A History of Derry

By Tim Lambert

Early Derry

Derry is an ancient settlement. Its name is believed to be derived from the Gaelic word doire meaning a grove of oak trees.

Acorns and oak apples

From the 6th AD onwards century there was a monastery in Derry. (Tradition says St Columba founded it). In time a settlement grew up by the monastery. However, for centuries, Derry was a rather small settlement. It did not become truly important until the 17th century.

In 1566 Derry was captured by the English. However, they did not hold it for long. In 1567 a gunpowder store exploded and the English departed. The English captured Derry again in 1600.

A new town was founded at Derry in 1603. King James gave a charter founding the new town and a large number of merchants and tradesmen settled there. However, this first new town was destroyed by Cahir O’Doherty and his men in 1608.

Nevertheless, a second new town was created soon afterwards. King James confiscated large amounts of land from the Irish. He then settled large numbers of Scots and English people in Ulster to try and create a loyal population in the area. As part of the Ulster Plantation, several new towns were created.

King James invited the merchants of London to help him settle English Protestants in Northern Ireland. They agreed to build a new town at Derry. It was to have 200 houses and a population of about 1,000. The new town was called Londonderry. It was given a charter in 1613 and had a mayor and corporation. In 1617 it gained a grammar school.

By 1630 the population of Londonderry was probably about 1,000. Streets in the new town were laid out in a rectangular pattern. In the years 1613-1618 walls were built around Londonderry and St Columb’s Cathedral was built in 1633.

During the Irish rebellion of 1641, Derry was besieged but the Irish were unable to capture it. In 1649 during the civil wars between the king and parliament, Derry was besieged by royalists for 20 weeks but again the city did not fall.

The most famous siege of Londonderry took place in 1689. In 1688 the Catholic king James II was deposed. However, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, The Earl of Tyrconnell stayed loyal to James so did most of Ireland. Londonderry was one of the few places that remained loyal to William.

A Catholic army attempted to enter Londonderry. On December 7, 1688, 13 apprentice boys shut the Ferryquay Gate against them. As a result, Protestants fled to the town, swelling its population.

In March 1689 James landed at Kinsale in an attempt to regain his throne. The siege of Londonderry began in April 1689. Since they were not strong enough to take the town by storm the besiegers tried to starve the defenders into submission. Conditions inside the city grew worse and worse. There was a terrible shortage of food and the defenders were reduced to eating horse meat and tallow. Diseases also broke out. Nevertheless, the defenders held firm.

In June three ships arrived from England, carrying supplies However for several weeks they were unable to reach the city as James’s men had erected a wooden boom across the Foyle. Eventually, on 28 July, one of the ships, The Mountjoy, broke the boom and the city was relieved. Three days later the besiegers realized the game was up and they left.

Derry in the 18th century

In 1704 an Act of Parliament stated that only Anglicans could hold office in Ireland. Presbyterians were excluded. Partly as a result of this measure, many Presbyterians emigrated from Derry to North America in the early 18th century.

Despite this Derry grew larger in the 18th century and suburbs appeared outside the walls. Boom Hall was built in the 1770s at the point where the boom crossed the river during the siege.

Several new buildings were erected in Derry in the 18th century. The Irish Society House was built in 1764. Long Tower Church was built in 1784-86. Bishopgate was rebuilt in 1789.

From about 1750 a linen industry grew up in Derry.

Until the end of the 18th century, there was only a ferry across the River Foyle. In 1789-91 a wooden bridge was built. This greatly boosted trade and industry in Derry. Meanwhile, The Derry Journal began in 1772.

Derry in the 19th century

In 1821, at the time of the first Irish census, Derry had a population of 9,313. It grew rapidly during the 19th century and had reached a population of 40,000 by its end. In the early 19th century large numbers of Catholics came to Derry from the countryside looking for work.

The Courthouse was built in 1813. Derry workhouse opened in 1840 and the railway reached Derry in 1845.

Magee College was founded in 1865 to train men for the Presbyterian ministry. St Columb’s College was founded in 1879.

In 1863 another bridge, this one of steel, was erected across the Foyle. Carlisle Bridge, as it was called, was demolished in 1933.

St Augustines Church was built in 1872. St Eugene’s Cathedral was built in 1873. Its spire was added in 1902.

Derry Guildhall opened in 1890. It burned in 1908 and was rebuilt. It was bombed in 1972 and then refurbished.

Meanwhile, in 1831 a man named William Scott began making shirts in Derry. From the 1850s the shirt-making trade in Derry boomed. By the 1870s shirt-making was the main industry in the town. There was also a shipbuilding industry in 19th century Derry. Meanwhile, the port of Derry prospered.

During the 19th century, many emigrants from Ireland to North America left from Derry. Today they are remembered by an ’emigrants’ sculpture.

Derry in the 20th century

Brooke Park opened to the public in 1901. A War Memorial was erected in Derry in 1927 and Our Lady of Lourdes Church was built in 1976.

Craigavon Bridge was built in 1933 to replace Carlisle Bridge. Foyle Bridge was built in 1984.

In 1932 Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic landed at Ballyarnett.

From the mid-19th century, a shirt-making industry boomed in Derry. In 1997 United Technologies Automotive factory closed. This was a severe blow to the city.

During World War II Derry was a major naval base. There were also air bases around the city. Large numbers of American and Canadian servicemen were stationed in the city.

In the late 1940s, a public housing estate was created at Creggan. In the 1960s the council demolished slums in Derry.

On October 5 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement attempted to hold a march in Derry. However, the Northern Irish government banned the march and when it went ahead it was broken up by the RUC in Duke Street.

The Battle of Bogside occurred in August 1969. The tension between Catholics and Protestants had been building for some time and it eventually erupted into violence. On 12 August 1969, the annual Apprentice Boys march was routed past the Catholic Bogside area. As the Apprentice Boys marched past there were clashes between the RUC and Catholic civilians. There followed 3 days of rioting which ended when the British army was sent in.

In 1972 came the tragic event known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. On 30 January 1972, the Derry Civil Rights Association was holding a march through the town when the British 1st Parachute Regiment opened fire, killing 14 people.

Today Derry is a flourishing city. Foyle Valley Railway Museum opened in 1990. Tower Museum opened in 1992. Foyleside Shopping Centre opened in 1995. Rath Mor Centre also opened in 1995. Derry Visitor Centre and Convention Bureau opened in 1997.

Derry in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Derry continued to develop. In 2001 Creggan Indigenous Enterprise Park opened. Millennium Forum opened in 2001 and Creggan Country Park opened in 2003.

In 2013 Derry was the UK’s first city of culture. In 2024 the population of Derry was 85,000.