British Isles
St. Columb's Cathedral is one of the
most architecturally important
buildings in Ireland today.

Merry Old Londonderry
What's in a city's name?
Toby Saltzman drinks a pint
at the pub to find out.
Text and photos by Toby Saltzman

The old saying, "If you want to keep an old friend or make a new one, never discuss religion or politics," rang in our minds as we squeezed among the local folks at the Metro pub for a pint of Guinness before lunch. It took only moments to make friends. The barman broke the ice. With three slow pulls, he poured the dark ale to a thick head. Then he traced a shamrock on the foam that refused to melt. We laughed. The man beside me chuckled. "We Derry folks know that shamrock is Sean's trademark. Go ahead, drink up. It'll do you luck."

The stained glass windows in
Guild Hall commemorate
Northen Ireland's past "troubles."

By the time we moved to a table for lunch, we were immersed in friendly chats, luckily gleaning bits of Derry's past and present.The folks in Derry are renowned for their friendly sense of humor. We guessed that they nurtured it to cope in this city that side steps its name.

"Derry" is the name favored by locals. Yet its official title is Londonderry. What's in a name? Here, it's the reflection of two cultures that molded the city over centuries. The locals claim they know your "persuasion" by the moniker you use. Say "Derry" you're pegged as a Nationalist. Say, "Londonerry," You're a Unionist with loyalties to Britain. We were inclined to be neutral, much, as it seems like most locals today who are eager to forget "the troubles" and move on to the burgeoning, peaceful prosperity. "Well if you want to sit on a fence," our new friend egged us on, "There's no better fence in Ireland than the wall around old Derry." Indeed, as we set out to explore, we discovered he was right.

The Medieval walls of Londonderry

Set on the banks of the River Foyle (where Irish emigrants first embarked for North America) Derry is one of the longest, continuously inhabited places in Ireland, with historical references dating to pre-Christian times. Back then, the land was resplendent with oak groves, which were considered sacred sites by the Celtic inhabitants. Hence, it was named "Doire Calgach," or "the oak grove of Calgach" after a Celtic warrior. The name "Doire" clung. And when in 64 AD, the Irish Saint Colmcille (also called Columb) founded a monastery here, the town was renamed "Doire Colmcille." Forever after, it seems, Derry's history rallied with tumultuous fervor from Viking sieges to rule by prosperous clan dynasties to a battle-ground of confrontations between English Protestants and Catholic Irish, to the scene of passionate efforts for peace between the two factions. Yet the famous skeleton on the city's arms, it turns out, is merely the curious emblem of a once-powerful, medieval aristocratic family. In 1813, the city was granted a charter by London and formally named Londonderry. The old monastery chapel had survived, and when the London colonists arrived to build the walled city, it became their first house of worship.

Today, old Londonderry is a treasure of style and grace. Designed with a neat street grid that was considered contemporary at the time, it was enclosed by massive, stone and earthen fortified walls. The walls, still bearing original canons, remain magnificently intact and "have never been breached" as the locals say. This accounts for its nickname: the Maiden City. The views from the top of the walls give a wonderful, panoramic orientation to the city sites. Most prominent is St. Columb's Cathedral (Protestant, built in 1833) which towers behind a high, wrought iron gate. With its famous stained-glass windows depicting the relief of the 17th century Derry, and its impeccable Gothic architecture, it remains one of the most important buildings in Ireland today. Also impressive, St. Columb's Long Tower Cathedral (Catholic, built in 1784) is decorated in neo-Renaissance style. As for the rest of the city, it was reconstructed with fine Georgian buildings after a bought of heavy fighting ravaged the city in the 18th century.

Giving old Londonderry a new face

Today, Derry has an eclectic aura that is unique in the world. History aside, the total visual effect - of the tight, Medieval walls embracing the smart city grid that is dominated by Gothic and neo-Renaissance focal points standing amid pure Georgian structures - is enchanting to say the least. What's in a name? Whatever you'd rather say, the locals opine.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is offering free copies of the Year 2000 Best of Northern Ireland Travel Planner, which includes touring maps with six interesting self-drive itineraries, plus a special calendar of Millennium festivals and events.
In Canada Phone: 1-800-576-8174 / 416-925-6368. Fax: 416-925-6033
In United States Phone: 1-800-326-0036 / 212-922-0101. Fax: 212-922-0099



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