History of Derry


Motto: Auxilium A Domino

“May help cometh from the Lord”

The name Derry comes from the Old Irish word Daire (modern: Doire) meaning ‘oak grove‘ or ‘oak wood‘ hence giving the county the nickname “the Oak-Leaf county“.

Derry has its origins as a Christian Monastery dating back to the 6th Century A.D. which was founded on the hill of Doire, east of the River Foyle. According to legend, the monastery of Doire was established by Saint Colmcille. Local tradition says this is the location of the first church in Ireland and is where St. Columba’s Long Tower Church stands today. It is also the site of the medieval Templemore Cathedral, later destroyed and desecrated by an English expeditionary force in 1568. Nearby is a medieval Irish round tower whose ruins can still be seen today.

During the later Middle Ages the old monastery of Derry evolved into an Augustinian congregation. A small church of that monastery survived up to the 17th century on a site within the present walls of Derry City, and was used by the London colonists as their first place of worship when they came to build the walled city.

Although the Vikings did manage to invade parts of Derry by sailing up the loughs and rivers around Lough Foyle, the monastery of Derry escaped the worst effects of their raids due to its strategic location. However, the Vikings were driven out, eventually, by the fearsome “White Hugh MacNéill” in 866 A.D., who had been elevated from King of Aileach to King of Ireland at that time.

White Hugh was best described as “a king of greatest prowess in his time”, according to the Annals of both Ulster and Ireland White Hugh slaughtered the Vikings and their Irish allies at “Glenn Foichle (Glenelly). The Ulster Annals state how “Aed (Hugh) son of Niall inflicted a great rout on the Norse-Irish in Glenn Foichle and a vast number of them were slaughtered by him”, whilst the Irish annals say Hugh “defeated them, and slaughtered them at Gall-Gaedil, and brought many heads away with him. And the Irish deserved that killing, for as the Norwegians acted, so they also acted.

In the years that followed, more specifically, during the 12th and 13th centuries, Derry and the surrounding area was again invaded again, this time by Norman colonists, culminating in the complete takeover in the early 14th century by the Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, close friend of Edward the I, King of England. His reign was short-lived which saw a resurgence in power of the Gaelic Chieftains of the O’Neill and O’Donnell Earls. This resurgence in Gaelic power by the Irish Chieftains led to what is known today as the Nine Years War 1594 – 1603. This war was fought on all parts of the country, fought between the forces of Gaelic Irish chieftains Hugh O’Neill of Tír Eoghain (Tyrone), Hugh Roe O’Donnell of Tír Chonaill (Donegal) and their allies, against English rule in Ireland. It ended in bitter defeat for the Irish chieftains, which led to their exile, and referred to historically as the Flight of the Earls, which was thee precursor to the Ulster Plantation.

With Ulster now defenseless and leaderless after the “Flight of the Earls”, the new king of England, James I, decided on a revolutionary plan designed once and for all to subordinate and colonialise Ulster. The ‘Plantation of Ulster’ saw the colonising of Ulster by loyal English and Scottish migrants who were the majority of the Protestant faith, with small numbers of the Presbyterian faith. Part of this colonisation was the introduction of the ancient and wealthy Guilds of the City of London. As a result, in 1623 the new county granted to the London Guilds and the fortified city, built across the River Foyle from 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 Plantation. More importantly, the city was enclosed by massive stone and earthen fortifications. It was the last walled city built in Ireland and the only city in Ireland whose ancient walls survive complete today. Among the city’s new buildings was St. Columb’s Cathedral built in 1633. This is one of the most important 17th century buildings in the country and was the first specifically Protestant cathedral erected anywhere in the world following the Reformation, a religious protest led by Martin Luther against the Catholic Church, which ultimately led to the Protestant faith of today.

Hence, to this day the use of “Derry” versus “Londonderry” is still very controversial.

Since the time of the Ulster Plantation, Derry has been at the center of further rebellious encounters between the Irish Chieftains and English rule, which saw the English stronghold on Derry become further fragile due to the division among protestants during the English Civil War 1642-1651, and again in the Glorious Revolution in England of 1688.

On April 18, 1689, the Williamite War in Ireland with the Jacobites got under way, which was as a result of King James II of England being overthrown by William of Orange who was Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672. William’s reputation as a strong Protestant enabled him to take the British crown when many were fearful of a revival of Catholicism under King James. William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is still commemorated today in Ireland by the Orange Order. His reign in Britain marked the beginning of the transition from the personal rule of the House of Stuart to the more Parliament-centred rule like that of the House of Hanover.

During this war, King James came to the city of Derry, Londonderry at that time, and summoned it to surrender. The King was rebuffed and actually fired upon by some of the more determined defenders; tradition has the apprentice boys closing the gates and saving the city.

As a policy of ‘no surrender‘ was issued, 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, while 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 today on the walls around Derry and at other places around the city.

Finally by the end of July the siege was over but it has left its mark on the traditions of the city to the present day, most famously the establishment of the Apprentice Boys of Derry.

Since then, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, the port became an important embarkation point for Irish emigrants fleeing Ireland and setting out for North America on what are historically known as the Famine Ships.

The Troubles in Derry

By the early 1920’s, Ireland was marked by political violence over the issue of Irish independence. During the Irish War of Independence 1919 – 1921, Derry was devastated by sectarian violence, partly prompted by the guerrilla war raging between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British Forces, but also influenced by economic and social pressures. In July 1920, several thousand unionist ex-British Army servicemen mobilised a “pogrom” of murder against the Catholic population which they regarded as rebellious. Severe rioting ensued when the loyalists murdered several Catholics and launched an assault on the neighbourhoods around the Long Tower and St Columb’s College, now Lumen Christi.

This pogrom was retaliated against by armed IRA members. Many lives were lost and in addition many Catholics and Protestants were expelled from their homes during the communal unrest. After much violence, the British Army intervened when local IRA and Catholic ex-servicemen began to dominate and an uneasy truce was negotiated by local politicians on either side.

In 1921, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the division of Ireland into North and South, Derry unexpectedly became a border city, with much of its natural economic hinterland which rested in County Donegal was cut off.

Most famously, Amelia Earhart gave the city a much needed boost when she landed there in 1932 becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her connection with the city is reflected today in a display commemorating her landing at the Amelia Earhart Cottage at Ballyarnett.

During World War II, the city played a very strategic and  important part in the Battle of the Atlantic with a substantial presence from the Royal Navy and a large number of US GIs positioned here. By the end of the war, 19 U-boats from the German Kriegsmarine surrendered and taken into the city’s harbour.

By the late 1960’s the city became the flashpoint of disputes about institutional discrimination and gerrymandering. Despite having a nationalist majority the city was permanently controlled by unionists due to the partisan drawing of electoral boundaries.

In addition, the city had very high unemployment levels and very poor housing, with the overcrowding in nationalist areas widely blamed on the political agenda of the unionist government, who wanted to confine Catholics to a small number of electoral wards. Yet another contentious issue was the reluctance of the authorities to grant Derry a new University of Ulster, supported by a broad coalition led by the University for Derry Committee. The university was instead granted to the predominantly unionist town of Coleraine.

As the troubles grew, civil rights demonstrations were declared illegal and then violently suppressed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Special Constabulary. As a result Catholics were regularly attacked after loyalist parades, which escalated after the events that followed the August 1969 Apprentice Boys parade resulting in the Battle of the Bogside, where Catholic rioters fought the police, leading to widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and is often dated as the most prolific starting point of the Troubles.

As a result, the city is often regarded as “the cockpit of the Troubles”. On Sunday January 30, 1972, 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers during a civil rights march in the Bogside area. Another 13 were wounded and one man later died of his wounds. This later came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Because of these events, certain areas of Derry produced strong support for republican paramilitaries. Up to 1972, both the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Official IRA operated in the city. However, in 1972 the Official IRA called a ceasefire following their unpopular killing a local 18-year-old who was on leave from the British Army. The Provisional IRA however continued attacking security targets and bombing of Derry’s commercial centre. In the words of Eamonn McCann, a famous Irish journalist who reported on the troubles, in his book, “War and an Irish Town”, mentions the city centre “looked as if it had been bombed from the air“.

After 1974, a smaller group, the Irish National Liberation Army also developed a presence in the city. In fact all three INLA prisoners that died in the 1981 Irish hunger strike were from Derry.

The violence in Derry eased towards the end of the Troubles in the 1990’s, even though street riots were still frequent, the violence gradually moved to Belfast at that time. Irish journalist Ed Maloney claims in “The Secret History of the IRA” that republican leaders there negotiated a de facto ceasefire in the city as early as 1991. Whether this is true or not, the city did see less bloodshed by this time than Belfast or other localities.

Derry to this day has become known worldwide on account of the troubles in Northern Ireland, especially surrounding the Bloody Sunday massacre. In Derry at that time and prominent among local Provisional IRA members was Martin McGuinness, who has acknowledged that he has been a former IRA member but claims that he left the IRA in 1974. By 1972, at the age of 21, he was second-in-command of the IRA in Derry, a position he held at the time of Bloody Sunday. Today he is now most notably known as an Irish republican Sinn Féin politician who has been appointed as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland since 2007, in which leading up to his appointment was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland Peace Process negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.