View of Londonderry c.1895 (Image – www.histografica.com)
Based on archaeological evidence, the Derry area is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Ireland. Even as late as the C16th the hill was associated with taboos and superstitions, indicative of a pre-Christian religious significance that probably attached to the site of the ancient oak grove that gave it its name.
The earliest historical references are to the establishment of a monastery, supposedly founded by Saint Colmcille / Columba (521 – 597 AD) and certainly run as one of a federation of Columban churches for many years. Although the Vikings certainly sailed up the loughs and rivers of this area, the monastery of Derry escaped the worst effects of their raids. During the later middle ages the old monastic settlement evolved into an Augustinian abbey.
The MacLochlainn clan moved into the settlement in the earlyC12th, and Derry prospered under their patronage as the monastery and its school thrived, the population grew, and prestigious buildings were reportedly erected.
Next came the Norman De Burgo / de Burgh dynasty, who built the great fortress at Greencastle at the entrance to Lough Foyle; as Earls of Ulster they briefly owned part of Derry in the early C14th, and may well have been planning to build a new town.
A third major opportunity for Derry arose c.1500 when the local O’Doherty family built a castle in Derry for their O’Donnell overlords, but the settlement soon declined in significance.
The English first came to Derry in 1566, as part of the long series of campaigns by Queen Elizabeth I‘s military leaders to subdue Ulster, but the garrison established there at that time lasted only a few years.
A second, more successful English garrison returned under Sir Henry Docwra in 1600, during the Nine Years War. The small trading settlement of Derrie, granted a Royal charter in 1604, was attacked and virtually wiped out in 1608 by the chieftain of Inishowen, Sir Cahir O’Doherty (a previous supporter of the English in Ulster).
However, the previous year’s “Flight of the Earls” – the ignominious departure of the once powerful O’Neill and O’Donnell clan chieftains for Spain – left the way open for the extension of the Plantation of Ulster to the northwest corner of the province.
The newly shired county and the recently destroyed settlement were granted to The Honourable The Irish Society, a consortium of livery companies (wealthy trades guilds) in the English capital, and in honour of this association was renamed Londonderry by the new Royal Charter of 1613, confirmed in 1662.
The massive stone and earthen walls, begun in 1613 and completed five years later, were intended to defend the new settlers from native aggression. The first planned urban development in Ireland, and the last walled city in the British Isles, was laid out with a grid pattern of streets according to the best contemporary principles of town planning imported from the continent, subsequently much copied in the colonies of British North America.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms began with the 1641 Rebellion, which saw insurgents making a failed attack on the city. In 1649 the city, which had declared in favour of the Parliament in London, was besieged by Scottish Presbyterian forces loyal to King Charles I. The Parliamentarian garrison was relieved by a strange alliance of Roundhead troops under George Monck and the Irish Catholic general Owen Roe O’Neill. These unlikely temporary allies were soon fighting each other again however, after the landing in Ireland of the New Model Army in 1649. The war in Ulster was finally brought to an end when the Parliamentarians crushed the Irish Catholic Ulster army at the Battle of Scarrifholis in nearby Donegal in 1650.
Although the fortified city was “the jewel in the crown” of the Ulster plantations, Londonderry was slow to prosper. By 1680 it still had only about 2,000 inhabitants; and yet it was by far the largest town in the province.
The Great Siege of Derry
King James II ascended the throne in 1685, and for the next three years openly favoured appointing Roman Catholics to powerful positions in Britain and especially Ireland. In 1688, the English Parliament deposed him in a virtually bloodless coup called the Glorious Revolution, in favour of the Protestant Dutchman, Prince William of Orange, husband of the king’s daughter Mary.
King James managed to flee to France, and looked to Ireland to muster support in regaining his kingdoms, sparking the Williamite War (aka the Jacobite War). It is important to recall that this was regarded in continental Europe as merely part of the War of the Grand Alliance / Palatine Succession between the French King Louis XIV and supporters of the Holy Roman Empire, including Spain and the Papal States; the main fighting took place in the Netherlands, the Rhineland, Savoy and Catalonia, leading to the War of Spanish Sucession.
King James’ Lord Deputy in Ireland, Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, was anxious to ensure that all strongpoints in the country were under Jacobite control. By November 1688 Londonderry was (along with Enniskillen) one of the only major urban centres in Ireland with a Protestant garrison, and Talbot ordered the elderly Alexander MacDonnell, 3rd Earl of Antrim, to replace it with a more reliable force. Several weeks were wasted searching for men who were at least six feet tall; in the meantime, the citizenry were inflamed by an anonymous (possibly hoax) document known as the Comber Letter, recalling the massacres of Ulster Protestants in Portadown during the 1641 Rebellion.
It was not until 7th December 1688 that around 1,200 Scottish Highlander Catholic “Redshanks” under MacDonnell’s command eventually arrived outside Derry. While the municipal authorities dithered, thirteen adolescent apprentice boys raied the drawbridge, grabbed the keys and closed the city gates. The Jacobite troops were left with no other option than to pitch camp on the east banks of the River Foyle and mount a small encampment in the Creggan area west of the city, which they could not seal off due to insufficient numbers.
Having reached Kinsale from France with 6000 men on 12th March 1689, King James acceded to the demands of the so-called Patriot Parliament in Dublin and swept triumphantly northwards at the head of a combined French and Irish army, while Derry’s defenders prepared for a siege by burning down all the buildings outside the city walls.
Arriving outside Bishop’s Gate on 18th April 1689, the king called on the city to yield, allegedly shouting “Surrender or die!“. The response was clear as some of the city’s defenders fired at him and the battle cry of “No Surrender!” was first heard. To the fury of many citizens, the City Governor, Lieut Col. Robert Lundy, favoured submission, but was denounced as a traitor, and the monarch was rebuffed three more times. That night, Lundy (disguised with “a load of match on his back“) and many others fainthearts took ship to Scotland, leaving Derry to its fate.
The city was completely sealed by the combined besieging armies, which King James left under the command of General Richard Hamilton before returning to Dublin. The city’s defence was overseen by Governor George Walker (an army major and Anglican priest), Colonel Adam Murray and Major Henry Baker.
Being a garrison town, Derry was initially well provided with food and arms, but as the exchanges of cannon and mortar fire grew fiercer, a shortage of ammunition developed, which the defenders tried to solve by using cannon balls made of bricks coated with lead.
Before the siege the population had been swollen by refugees from other Protestant communities to approximately 39,000. The food supply soon proved insufficient, and the situation rapidly deteriorated as disease took hold within the city. Conditions for the poorly equipped besiegers were little better.
Spurred on by a fanatical Lithuanian Marshal General called Conrad de Rosen, the Jacobites deployed tougher tactics in May; with the arrival of a new siege train from Dublin, an iron rain fell upon the city, and the inhabitants were reduced to gnawing on the bones of dead dogs, cats, rats, mice and bats.
Royal Navy ships under the command of Admiral Rooke arrived in Lough Foyle arrived on 11th June 1689, carrying a relief force led by General Percy Kirke, but to the utter amazement of the desperate and starving people in the city, the troops made camp within full view at Culmore Fort on Inch Island and stayed there for six weeks. A short and angry order from the Williamite Duke of Schomberg was needed to set the relief of Derry in motion.
Helped by the high tide on the evening of 28th July 1689, protected by the frigate HMS Portsmouth, and unobserved by partying Jacobite cannoneers, sailors on a longboat from HMS Swallow finally broke through the boom of logs and chains the besiegers had laid across the River Foyle, allowing the local merchant ships Phoenix, Jerusalem and Mountjoy (captained by Micaiah Browning, gloriously killed in action) to supply the city with food and ammunition. The 105-day Siege was over, and the Jacobites withdrew within days. Some 8000 people were said to have died both inside and outside the walls.
(Carlo Gebler‘s highly praised The Siege of Derry was published by Little, Brown in 2005).
The city was rebuilt in the C18th. Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730 – 1803), a famously eccentric cleric and self-declared agnostic, became Bishop of Derry in 1768 and 4th Earl of Bristol in 1779; popularly known as the Earl Bishop, he supported the Irish Volunteers, advocated freedom of worship, approved the erection of Derry’s first post-Reformation Roman Catholic church, and was responsible for the construction of the city’s first permanent bridge across the River Foyle in 1790.
The port became an important embarkation point for Irish emigrants setting out for North America. Wm McCorkell & Co Ltd ran one of the most notable shipping lines from 1778; their most famous ship was the Minnehaha, known as the “Green Yacht from Derry“.
Derry prospered during the C19th, and was one of the few urban centres in Ireland to experience an increase in population during the Great Famine, as migrants came to the city from other, more heavily affected areas. By the middle of the century a thriving clothes industry had been established, of sufficient renown to merit mention in Karl Marx‘s seminal Das Kapital. In their heyday, Derry’s shirt and collar factories employed over 15,000 workers, of whom 90% were women. By 1900 four separate railway networks emanated from the city.
During the War of Independence, the area was rocked by sectarian violence, partly prompted by the guerilla war raging between the IRA and British forces, but also influenced by economic and social pressures. The summer of 1920 saw severe sectarian rioting in the city. Many lives were lost and many Roman Catholics and Protestants were expelled from their homes during this communal unrest. After one week’s violence, a truce was negotiated by local politicians on both unionist and republican sides.
In 1921, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the partition of Ireland, Derry (rather unexpectedly) became a border city, separated from its traditional County Donegal hinterland.
During WWII, as the westernmost Allied port in Europe, Derry was crucial for the shipping convoys that ran the gauntlet of German attacks across the ocean, and played an important part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Ships from the Royal Navy and other Allied fleets were stationed locally, and the United States established a military base nearby,while the city’s anti-aircraft gunnery exceeded any other British location except London. The large numbers of Allied personnel in the city (over 20,000 UK, 10,000 US, plus 6,000 Canadians & Ors) provided Derry with cosmopolitan colour and romance while local men served abroad, notably in the 9th (Londonderry) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment (“the Derry Boys”) fighting in North Africa and Italy; over 250 lost their lives. At the conclusion of the war, the German Kriegsmarine surrendered some 60 U-boats at Lisahally harbour.
Discrimination against Roman Catholics by Unionists controlling both Northern Ireland’s government and the local authorities inspired several Civil Rights marches in 1968 and early 1969, blocked or attacked by the RUC and the B-Specials, which in turn led to the establishment of Free Derry.
The starting point of the Troubles is often dated to the three-day Battle of the Bogside in August 12th 1969, when Republican rioters fought the police so effectively that the British government drafted military units into the province to enforce peace. Although the troops were initially welcomed by many Nationalists, relations soon turned sour, at least partially due to vigorous propaganda by the IRA.
On Sunday January 30, 1972, a peaceful civil rights march in the Bogside ended in tragedy when British paratroopers shot 13 unarmed civilians dead and wounded another 13; one further man later died of his injuries.
Within months the official British government inquiry into the event, called the Widgery Tribunal, described the soldiers’ shooting as “bordering on the reckless” but largely cleared them of blame, a decision widely criticised as a “whitewash”.
It was not until 2010 that a 12-year reinvesigation by the the Saville Inquiry found that all of those shot were unarmed, and that the killings were both “unjustified and unjustifiable.” On the publication of the Saville report the British prime minister, David Cameron, made a formal apology on behalf of the United Kingdom.
Click here for details of the Troubles in the city and its surroundings. It has been suggested that a de facto ceasefire was negotiated in Derry as early as 1991. Whether this is true or not, the city did see less violence and bloodshed in the 1990s than Belfast or other localities.
Amelia Earhart visited Derry unexpectedly in 1932, landing on the northern outskirts of the city on her first attempted solo trans-Atlantic flight from Newfoundland to Paris. She climbed down from her plane and famously asked: “Where am I?” A man replied “In Gallegher’s pasture…have you come far?” “From America“, she replied. The site, now part of the lovely Ballyarnett natural park, is the location of the Amelia Earhart Centre, a museum devoted to the pioneering aviator (currently closed).
In November 1977 the city was visited by an orca / killer whale, nicknamed Dopey Dick by the thousands who came from miles around to see him.
The Honourable The Irish Society still exists, with extensive property interests in the city. The Governor is appointed by Aldermen of the City of London Corporation and is by tradition a past Lord Mayor of London.
Coat of Arms
The devices on the city’s arms are a skeleton and a three-towered castle on a black field, with the top third of the shield depicting the arms of the City of London – a red cross and sword on white. The gold harp in the centre of the cross was absent for many years.
The original arms of the City of Derry, confirmed in 1613 by Daniel Molyneux, Ulster King of Arms, bore “ye picture of death on a moissy stone & in ye dexter point a castle”; upon the renaming of the city as Londonderry the first mayor requested the addition of a “chief of London”.
It has been suggested that the castle represents the early C14th stronghold built in nearby Greencastle by Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster.
The skeleton is popularly thought to be that of a De Burgh knight who starved to death in the castle dungeons in 1332 on the orders of his cousin. Another explanation was that it depicted Sir Charles O’Dogherty / Cahir O’Doherty, who was put to death after Derry was invested by the English army in 1608. However, a 1979 report into the city’s arms and insignia found that the skeleton was “purely symbolic and does not refer to any identifiable person“.