Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Walls of Derry

Of all the cities in Ireland to have a complete set of medieval walls I would not have expected it to be Derry (also known as Londonderry).  Once I learned of their existence it seemed like a good place to check out, especially as the weather had been so poor during the week.  At only a mile long I knew that even with a showery day we would have enough breaks to be able to complete the whole walk.  At that length it probably also qualifies as the shortest walk on this entire blog! 
Defending the East Walls

The Walls were built during the period 1613-1618 by the honourable, the Irish Society as defences for early seventeenth century settlers from England and Scotland.  They also delineated a section of dry ground, which was effectively an island from the neighbouring swamp or bog that had been created by the neighbouring River Foyle.  Outside the walls is now the famous Bogside area of the city and hence that is how it got its name.  Originally there were four gates to the city with the roads leading to a central hub but over the years other gates were added and it was one of these later ones where we started our walk; the Magazine Gate.  This was added in 1865 to enable access to Magazine Street from the Guildhall opposite.  This is the north east corner of the walls. 

View of The Peace Bridge
We decided to follow the route clockwise and so the walls here were initially quite level and pretty thick.  Along the tops were a row of cannons that had been restored by Derry City Council in 2005.  There are 24 of these cannon altogether and under expert supervision and often by hand, craftsmen cleared the barrels of centuries of rubbish, stripped off layers of paint and corrosion and bathed, sponged and waxed the cannon back to their former glory.  My daughters enjoyed pretending that they were trying to withstand any enemy approaches by pretending to fire them.

From the walls we could see the magnificent Guildhall and the square in front that once hosted various parades.  The old Guildhall is the only one of its type to be still operating as a civic building in Ireland and was built in 1887.  The Guildhall looks magnificent today after its refurbishment in 2013 but its history has not always been very happy as it was badly damaged by fire in 1908 and again by bomb attacks during the Troubles in 1972.  Hopefully it can enjoy a long and peaceful history free from any of that stuff now.

Shipquay Gate
Past the row of cannons facing the Guildhall we passed by the Shipquay Gate, one of the original four.  Our view past here was rather restricted by buildings on both sides and the wall seemed to be much lower around this section.  I imagine that it has suffered from land being built up on both sides, reducing its height somewhat.  Shortly after the Shipquay Gate we reached the south east corner of the walls and turned sharp right to head up hill, gently at first.  The walls here are probably the least impressive as they are overshadowed by the Millennium Forum, a modern shopping centre in the inside of the walls. 

The Playhouse
At the corner was formerly the Water Bastion and originally the river lapped against it.  Now the river is several hundred metres away.  A couple of notable things happened here – Governor Lundy escaped over the wall to head to Scotland when he was suspected of surrendering the city to James II during the siege that was happening at that time.  More recently the Undertones rocked the Casbah club near here during the punk revolution of 1976.

Reminder of the Troubles
As we headed past the Millennium Forum we spotted a rather unusual looking statue.  I recognised it as possibly a Gormley work (he of Angel of the North fame) and found later that I was right.  This small statue is regarded as a forerunner to the Angel of the North and is one of three identical statues, with the other two sold and in private hands.  Janus is of course the Roman God that January is named after for his head looks two ways – into the past and the future.

St Coulomb Cathedral
Beyond the Forum the wall climbs steeply and perhaps it is most impressive along the western side.  We stopped briefly at Newgate Bastion, still impressive despite being surrounded by buildings.  As we climbed further up the hill though the buildings on either side moved further back providing us with some extra space to look out over the city.

Bishops Gate
Just outside the city walls as we headed to Ferryquay Gate was a reminder of the Troubles with a corner of the street still reserved for bonfires and Unionist slogans.  Inside the walls were perhaps the finest buildings that we saw in all of Derry, most of which looked as if they had been refurbished in the last few years.  Derry was the City of Culture in 2013 and I imagine that this was the catalyst for much of the improvements to the city.  The building that particularly caught my eye was the Plyhouse.  This was apparently a couple of primary schools that were closed and turned into an arts centre in the early 1990s.  The amber colour was quite fetching for the old building.
View of Old Derry

Just beyond the Playhouse is the Cathedral of St Columb, which still dominates the city landscape and certainly this corner of the city walls.  The cathedral dates from 1633 after an earlier church was destroyed by an accidental explosion in 1568 and then completely razed by Sir Henry Docwra, who used the stones of the old church to help build the city walls.  Perhaps surprisingly the Cathedral was the first to be built as an Anglican Cathedral anywhere in Europe.

Bogside View
This part of the wall once housed the three sculptures from Anthony Gormley and they apparently aroused strong reactions in this spot as one looked out over the Catholic area of Bogside, another towards the adjacent army barracks and the other into the city towards the fountain.  The figures were intended to show the double character of the city of that time, divided by religion, culture and politics but united by faith.

Roaring Meg
Beyond the cathedral we reached the double bastion at the south west corner.  This is surely the best view along the whole wall, looking out over the Bogside area beyond.  The old swampy ground that this was named after is now a mass of terraced houses and a large Gaelic sports stadium in the distance.  Our position is defended by Roaring Meg, the largest of the cannons restored and surely in the best spot for this magnificent relic.
By now the rain that had been threatening for a while finally arrived and we had to duck for cover under a nearby tree.  The tree didn’t really shelter us much though and we were pretty soaked within minutes.  It soon passed though and we continued our trip along the last section of the wall down the north side. 

Presbyterian Church
This part of the wall was perhaps the most interesting from a human standpoint for along the way we were entertained by a number of people dressed in period costume who told stories to the passing crowds about life in days gone by and especially during the siege of 1689 when James II tried to starve out the population of Derry in an attempt to wrest the Crown back from William and Mary, who had recently usurped the throne following the Glorious Revolution.  Derry was staunchly Protestant at the time and refused to surrender, prompting the siege.  James II ultimately failed however as reinforcements were sent from England and naval ships forced the Jacobite troops to break the siege.  The event is still commemorated by the Apprentice Boys in Derry each year and this led to a lot of tensions with the largely Catholic residents of the Bogside during the troubles.  Life in besieged Derry sounded horrendous, with inhabitants forced to eat more of less anything they could get their hands on.  Nearly 8000 of a 30,000 population are said to have died.

Tales of Woe From the Siege
Our onward route was sharply back downhill to the Magazine Gate where we had started, passing by the Butchers Gate as we did so.  It seems astonishing that in the 19th Century a group of local businessmen attempted to force the demolition of the City Walls to improve traffic congestion, which was by then a major problem.  That they failed is a happy turn of events for visitors now as the Walls are surely the most surprising and fascinating feature of modern day Derry.  

Heading Back to the Magazine Gate
I have only touched on some of the history of this city – to explore all the intricacies of what has happened in the life of this city would surely take a much longer and thorough book.  Hopefully my skim through some of the major events associated with the Walls might encourage a few of you to read more.  There is no doubt about it, Derry has had a pretty torrid time since its foundation and many of the events are not that far back in history.  Let us hope though that the brutality and struggles remain in the past for now Derry seems a place full of confidence, with reverence to its past but no longer beholden to it.


  1. Northern Ireland is a place I have never visited. I was always under the impression that it was a bit run down but from your photographs that doesn't seem to be the case. My descendants were from Island Magee, a promontory opposite Larne, so I suppose I should one day make the effort to see the place.


    1. It's definitely worth a trip - the countryside is magnificent. Some of the towns we went to were a bit plain its true but I think that a lot of money has been thrown at this area in recent years to good effect.