliest historical references date to the sixth century A.D. when a monastery was founded there, but for thousands of years before that people had been living in the vicinity. These 'prehistoric' people left traces of their existence in the various archaeological sites and objects which often come to light in this area.

The name Derry derives from the old Irish word Daire meaning an oak grove, particularly an oak grove on an island totally or partly surrounded by water or peat bog. Such was the case at Derry. The original oak grove which gave its name to the city and the various settlements which followed it, were all located in turn on a small hill which was formerly an island in the River Foyle. The channel which swept past the western side of that island gradually dried out leaving a marshy, boggy area. In time this area became known as the Bogside. It is now one of the best known areas of the city.

Oak groves were sacred places for the Celtic peoples who once lived over most of Western Europe. 'Oak' placenames occur frequently throughout the continent, as well as in Britain and Ireland. This reflects both the widespread nature of the ancient oak forests, and also the important position these trees occupied in the culture and ceremonial of the Celts. Derry was almost certainly one of those Celtic ritual places. The taboos and superstitions about the trees of Derry, which survived down to the sixteenth century, clearly hint at the pre-Christian religious significance of this island hill.

In the sixth century A.D. a Christian monastery was founded on the hill of Derry. The site was allegedly granted by a local king who had a fortress there. A similar kind of fortress can be seen at the spectacular Grianan of Aileach, a few miles west of the city and now in County Donegal. According to legend the monastery of Derry was established by the great Irish saint Colmcille/Columba (521-597). Colmcille founded many important monasteries in Ireland and Britain, including Durrow in the Irish midlands and Iona on an island off the west of Scotland. The claim that he founded Derry is less certain, although that monastery definitely belonged to the federation of Columban churches which looked to Colmcille as their spiritual founder and leader. The monastery of Derry would have been quite small at the beginning. The location of the first church was probably where the beautiful little Church of Ireland Chapel of St Augustine stands today. During the later middle ages the old monastery of Derry evolved into an Augustinian congregation. The church of that monastery survived up to the seventeenth century and was used, as their first place of worship, by the London colonists who came here to build the walled city.

St Columba's 'Long Tower' is another very important Derry church. It was the first Catholic church erected in the city after the momentous events of the reformation and plantation. It is decorated in a brilliant neo-Renaissance style. Built originally in 1784, St Columba's occupies the precincts of another of Derryls famous medieval churches the Tempull Mor or Great Church. This was built in the 1160's at a time when a reasonably large township had grown up around the ancient monastery. The Tempull Mor served as the cathedral of the Diocese of Derry throughout the middle ages. Like the distinctively Irish round tower of the same period (hence 'Long Tower'), which stood nearby, all traces of the Tempull Mor disappeared in the seventeenth century.

Although the Vikings certainly sailed up the loughs and rivers of this area, the monastery of Derry escaped the worst effects of their raids. Derry's medieval heydays were in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the local Mac Lochlainn dynasty moved into the settlement. Under their patronage, Derry prospered: the population grew; the monastery and its school thrived; and prestigious buildings were erected. With the decline of the Mac Lochlainns, some of whom claimed to be kings of all Ireland, Derry also sank into unimportance.

The famous skeleton on the city's coat-of-arms is said to depict the association with another aristocratic family, the Norman de Burgos, who built their great fortress at Greencastle at the entrance to Lough Foyle. They briefly owned part of Derry in the early fourteenth century and may well have been planning to build a new town there. Instead, the settlement declined in significance. When the local O'Doherty family built a castle in Derry for their overlords the O'Donnells, probably around 1500, it may well have been thought that a new beginning was about to be made. The recently-built O'Doherty Tower is a modern attempt to commemorate that medieval association.

Throughout the second half of the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I's military leaders tried to conquer the province of Ulster, the only part of Ireland still outside English control. The English first came to Derry in 1566 but the garrison established there at that time lasted only a few years. A second, more successful garrison returned in 1600 during the 'Nine Years War' against the Gaelic O'Neill and O'Donnell earls. On this occasion the English managed to hold on to Derry and, when the war came to an end in 1603, a small trading settlement was established and given the legal status of city. In 1608 this 'infant city' was attacked by Sir Cahir O'Doherty (a previous supporter of the English in Ulster), and the settlement was virtually wiped out.

This attack came about shortly after the so-called 'flight of the earls' when the O'Neill and O'Donnell chieftains, together with their principal supporters, fled to the continent, leaving Gaelic Ulster leaderless. The new king in London, James I, decided on a revolutionary plan designed once and for all to subordinate Ulster. The 'Plantations in Ulster' required the colonising of the area by loyal English and Scottish migrants who were to be predominantly Protestant in religion, unlike the Catholic Irish. One part of this colonisation was to be organized by the ancient and wealthy trades' guilds of London. The new county granted to the Londoners and its fortified city, built on the site of the recently destroyed settlement, were renamed Londonderry in honour of this association . The city of Londonderry was the jewel in the crown of the Ulster plantations. It was laid out according to the best contemporary principles of townplanning, imported from the continent (the original street lay-out has survived to the present almost intact). More importantly, the city was enclosed by massive stone and earthen fortifications Derry was the last walled city built in Ireland and the only city on the island whose ancient walls survive complete. Among the city's new buildings was St. Columb's Cathedral (1633). This is one of the most important seventeenth century buildings in the country and was the first specifically Protestant cathedral erected in these islands following the Reformation.

The new city was slow to prosper. By the 1680's it still had only about 2,000 inhabitants; and yet it was, by far, the largest town in Ulster. Along with most parts of Britain and Ireland, the city suffered from the upheavals in the 1640's. In 1649 the city and its garrison, which supported the 'republican' Parliament in London, were besieged by Presbyterian forces loyal to the King. Among its most famous citizens in the second half of the seventeenth century was George Farquhar, one of the so-called Restoration dramatists.

On April 18 1689, James came to Derry and summoned the city to surrender. The King was rebuffed and actually fired at by some of the more determined defenders. As a policy ot no surrender' was confirmed, the Jacobite forces outside the city began the famous Siege of Derry. For 105 days the city suffered appalling conditions as cannonballs and mortar-bombs rained down, and famine and disease took their terrible toll. Conditions for the besiegers were no better and many thousands of people died, both inside and outside the walls. The cannons used to defend the city can be seen on the walls and at other places around the city. Finally at the end of July, a relief ship broke the barricading 'boom' which had been stretched across the river, near where the new Foyle Bridge now stands. The Siege was over but it has left its mark on the traditions of the city to the present day.

The city was rebuilt in the eighteenth century with many of its fine Georgian style houses still surviving. George Berkeley, Ireland's most important philosopher, was Dean of Derry (1724-33), and another well-known and eccentric cleric, Frederick Augustus Hervey, the Earl of Bristol, was Bishop of Derry (1768-1803). It was Hervey, the so-called Earl Bishop, who was responsible for building the city's first bridge across the Foyle in 1790. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the port of Derry became an important embarkation point for Irish emigrants setting out for America. Some of these founded the colonies of Derry and Londonderry in the state of New Hampshire. By the middle of the nineteenth century a thriving shirt and collarmaking industry had been established here, giving the city many of its fine industrial buildings. Four separate railway networks emanated from the city, the interesting history of which can be examined at the Foyle Valley Railway Centre.

In 1921, with the partition of Ireland, Derry unexpectedly became a border city. Amelia Earhart gave the city a much needed boost when she landed here in 1932 becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her connection with the city is reflected in a display at the Amelia Earhart Cottage at Ballyarnett. In more recent times the city has become known worldwide on account of the 'troubles'. Less well-known is its reputation voted by the Civic Trust in London as one of the ten best cities of its kind to live in, in the United Kingdom. Derry is an old, beautiful city, set in a surrounding landscape of unparallelled natural beauty and diversity. It also has an unparallelled wealth of history.

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