Ireland of the Welcomes
We discover that there's more to Derry than you might think
With a bell-tower fashioned on Big Ben, Derry~Londonderry’s auburn-bricked Guildhall stands just outside the city’s famous walls - its name being a tip of the hat to its association with the guilds of London. Meandering around the late 19th-century building, I’m rendered speechless by the wealth of stained-glass windows on display. Vibrant and vivid, they offer invaluable insights into the heritage and turbulent history of Northern Ireland’s second-largest city. Take the many oak leaves, for instance - a nod to the origins of the city’s name ("doire" being the Gaelic word for oak tree). Or the depictions of the early 17th-century colonisation of this province by the British, known as the Plantation of Ulster. Or the various references to its many economic successes including the arrival of the railway line.
Today, however, in the Guildhall’s Great Hall, another image proves most striking of all. Under the magnificent 3132-pipe organ - often recognised as one of the finest in Europe - I discover a photograph and Book of Condolence in tribute to the late John Hume. The Derry native, along with David Trimble, won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his role in the Northern Ireland peace process, which followed 30 long years of bloodshed between Irish Republicans and British Loyalists. Known as The Troubles, it resulted in the loss of 3,600 lives across the country. “Difference is an accident of birth, and it should, therefore, never be the source of hatred or conflict,” Hume said on accepting the prestigious award. “The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace – respect for diversity.” On account of COVID-19, public celebrations of his life and legacy are muted, which, according to one Guildhall staff member is appropriate, considering how “incredibly humble he and his family were.” However, as much as Hume spurned the spotlight, the spoils of his unyielding efforts - and those of the wider community - are evident across the city. Take the futuristic Peace Bridge directly outside the Guildhall. Soon celebrating its 10th anniversary, it connects the predominately unionist Waterside with the predominately nationalist Cityside. The popular landmark is often singled out by locals as the perfect symbol of modern and contemporary Derry~Londonderry.
In fact, whether it’s the award-winning Tower Museum, the Siege Museum or the Museum of Free Derry, I quickly discover that the city wears its once-wounded heart proudly on its sleeve. In comparison to some destinations, prone to whitewashing its former difficulties, Northern Ireland has now fully embraced its devastating past while also celebrating its exciting present. Their story serves as a stark reminder that no matter the conflict, peace can always be achieved. During the height of The Troubles in the early ’70s, it was probably inconceivable to imagine that Derry~Londonderry would, one day, be named by Lonely Planet as the ‘4th Best City in the World to Visit’ - or listed as a top European destination by British Airways, LateRooms.com and CNN. Odhran Dunne, Chief Executive of Visit Derry, reveals that the city has completely transformed in recent years. “Our journey-to-peace story is unique in global terms and continues to intrigue visitors from across the world,” he tells me. Now renowned for its “buzzing atmosphere”, Odhran reports that this Northern Irish destination hosts a plethora of festivals and events including Europe’s largest Hallowe’en Carnival. He also mentions that Derry~Londonderry was awarded the inaugural UK City of Culture title in 2013 - a year-long celebration that attracted over one million visitors to the city. What’s more, one of the UK and Ireland’s most successful television programmes is Derry Girls – a delightful sitcom set in the city during the early ’90s.
THE WALLED CITY
If further proof was needed of its recent transformation, my tour guide, the luminous Charlene McCrossan, mentions that when her late father, Martin, first founded Derry City Tours over 20 years ago, he was considered “mad”. Today, the business is thriving. As we explore the immaculately preserved, 17th-century walls, built by The Honourable Irish Society as defences for English and Scottish settlers, Charlene highlights landmark buildings. St Columb’s Cathedral - dedicated to Saint Columba, the Irish monk who established a Christian settlement in the area - now houses artefacts from the 1689 Siege of Derry. Essentially a battle of two kings fighting over the English throne - the Protestant William of Orange and Catholic King James II - it spilled over into Ireland, lasting 105 days. Elsewhere, the Apprentice Boys’ Memorial Hall – a tribute to the 13 apprentices who played an integral role in the Siege – is one of Charlene’s favourite buildings in the city. Another talking point is The Bishop Street Courthouse, which suffers the unfortunate honour of being the most bombed building in Northern Ireland after Belfast’s Europa Hotel. On the east side of the Walls, lies the Bogside – a predominantly Catholic and Republican neighbourhood. Today, dotted throughout the rows of houses are striking murals – tributes to those affected by The Troubles.
Created by brothers Tom and William Kelly, and friend, Kevin Hasson, all Bogside natives, one, in particular, catches my attention: The Death of Innocence. It tells the story of teenager Annette McGavigan, killedin acrossfirebetween British soldiers and the IRA in 1971. Charlene explains that when it was initially created in the early ’90s, the mural was the only one the artists left unfinished. At the time, the trio couldn’t see any possibility of peace and reconciliation but vowed to finish it when guns no longer killed children. They completed it in 1997.
CREAM OF THE CROP
Earlier, Odhran from VisitDerry proudly mentioned that the city has become widely recognised as a foodie destination. I soon learn that this claim is evident in Bishop’s Gate Hotel - my lodgings for the evening. Enjoying a central location, this elegant, listed premises was first opened as a Northern Counties Club in 1899 and today’s reincarnation effortlessly marries its Edwardian heritage with modern features and eye-catching flourishes. I discover that the building boasts an exciting past. Across both World Wars, it provided mess facilities for Canadian and American soldiers, for instance. And during the ’30s, the all-male Northern Counties Club was picketed by Suffragettes and, as a result, 30 women were permitted to join! “The goal of our award-winning, friendly and professional team is to ensure that every stay with us is ‘Legenderry’ as we say here,” Ciaran O’Neill, Managing Director, explains. “We aim to exceed expectations by providing unrivalled service and ensure that every stay is a memorable one.” After checking in, my bedroom luxurious and spacious - is temporarily side-lined as I make my way to The Gown restaurant, the name being a nod to the nearby courthouse. Here, Executive Chef Paul Sharkey and his team offer a cornucopia of locally sourced, seasonal dishes presented in a contemporary style. I opt for the goat’s cheese tartin followed by the Indian-spiced rump of Slaney lamb, and it immediately becomes clear why this eatery was awarded a coveted AA Rosette Award.
BEYOND THE CITY WALLS
Derry~Londonderry’s geographical location allows visitors to enjoy a unique experience with the convergence of two internationally recognised coastal driving routes – the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coastal Route. And so, after refuelling in Bishop’s Gate Hotel, the next morning, I drive towards Gortmore Viewpoint - and what a drive it turns out to be! The Bishop’s Road - linking Derry, Limavady and Downhill - provides one of the most spectacular vistas on the north coast. After deftly navigating some hilly rural roads, I reach Gortmore Viewpoint. On a clear day, views extend to Donegal and the islands
of Islay and Jura off the west coast of Scotland. Today is not a clear day, however. Nonetheless, despite the drizzle, sprawling vistas are at once magnificent and humbling. Local folklore recounts the presence of a sea god in the nearby Lough Foyle – our very own Neptune: Manannan Mac Lir. His aquatic legacy is celebrated here by a statue – sculpted by John Sutton, who has worked on television sensation, Game of Thrones, which was primarily filmed in Northern Ireland. In fact, the fortunes of this sculpture almost claim as much drama as one of the series’ episodes! Four years ago, the original was stolen, leading to a worldwide recovery mission. Once found, it emerged that the statue had suffered extensive damage, so this replacement was installed. It seems that Manannan Mac Lir has always had his work cut out for him - both in Irish mythology and in modern times as well! A short drive east, I arrive at Downhill Demesne, which features the ruins of the 18th century Hezlett House and, best of all, Mussenden Temple. Perched on the edge of a 120-foot clifftop, the temple was built as a summer library by the original estate owner, Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. Dedicated to Hervey's cousin, Frideswide Mussenden, the temple, along with the surrounding coastal views, are among the most photographed scenes in Ireland. Sea air wreaks havoc on the appetite, so I make my way to Portstewart’s famous Harry’s Shack. Owner, Donegal native, Donal Doherty, reveals that the name is a tribute to his father. This funky restaurant overlooks the golden Portstewart Strand, which showcases the very best of nature - including dunes, an estuary and an embarrassment of wildlife.
Harry’s Shack’s menu – mainly seafood – is locally sourced and, simply put, delicious. I sample the mussels and beautifully seasoned turbot - one mouthful is enough to realise why queues are forming outside.
THE FINAL VERSE
Hunger pangs fully sated; I now swap salads for ballads. One of my favourite poems is Seamus Heaney’s Midterm Break – a devasting recollection of the death of the Nobel winner's younger brother, tragically killed in a car accident at just four years old. Therefore, I’m eager to visit the final stop on my itinerary: the Seamus Heaney HomePlace located in the village of Bellaghy - an interactive, purpose-built art and literary centre. Across two floors, there’s a wealth of features on display including memorabilia, artwork and archive footage – all of which form a fitting tribute to the local poet. His final resting place is nearby. “Seamus Heaney’s poetry is deeply rooted in this area, so when coming to HomePlace, visitors feel a real and meaningful connection with the words,” manager Brian McCormick reports.
“I’LL DIG WITH IT”
As I reluctantly return to Dublin, driving through the county’s lush, agricultural landscape, I spot several men and women tending to the land, making the most of the long summer evenings. Heaney’s iconic poem, Digging, springs to mind. In it, he laments never inheriting the deft farming skills so evident in his father and grandfather. Instead, Heaney says that between his finger and thumb, “the squat pen rests”, but vows to “dig with it.” Just like so many writers before and after him. Including me.