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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!)