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To the west of the province of Ulster lies the City of Derry, or Londonderry, as it is known for civil purposes under the rule of the British Government. Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland with Belfast being the largest. Derry is an industrious and forward thinking city with a greater city area population of 237,000. Derry has an active port accessed through the broad expanse of water that is Lough Foyle. The city also has an airport, which has domestic and UK connections.
The old walled city of Derry lies on the west bank of the River Foyle with the location of old Derry on the east bank, the present city now covers both banks (Cityside to the west and Waterside to the east) and the river is spanned by two bridges.
Derry is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Ireland. The earliest historical references date to the 6th century when a monastery was founded there by St. Columba or Colmcille, a famous saint from what is now County Donegal, but for thousands of years before that people had been living in the vicinity.
Before leaving Ireland to spread Christianity elsewhere, Columba founded a monastery in the then Doire Calgach, on the east side of the Foyle. According to oral and documented history, the site was granted to Columba by a local king. The monastery then remained in the hands of the federation of Columban churches who regarded Colmcille as their spiritual mentor. The year 546 is often referred to as the date that the original settlement was founded. However it is accepted that this was an erroneous date assigned by medieval chroniclers. It is accepted that between the 6th century and the 11th century, Derry was known primarily as a monastic settlement.
The town became strategically more significant during the Tudor conquest of Ireland and came under frequent attack, until in 1608 it was destroyed by Cahir O Doherty, Irish chieftain of Inishowen in neighbouring Donegal.
Derry’s defensive walls are the most complete of any city in the British Isles. It is one of the few cities in Europe that never saw these fortifications breached.
The circuit of walls, enclosing the old city on the west bank of the river Foyle, is the only surviving complete series of city walls in Ireland. It has also been called the first major piece of urban planning in Ireland . Built for the Irish Society between 1613 and 1618, the walls underwent sieges in 1641, in 1648 and 1649, when the Parliamentarians held out against the Royalists and were relieved by General Owen Roe O’Neill, and in 1688-9 for 105 days against the forces of James II.
An earthen rampart was faced with stone, producing a wall 6-7.7 m high and 4.3-9.1 m wide, with a broad external ditch, now filled in. Five of the original eight artillery bastions survive and two shallow gun platforms. One of the missing bastions, Water Bastion, which was once washed by the Foyle, was excavated in 1983. Two watch-towers are preserved near St Columb’s Cathedral but all four original gates have been changed: Bishop’s Gate in 1789, commemorating the raising of the 1689 siege, and Butcher’s, Ferryquay and Shipquay Gates in the 19th century. Three additional gates, Magazine, New and Castle Gates, are more recent. Many of the original cannons have recently been restored and can be seen dotted around the circuit of the walls on Steps and ramps lead to the wall-walk at several points inside the circuit. A recommended route would be to start at the north-east beside Shipquay Gate and move round in a clockwise direction. St Columb’s Cathedral (1628-33) in the south angle of the walls is one of the most remarkable buildings of the Ulster Plantation. There are fine views from the walls, a reminder of their original important strategic function.
Over recent years the monument has become an important focus for the ‘Walled City Signature Development Project’ one of five ‘signature tourist destinations’ in Northern Ireland Identified by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. This has resulted in a concerted effort to develop the potential of the monument and its surroundings in a coherent way.
The Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau at 44 Foyle Street, provides comprehensive facilities. Opening hours: 0900 -1700 Mon-Fri.