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A Day in Derry

This post is the third in a series about the author’s 2013 trip to Ireland as a recipient of a Gaeltacht Summer Award from the Ireland-United States Commission for Educational Exchange. The previous posts in this series are Donegal Diaries 1: Back to Oideas Gael!Donegal Diaries 2: A Fortnight in Glenfin, and An Irish Odyssey: Irish in the Fair City.

The Peace Bridge: A Sign of Derry's hopeful future. 2013, by Audrey Nickel
The Peace Bridge: A Sign of Derry’s hopeful future.
2013, by Audrey Nickel

I must admit, I hadn’t planned to go to Derry on this trip.

But when one of my housemates in Glenfin, Co. Donegal, popped her head into my room and said “a couple of us are driving to Derry to look around and grab a bite to eat…would you like to come?” I said “Sure! Why not?”

An unspoken tradition

It’s kind of an unspoken tradition during the two-week-long Irish summer school in Glenfin to give the hard-working mná a’ tí* Saturday evening off from cooking and cleaning up after hungry language students.

People who have cars will often take themselves (and any of the other students who want a lift) off to one of the neighboring towns for Saturday afternoon and evening to give their host families a break.

I was tired from a quick trip the previous evening to Glencolmcille to hear Moya Brennan in concert, and I hadn’t planned to do much more than walk down to the local pub for a packet of crisps (that’s potato chips for my fellow Americans) later that evening.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see Derry again, however, so I quickly threw on my shoes, hopped in the car (well, after one false start when I tried to get in on the wrong side!) and off we went!

* “Mná a’Tí” is the plural of “Bean a’Tí” (“Woman of the House”): The title usually given to a woman who runs an inn, a bed and breakfast, or, as in this case, a homestay for students.

Let’s get this bit over quickly: Derry or Londonderry?

One of the first things you encounter when talking about Derry with people from outside of Ireland is its name. Is it “Londonderry” or”Derry?” And what’s all this “L’Derry” and “Derry/Londonderry” stuff?

The “derry” part of the name comes from the Irish “doire,” which refers to an oak grove. Earliest references to the region refer to it as Doire Calgaich (“Calgach’s Oak Grove”). Later, it came to be called Doire Cholm Cille in reference to a monastery founded in the area by St. Columba (Naomh Cholm Cille).

During the Plantation of Ulster, the city was given the name “Londonderry” to reflect the foundation of the city by London-based guilds, and “Londonderry” remains its official name. That’s the name you’ll see on most maps.

It’s not quite that simple, though. Although road signs in Northern Ireland refer to the city as “Londonderry” (or sometimes, in an attempt at compromise…or perhaps just to save space…”L’Derry”), road signs in the Republic of Ireland simply say “Derry.”

An attempt was made by the Derry City Council (yes…”it’s the Derry City Council,” not “Londonderry“) in 1982 to have the city name officially changed to “Derry,” but that move was met with enough resistance that the matter was dropped.

To add to the confusion, Derry is also blessed with a multitude of nicknames, including “The Maiden City,” “The Walled City,” and the curious “Stroke City” (not because people in Derry are more likely to have strokes, but because of another attempt at compromise that sees the name of the city written as “Derry/Londonderry”).

And, when they’re not standing on politics, people on both sides of the issue are as likely to refer to the city  as “Derry” as they are “Londonderry.”

Not to get into the politics of the matter (which an outsider should never do), I call it “Derry” (or “Doire” when speaking Irish) for the simple reason that that’s what most of the people I know call it (not to mention what I saw on every other road sign in Donegal!) No offense intended to those who may favor the longer name.

The Walled City

An absolute must-do when you visit Derry is a walk on the wall that surrounds the city core. In fact, if you do nothing else in Derry, you really must “walk the wall.”

Derry is the only completely intact walled city in Ireland, and it’s considered one of the finest examples of a walled city in all of Europe.

You can access the wall from several (well-signed) points in the city center, and the easy walk along the top is a wonderful way to get an overview of this beautiful and complex city.

The old and the new

We arrived relatively late in the afternoon and, after a quick stop at a local Starbuck’s for a caffeine and internet break, ascended the nearest staircase to the top of the wall.

Even though I’d visited Derry in 2008, and had done the wall walk before, I was struck by how much of the city’s turbulent past and hopeful future can be experienced in this brief stroll around its most famous landmark.

The view looking outward from the walls is a constantly changing one. Peering past the cannons as you walk the perimeter, you can see much of the city’s turbulent history reflected in the faces that its neighborhoods turn to the wall.

Looking from the Derry Walls into the Nationalist Bogside.
Looking from the Derry Walls into the Nationalist Bogside.  Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.


A look into a Loyalist neighborhood from the Derry wall.
A look into a Loyalist neighborhood from the Derry wall. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.

Fiercely Loyalist and Nationalist landmarks stand side-by-side, while, just a short walk away, the modern curve of the pedestrian Peace Bridge speaks for a hopeful future.

A look at Derry's Guildhall from the wall. Sign next to the main door has inscriptions in English, Irish, and Ulster Scots.
A look at Derry’s Guildhall from the wall. Sign next to the main door has inscriptions in English, Irish, and Ulster Scots. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.

Not far from the Peace Bridge, the city’s iconic Guildhall sports signs in English, Irish, and Ulster Scots, while children play in the fountain in the city’s main square.

Looking inward from the walls, you see contemporary shops and restaurants rubbing elbows with centuries-old churches along steep streets, some of which reminded me of my own beloved San Francisco.

Derry street, looking inward from the wall.
Derry street, looking inward from the wall. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.


Sweeny Todd's, just inside the Derry wall.
Sweeny Todd’s, just inside the Derry wall. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.

 Lots of Irish

One thing that you might not expect in Derry is the amount of Irish you can see just about everywhere.

When you think about it, it really shouldn’t be that surprising. Interest in the Irish language is at a high point in Northern Ireland, and not only among Nationalists.

One thing I found interesting is that streets leading inward away from the wall tended to have Irish names, whereas streets paralleling the wall did not (or, if they did, it wasn’t reflected in the signage).

An Irish road sign in Derry, leading inward from the city wall.
An Irish road sign in Derry, leading inward from the city wall. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.
Irish and English on one side, English-only on the other.
Irish and English in one direction; English-only on the other. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.
Irish sign near where we entered the wall. 2013, by Audrey Nickel
Irish sign near where we entered the wall.
2013, by Audrey Nickel

Never quite enough time

Sadly, even though I’ve visited Derry twice now, I never seem to have quite enough time to explore this beautiful, complex, and fiercely proud city.

We only had an hour or so this trip before we had to head back over the border to find dinner (restaurants in central Derry apparently close up shop fairly early on Saturday).

I was very happy to get another chance to visit, however, and hope that someday I’ll be able to spend several days in one of Ireland’s most intriguing cities!

Le cúnamh Dé! (God willing!)

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2 thoughts on “A Day in Derry”

  1. Dia dhuit, really really educational…I learned(foghlaim)? alot about the home town of a couple of young men I think an awful lot of…who always say Derry or Dongal when speaking ofhome and family. Keith mentions an old, really ancient 5000 BC old that is near where he grew up…Have you visited it? When he speaks of it I want to go back with him and visit it…feel the age …the history…how grand it must have been growing to age in a place so steeped in history….SOMEDAY….go raibh maith agat for your time/letter….HOW DO YOU SAY FRIEND?…SLA’N LEAT, LE MEAS, lottie

  2. johnf,mccartney (Sean MacArtaine)

    Juast a point that everyone overlooks regarding Londonderry. When the Romans arrived at the Thames they asked the local british celts, what is this place called? they said ‘Long dun’ ‘the hill where the ships are moored’. so the romans just added ‘ium’ Hence Londonium and hence ‘London’. I always smile when certain people insist on calling ‘Doire’ ‘Londonderry’ because all three words are of Celtic origin but you couldn’t tell them. Nobody in Doire ever uses the celtic prefix in its Long Dun form. help//// In fact British firms always insist on using Lodonderry, followed by Co. Londonderry on my address.