Derry: its name comes from the Gaelic name for oak, doire. In Gaelic legend, oaks are thought of as doorways or thresholds.
So too the city of Derry in Northern Ireland holds stories and histories of being a place between.
People have been coming to the place by the River Foyle for millennia and yes, archaeological evidence says that they knew oak groves in what is now Derry.
It is said that Saint Columba (also known as Saint Columcille) named the place Doire when he founded a monastery by the river, The name was later Anglicized as Derry. Later, in the 17th century, it was called (and still is depending on who you are speaking with) Londonderry, when it was chosen as a site for a site of plantation, that is settlement of those of the Protestant faith in the area.
When you visit the city, or even visit Derry in imagination by reading about it, there are two things that come immediately to mind and sight: the walls, and the murals.
The walls have to do with that Protestant settlement. They stand some 8 meteres/26 feet — close to 9 metres (30 feet) in places) and were built to protect the Protestant merchant city from attack by native Irish who opposed plantation. More than 400 years later, they are still distinctive and impressive, part of what has become the fabric of a city which now stretches far beyond the walled area.
Derry is often considered one of the best preserved walled cities in Europe. That description works in saying something about the city with economy, but it always annoys me a bit: there is not at thing preserved about Derry. The city — the people of the city– respect and know their history, albeit at times from widely differing points of view. It is a twenty first century place, however.
The murals, you could say, are one of the markers of that. As you walk Derry’s walls you will see some of the murals in the Bogside. Elsewhere there are other murals and what to myself I call burning grounds, with streetlights and windows marked by the heat of flame and curbside painted with the red white and blue of the Union Jack. There are still divisions in Derry. These murals, especially the Bogside ones, recall the days of violence during the Troubles. They are history told in art, if you will, I’ve considered the stories of the Bogside murals. at greater length in this piece.
There are other things to know and see as you walk through Derry, though.
There’s a moving emigration statue not far from the historic Gulldhall. I also like to say hello to the family depicted there when I am in town; part of my family left for ‘far Amerikay’ as the song goes, from Derry.
The emigration statue is not far from the Tower Museum. which, if you wish, will give you insights into aspects of the city’s history, including its connections to the Spanish Armada, and further insights into the time of the Troubles.
Did you know that Derry was also the site of the world’s oldest department store? I used find it especially nice to stop in to Austin’s during December, when the historic building was decorated up for the festive season. Sadly, Austin’s closed a few years ago. The Diamond shopping district in the city centre is still interesting to visit, though. So is the modern day Foyleside Shopping Centre just outside the walls.
In this photograph, you are looking along Bishop’s Street toward the Diamond. That cream colored building to the right with the blue topped tower is Austin’s; it was built in 1830. The statue in the distance is part of a war memorial.
I always enjoy being in Derry at the festive season in any case. The Guildhall is all in lights, sometimes there are tiny white lights on parts of the walls, too. There are exuberant lights depicting stars and other festive images hung across the streets. Shops and pubs and restaurants weigh in with their decorations, as do householders.
Pubs and restaurants: Derry has plenty of each, from casual to upscale, from places offering Irish fare to those which specialize in Lebanese, Chinese, Italian, and other international dishes. A few suggestions: Sooty Olive for modern Irish dishes, Dananno’s for some of the best piazza in the island of Ireland; Pyke n Pommes for street food; for pubs, The Gweedore and Peadar O’Donell’s for atmosphere and for music.
Derry is a place of thresholds, of discovery, of working through challenges and finding hope. Derry is a place of good memories for me, one to which I plan to return soon when we travel again. May you find good experiences and make good memories in Derry when next you are able to visit.
Photographs by Kenneth Allan and Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.
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