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Articles Blog

Londonderry, Northern Ireland

Karyn Planett

Nearly 300 years have passed since George Berkeley wrote to his friend Lord Percival about his visit to Londonderry. See if your impressions match those of this enthusiastic traveler.           

“The city of Londonderry is the most compact, regular, well built town, that I have seen in the King’s Dominions, the town house (no mean structure) stands in the midst of a square piazza from which there are four principal streets leading to as many gates. It is a walled town, and has walks all round the walls planted with trees, as in Padua. The Cathedral is the prettiest in Ireland. My house is a fashionable thing, not five years old, and the cost eleven hundred pounds. The Corporation are all good churchmen, a civil people, and throughout English, being a colony from London. I have hardly seen a more agreeable situation, the town standing on a peninsula in the midst of a fine spreading lake, environed with green hills, and at a distance the noble ridge of Ennishawen mountains and the might rocks of Maghilligan form a most august scene. There is indeed much of the gusto grande in the laying out of this whole country, which recalls to mind many prospects of Naples and Sicily.” 

Well, perhaps the references to Padua, Naples and Sicily are a stretch, but there you have it. What is certain is that Londonderry is an ancient city worthy of a visit. 

On The Banks Of The Foyle 

Londonderry is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland. As early as the sixth century A.D. the Irish Saint Columba (also known as Colmcille) lived here and built a monastery on this site in 546. The city was known as Derry, derived from the word “Doire” which means “oak wood.” The Vikings attacked several times over the years, inflicting great damage.     

Again and again the city faced the heavy hand of war for it lies perched strategically on the banks of the Foyle River where it meets the Lough Foyle. It was the British who were ordered to seize Derry in the 16th century. Though they prevailed, their success was fleeting and they were eventually overrun. Not to be defeated, James 1 decided to conquer the region by introducing English loyalists who were given land grants to the surrounding area. These “Plantation” settlers, mostly Protestants from Scotland and England, were viewed by the Irish as land grabbers sent to take away their ancestral land. The situation was understandably volatile.     

Powerful walls were built during the early 17th century by something called The Honourable The Irish Society to protect the settlers. The London Trade Guilds underwrote much of the fledgling community’s construction for they hoped for mercantile successes. The last straw for the local Irish people came when their beloved city of Derry had the prefix “London” added as a signal that the Scottish and English settlers were there to stay. 

The Siege of Derry 

In 1689, following increased tension between the Irish and those from Scotland and England, the lid literally blew off the factional powder keg. The Derry people slammed shut the gates to their city to thwart the Catholic soldiers who were advancing under the orders of James II, England’s last Stuart king. For nearly four months, the people of Derry were cut off from the outside world, left to die of starvation and disease. Some 7,000 people, approximately one-fourth of everyone huddled within the city walls, died. It has been said that the people vowed “We will eat the Catholics first and then devour each other before surrender.”      

The siege ended when a relief ship broke through the lines. Proud citizens will tell you this tale and end with the quip that Derry is known as the “Maiden City” for successfully thwarting all advances. Local guides will point out the details of this story as depicted on St. Columb’s Cathedral’s siege memorial window. In addition, the Tower Museum offers an impressive depiction of the troubles experienced here. Its award-winning presentation is viewed as a fair and unbiased look at the Irish conflict. 

A ramble along the mighty city walls, more than a mile in length and two stories high, will bring to life the fortifications needed to ward off attacks by forces bent on overrunning the city. 

Tracing Your Roots 

The dark days of the 19th century drove many a desperate Irishman from his homeland. Pushed away by hard times and hunger, he and his frightened family boarded crowded ships by the score, bound for the New World. In just over two weeks, America’s “streets of gold” were theirs to walk down.    

Their statues are depicted in Waterloo Place and aboard the copper-bottomed wooden clipper ship Minnehaha, which regularly transported emigrants across the Atlantic. Her figurehead is displayed at the Harbour Museum. (Another famous woman is commemorated nearby… Amelia Earhart who landed at Ballyarnett in 1932 after having been the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo.           

The Northern Irish and the American people have many shared leaders. Historians tell us that eleven American presidents can trace their ancestry back to this province, among them Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.             

Down at Derry Quay, tucked behind the Guildhall, is the last bit of land thousands of emigrants saw as their ships’ deckhands cast off the lines. While their vessels creaked and groaned, these souls held high their heads and hopes. They sailed off into the night, into a dark sea bound for America. Perhaps, your ancestors were among them.