“You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist” – Mahatma Gandhi
The city might be Londonderry/Derry or Derry/Londonderry and we were confused about what we should call it because we didn’t want to offend anyone.
The name Derry became the accepted name of the town around the sixteenth century but it was also at this time point that it acquired the prefix of London. The Plantation of Ulster in 1608 saw the British Crown seizing land in an effort to anglicise Ulster and create a loyal and acquiescent population. The various lands were handed over to different guilds of London traders to develop and manage and in recognition of their efforts and considerable financial investment the city was renamed Londonderry in 1613.
The names of the city, county, and district of Derry or Londonderry continue to be the subject of a naming dispute between nationalists and unionists. Generally nationalists favour using the name Derry, and unionists using Londonderry. Legally, the city and county are called Londonderry while the local government district is called Derry.
Confused? We were. My favourite solution to this problem is the name given by a Northern Ireland radio broadcaster called Gerry Anderson who christened the city with the alternative name Stroke City and residents have increasingly embraced the unofficial name thus neatly circumventing the linguistic minefield of whether it is Derry or Londonderry.
We found the underground car park of the Maldon hotel without any difficulty and after we had checked into our fourth floor rooms with good views over the city we met in the bar for a Guinness before beginning a walking tour of the walls of the city.
Londonderry has the distinction of being the last walled city to be built in Europe and it is one of the most complete with an uninterrupted walk of just about a mile completely enclosing the old city within. It is one of the few cities in Europe that never saw its fortifications breached, withstanding several sieges including one in 1689 which lasted for one hundred and five days, hence the city’s nickname, The Maiden City.
Our hotel was conveniently located near Butcher’s Gate so we climbed a staircase to the top and decided for no reason to take an anti-clockwise stroll starting at the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, protected by rails and wire mesh from any missiles that might be thrown across from the Catholic Bogside opposite.
The walk took us along the battlements, past fortified bastions and over the various gates of the city where carefully restored cannon still posed threateningly at every corner. We passed by St Columb’s Cathedral and came across the Protestant quarter called the Fountain surrounded by brick walls and wire fences in a part of the city where it is definitely wise to call it Londonderry.
It was at about this point where the wall descended almost to street level and seeing a shopping mall Kim and Pauline were sucked inside so Richard and I retired to a pub for a second Guinness.
We had only been there an hour or so but already I knew that Iiked the place. I was expecting it to be rather more like the cities of Southern Ireland, I thought it might be like Galway or Killarney but it wasn’t. It may not have had street entertainers and brightly coloured buildings but it had a unique identity which made me regret the fact that we weren’t staying longer than one night.
The city suffered badly during the troubles but in 2013 it became the inaugural UK City of Culture and as a result has benefitted from considerable investment. The best example of this was the Guildhall which has been lavishly restored and is now a superb tourist attraction which best of all doesn’t charge for admission. In fact it was so good that I felt obliged to make a voluntary contribution and that’s not like me at all!
We had visited the Peace Wall in Belfast and now we crossed the Peace Bridge in Londonderry, which is a snaking structure which crosses the River Foyle and connects the east and west banks in a symbol of hopeful fraternity.
It was late afternoon now so we split up to go our separate ways for an hour or so. I choose to visit the Tower Museum which had a useful walk through history of the city and the province. It was here that I learnt of the plantations and the settlement of Ulster by protestant Scots, the displacement of the native Catholics and the possible root cause of the centuries of tension that culminated in the troubles of the 1970s and 80’s, but I sensed a whiff of optimism here and I hope it is a beginning rather than an end.
The Hotel Maldron advertised Irish music in the bar tonight so we didn’t have a long debate about where to take our evening meal. Unfortunately the musicians didn’t turn up and the hotel staff didn’t respond well to my complaint. My food wasn’t very good either although everyone else declared their choice of meal to be a great success.
Deprived of music we left the hotel and went looking for entertainment elsewhere. The burgundy coloured Tracy’s Bar looked promising with a picture of musicians painted on the wall, but it was empty and lifeless inside and two women who had obviously had too much to drink and were standing smoking in the doorway asked what did we expect, it was Tuesday!
So we walked a section of the wall, found a pub (without music) and had a chat about the meaning of life and a final Guinness for the day!