In 2013 Derry celebrated as the UK’s first City of Culture. 2013 also marked the 400th anniversary of the commissioning of its City Walls.
With a few exceptions, most tips and reviews envisage that you visit something or engage in some activity once – or at least once per visit. I am going to break with this supposition and recommend that you walk along Derry’s Walls twice in a single visit.
Firstly, I suggest you join a specific short city walking tour taking in the city Walls. After you have completed this tour I recommend you re-walk the Walls again taking as long as you like (you could take a few days or a few hours) stopping where you want and leaving to visit sites within the Walls as fancy takes you. Walking around the Walls in this fashion will reveal a wonderful city crammed full of history, heritage and colour. Four hundred years of political upheaval in Ireland can be appreciated (if not understood!) by walking along these famous walls.
Below you will find some basic historical and practical information on the Walls (which I do not repeat in other reviews).
History and background
Derry is the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest walled cities in Europe. The building of the Walls, by the honourable, the Irish Society was completed in 1618. The walls were built to protect Protestant settlers from England and Scotland who had just arrived during the Plantation of Ulster. Despite three sieges since this time the Walls have never been breached, a fact that explains why the city is often referred to as the Maiden City.
The most famous of the three sieges occurred during the Williamite Wars in 1689 when an estimated 7,000 of a population of 30,000 died holding out against the forces of the Catholic king, James II. James had been deposed of the British throne by the Protestant king, William III in 1688 and had fled to Ireland which, in the main, had stayed loyal to him. Derry, together with a few other places including Enniskillen (see my separate page – I was born there!) did not, and had sided with William.
1688 – 1689 – The Shutting of the Gates and the Siege of Derry
James II, the first Catholic monarch since Mary I who died in 1558, came to the throne in 1685 and at once instigated a program of Catholic reforms which started with replacing Protestant commanders in the army. He also soon produced a Catholic heir to the throne.
James appointed Richard Talbot, the Earl of Tyrconnell, as his Viceroy in Ireland. One of the Earl’s many tasks was to replace the garrisons of Enniskillen and Derry (both staunchly Protestant) with more reliable men (Catholics). The Earl of Antrim and his Redshanks army were tasked with dealing with Derry. On hearing of this, the citizens of Derry feared a repeat of the 1641 massacre of Protestants in Portadown and at Tully Castle, outside Enniskillen. A letter, most likely a forgery, found in Comber, outside Belfast, on 3 December 1688 indicated that Derry would be attacked and taken on 9 December 1688.
On the 7th December the Earl of Antrim and his Redshanks army approached Derry which was undefended as the Governor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lundy, on the instructions of Tyrconnell, had moved his Protestant army to Dublin at the end of November 1688. James’ plan was that the Redshanks would be a replacement for the garrison just departed to Dublin.
This was not how things turned out in Derry. The intimidating appearance of Redshanks, memories of 1641 and news of the Comber letter, threw the city into panic. Fearing for their lives and those of all the citizens 13 apprentice boys, to shouts of “No Surrender”, came to the city’s rescue and shut the gates against the Earl of Antrim. In the coming months Protestants in nearby areas flooded into the city seeking refuge.
On 18 April 1689, having received assurances from Lundy, then back in Derry, that the city would accede to him, James II arrived at Bishop’s Gate (above). James’ request to enter the city was refused with shouts of “No Surrender”. Lundy fled the city, and the famous Siege of Derry commenced. The horrific siege lasted 105 days only ending on the 28th July 1689 when relief ships broke a wooden boom erected by the Jacobites, across the river Foyle, and brought food to the starving City. James and his army were finally defeated the following year at the Battle of the Boyne, just north of Dublin.
A loyalist song, Derry’s Walls, summarises the events of 1689 thus:
The time has scarce gone round boys
Three hundred years ago
When Rebels on old Derry’s Walls
Their faces dare not show
When James and all his rebel band
Came up to Bishops Gate
With heart and hand and sword and shield
We forced them to retreat.
We’ll fight and don’t surrender
But come when duty calls,
With heart and hand and sword and shield
We’ll guard old Derry’s Walls.
When blood it flowed in crimson streams
Through many a winter’s night
They knew the Lord was on their side
To help them in their fight
They nobly stood upon the walls
Determined for to fight,
To fight and gain the victory
And raise the Crimson high;
At last, at last, with one broad side,
Kind heaven sent their aid,
The boom that crossed the Foyle was broke
And James he was dismayed
The banner, boys, that floated
Was run aloft with joy,
God bless the hands that broke the boom,
And saved the Apprentice Boys!
The Walls to-day
The Walls are approximately 1.5km in circumference and vary in width between 4 and 10 metres. They form a walkway around the inner city providing excellent views of the inner city and outwards to the remainder of today’s much larger city.
The four original gates to the Walled City are Bishop’s Gate, Ferryquay Gate, Butcher Gate and Shipquay Gate. Three further gates were added – New Gate (1789), Castle Gate (1803) and Magazine Gate (1865). Actual wooden gates were removed in the early 19th century from the Gates. The black metal gates – picture three – you may still see (depends when you get there!) on the top of the Walls were additions in the more recent ‘Troubles’. These were in the process of being removed when I was there in 2013. Personally I feel one or two of them should be retained as, no matter what one’s thoughts thereon are, they are now part of the history of the Walls.
Derry claims to have Europe’s largest collection of cannons of precisely known origin. In 2005 the surviving 24 cannons (some surviving from the 1689 Siege) were restored and are displayed at various locations along the Walls.
While walking atop the Walls is level, though with slight inclines/declines, steps will be encountered as you go onto and leave the Walls. Wear decent walking shoes as the city itself is also relatively hilly.
Opening Times: Dawn to Dusk
Entrance Fee: Free
This entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Londonderry/Derry. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Past, Present and Future from a local – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – The City on the Foyle.