Derry gold The city of Derry, with its storied history, fascinating sights and friendly locals, is a true delight of the North
IT’S one of the most fascinating short walks in Ireland — a stroll on the magnificent city walls of Derry.
Climbing the medieval ramparts, which are still intact after 400 years, is the ideal introduction to this gem of a city. They are the only fully preserved city walls on the island of Ireland, built between 1613 and 1618, and offer terrific views of the surrounding urban area.
A complete circuit can be done in under half an hour, but it shouldn’t be rushed. A stroll on these walls is a walk through history as you can see how the city developed through the ages.
On one side you gaze down into the housing estates of the Catholic Bogside and its astonishing array of murals marking the beginning and end of ‘Free Derry’, when residents blocked off the streets against the British army and RUC.
And on the opposite walls you see a cut-off Protestant enclave, the Fountain estate, with its painted wall declaring: ‘Londonderry. West Bank Loyalists. Still Under Siege. No Surrender.’ There’s no getting away from Derry’s violent past, but in these more peaceful times the no-go areas have long disappeared and you can wander around at leisure soaking up its history.
You can even take a tour highlighting where some of the most infamous conflicts took place. At the height of the Troubles, the city walls were sealed off for fear they would be used by snipers.
So it’s only in the last couple of decades that they have regained their former glory and are now an ideal place for tourists to admire the views, the city gates and the original cannons that sit at certain vantage points. Just the size of the walls is impressive, stretching up to 26ft tall and 30ft wide, and once inside the fortifications you can leisurely roam the streets and hidden alleyways.
Derry is renowned for having some of the friendliest people on Earth and yet there are large numbers of people on this island who have never been, perhaps put off by its troubled history.
One Belfast man told me he had friends who had never been to the Maiden City — just 71 miles away — thinking the predominantly Catholic population would not welcome Belfast Protestants.
But one weekend mini-bus trip put paid to that misconception. His pals had a great time and were welcomed wherever they went. For me, walking the streets I had seen on the news year after year was part of the attraction.
Never having been to the Bogside, I called into the fascinating Museum of Free Derry, which opened in 2007 and tells the story of the fight for civil rights in the city leading up to Bloody Sunday in 1972. Some of the 14 victims that day were killed outside this very building.
The poignant exhibits include a tweed jacket worn by one of the murdered marchers with a bullet hole clearly visible, the white handkerchief waved by Fr Edward Daly as he tried to save the life of a fatally wounded teenager and the banners carried by the civil rights marchers.
A video taken by a marcher who was shot dead just after he finished filming is on a continuous loop. The museum also explains the city’s development and how Catholics during the Famine poured by their thousands into the former bogland outside the walls — now the Bogside — and settled there because they were not allowed to live within the fortified city.
The result was they soon outnumbered the Protestant merchant class who ran the city but the minority held on to power by gerrymandering. I also called to the Siege Museum within the city walls, which tells the story of the Siege of Derry by King James’ forces in 1689 when the city gates were slammed shut by 13 apprentices, an event commemorated every year by the Protestant community.
But the museum was inexplicably closed so I will have to leave that for a future visit. Other highlights were a tour of the 1887 Guildhall with its magnificent stained glass windows telling the history of the city and the various guilds which helped to build it.
The building recently underwent a €10 million renovation. Not to be missed is the Tower Museum just inside the city walls where the top floor has majestic views of the city and Guildhall just opposite.
The top four floors have remnants, including a massive gun, from one of the largest ships in the Spanish Armada, La Trinidad Valencera, which sank off the Donegal coast in 1588. It was discovered almost by accident by members of the Derry Sub Aqua Club in 1971 off Kinagoe Bay in Inishowen.
They had planned to dive elsewhere. An additional attraction of Derry is that it holds the biggest Halloween festival in Europe when the whole city takes to the streets in fancy dress. If you can find accommodation this is a great time to visit because the place is just hopping.
Some of the outfits are incredible and the mood on the streets and in the pubs is electric. I lost count of the people who asked for photographs or gave me high-fives in recognition of my resplendent pink wig.
There is usually a colourful Halloween parade but that was cancelled for last year’s festival because of Covid. But the city still turned out in force to see their town lit up with light shows of ancient spirits and ghostly goings-on and to indulge in folklore, feasting and festivity.
The event concludes with a massive fireworks display over the River Foyle. We stayed at the four-star City Hotel right on the Foyle where our room faced the river so we had the perfect view of all the action.
We also ate like kings, having dinner one night in the award-winning Walled City Brewery where we also sampled a few unique beers. The restaurant, housed in a former military barracks, sits at one end of the Peace Bridge in Ebrington Square.
We also dined in the popular Quay West Wine Bar, another buzzing gastro pub on the river and full of atmosphere. A memorable and lovely lunch was had in the cosy Soda + Starch Restaurant hidden away in the craft centre off Shipquay Street, a great find.
See visitderry.com and derryhalloween.com
- City Hotel: cityhotelderry.com
- Museum of Free Derry: museumoffreederry.org
- Siege Museum: thesiegemuseum.org
- Guildhall: derrystrabane.com/guildhall
- Tower Museum: derrystrabane.com/towermuseum
- Walled City Brewery: walledcitybrewery.com
- Quay West Wine Bar: www.quaywestrestaurant.com
- Soda + Starch: www.sodaandstarch.com
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