A Glimpse of the History of Northern Ireland’s County Londonderry

County Londonderry

Updated On: December 17, 2023 by   Noha BasiounyNoha Basiouny

Nestled along the banks of the River Foyle, County Londonderry stands as a city steeped in history, where the echoes of the past resonate through its cobbled streets and centuries-old walls. From its medieval origins to the complex narratives woven during The Troubles, the history of County Londonderry is a captivating journey that mirrors the broader story of Ireland’s cultural, political, and social evolution.

As we navigate through the centuries, we will encounter the challenges faced by the county and its residents during periods of conflict and strife, notably the Plantation of Ulster and the Siege of Derry. Yet, amid the tumult, we will also celebrate the triumphs, resilience, and cultural tapestry that has made Londonderry a county of enduring significance.

Join us on a journey through time as we uncover the layers of Londonderry’s past and explore the unique interplay of heritage, culture, and community that has shaped this city into the vibrant and dynamic place it is today. 

County Londonderry

County Londonderry is one of the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. It is the fifth-largest one, with an area of 2,118 square kilometres, and home to 247,132 people.

County Londonderry is situated in the northwest of the country and is bordered by County Antrim to the east, County Tyrone to the south and west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. It is about 120 kilometres from the city of Belfast, which is a 1.5-hour car ride.

The county has various subdivisions and settlements, the largest and most notable of which is the city of Derry. It serves as the county’s administrative centre and is known for its powerful 17th-century historic walls. In fact, Derry is Ireland’s only completely intact city, as its walls were never breached despite facing numerous sieges throughout history. This earned the city the nickname The Maiden City.

Some of the other notable landmarks in Derry include the Peace Bridge, the Guildhall, which is a stunning neo-gothic building located in the city centre, the St. Columb’s Cathedral, and the Tower Museum. Derry is also home to the Magee Campus of Ulster University, contributing to the city’s academic and research landscape.

The naming of the city, as well as the county, has been a subject of political and cultural debate, with different communities preferring different names. However, we will keep it as we mentioned. Londonderry refers to the county, and Derry is its administrative centre.

Interestingly, up until 1613, there were no such things as County Londonderry or Derry nor did Northern Ireland even exist. It was the partition of Ireland, which officially took place in 1921, that split the country into the Republic of Ireland, which is now a country on its own, and Northern Ireland, which became part of the UK.

Prior to that, intact Ireland was made up of four provinces: Connaught, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster. Ulster, with an area of 22,067 square kilometres, comprised nine counties, one of which was County Coleraine, which in 1613 turned into County Londonderry.

Let’s explore how exactly this happened.

The Plantation of Ulster (1609)

The Plantation of Ulster was a significant historical event that took place in Ulster in the early 17th century. It was a large-scale planned colonisation as the English and Scottish monarchs led by James I of England (he was also called James VI of Scotland) sought to consolidate control over Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic, by introducing Protestant settlers to the province of Ulster.

So, the Plantation involved dividing large portions of land in Ulster into smaller plots, which were then granted to individuals known as “undertakers” and “servitors.” Undertakers were usually wealthy English and Scottish landowners who undertook to bring settlers to the allocated lands. Servitors were individuals, often military officers, who had served the crown and were rewarded with land.

The Plantation resulted in the displacement of many native Irish landowners and tenants from their ancestral lands. Besides establishing a predominantly Protestant presence in the region, such displacement led to tension between them and the new settlers, which would ultimately contribute to future conflicts in Northern Ireland.

Derry (1613)

County Londonderry
Derry, County Londonderry

Part of the Plantation of Ulster was to develop and fortify strategic settlements in the region. The establishment of County Londonderry can be specifically linked to the granting of a charter to the city of Derry in 1613. The charter officially incorporated the city and its environs as a county, known as County Londonderry.

One of the many notable things about the construction of Derry was its walls. They were designed by Sir Edward Doddington, an English army officer and engineer, and intended to provide defence for the new city and its inhabitants.

The walls were built by The Honourable The Irish Society between 1613 and 1618. This society was a consortium of livery companies based in the City of London. It was specifically established to oversee the Plantation of Ulster.

The walls themselves are an architectural marvel. They are approximately 1.5 kilometres in circumference and vary in width and height. They have seven gates in total. The original four were built during the early construction of the walls, while the other three were added in more recent times.

Over the following decades, what became County Londonderry was gradually taken over by Protestantism while the Catholic population shrank and subsided. By the end of the century, most of the county had already become Protestant. 

The Glorious Revolution (1688)

One remarkable event that showed the strength of these walls was the Siege of Derry, which took place from April to August 1689. The siege was one of the many consequences of the Glorious Revolution in England and Scotland that ignited the year before, in 1688.

County Londonderry
Stone Steps over the Bishops Gate, Derry, County Londonderry

So, as we understood from above, England and Scotland were largely Protestant, and they sought to spread Protestantism into Ireland through the Plantation of Ulster. After King James II of England died, his son Charles II, also Protestant, became king and  himself was, upon his death, succeeded by his younger brother James II in 1685. 

Yet, the new king favoured Catholicism, so he started promoting it and granted religious freedoms to Catholics in England. He even bypassed Parliament to appoint Catholics to key positions.

This alarmed Protestant English leaders and led to concerns about absolutism and the infringement of parliamentary authority. The birth of James’s son and heir, James Francis Edward Stuart, in June 1688 also raised fears about the possibility of a Catholic monarchy, which could lead to the re-establishment of Catholicism in England, the thing that the Protestant English population, by and large, was against.

As a result, concerned English nobles invited William of Orange, the Prince of Orange, a skilled military leader and James II’s son-in-law, to protect Protestantism and intervene in English affairs. So William assembled a fleet and army, sailed from the Netherlands, and landed at Brixham in Torbay, Devon, in November 1688, starting what is historically known as the Glorious Revolution, or the Invasion of William of Orange.

As William advanced in England, he gained support from several Protestant nobles, military leaders, key figures, including James II’s very daughter Anne, and some military commanders who defected to William’s side. Faced with diminishing support, James II attempted to resist but ultimately decided to avoid bloodshed. So, he fled to France to seek support from his Catholic allies.

Meanwhile, William III and Mary II became joint monarchs, marking the beginning of a new era in English history. 

The Siege of Derry (1689)

In an attempt to regain the throne, James II landed in Ireland with his forces and besieged Derry in April 1689 to assert control over it. Derry was a strategically important city in Ireland. Its location along the River Foyle made it a key point for controlling access to the interior of the island of Ireland.

However, the city’s mighty walls, which the English apparently did a very good job building, as well as its predominantly Protestant inhabitants, protected it, giving the English forces absolutely no chance of breaking in.

The inhabitants of Derry sought assistance from the Williamite forces loyal to William III and Mary II. As a result, relief ships were organised to bring supplies and break the blockade.

After several failed attempts, William’s ships successfully broke through James’s Boom in July 1689. This was a chain of anchored ships and floating debris designed to block access to the city. The arrival of the relief ships brought much-needed supplies, food, and reinforcements to the city and was a significant morale boost for the inhabitants of Derry.

The Williamite forces could eventually lift off the blockade and end the Siege of Derry.

However, it did not stop there. In the following year, the two armies engaged in another conflict known as the Battle of the Boyne, in which James II and his forces were severely defeated and forced to retreat to France. Meanwhile, William continued to clash with James II’s supporters in Ireland in what is known as the Williamite War, which by The Treaty of Limerick in 1691.

The aftermath of the war saw the implementation of penal laws against Catholics, severely restricting their civil and religious rights in County Londonderry and the rest of Ireland as well. It also solidified the English Protestant control over the country.

By the early 18th century, England had established a more centralised and comprehensive control over Ireland, laying the foundation for what would later turn into  a union between England Britain and Ireland in 1801. 

Irish Partition (1920)

The Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which proposed the establishment of two autonomous regions within the United Kingdom: Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Each region was to have its own Parliament with devolved powers, although the implementation was delayed due to World War I.

In 1921, Northern Ireland, which consisted of six predominantly Protestant counties, was established. The six counties included Antrim, Armagh, Londonderry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone. The new region had a devolved government and remained part of the United Kingdom.

However, the establishment of Southern Ireland, covering the remaining 26 counties, was never implemented due to political and sectarian tensions. The Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations led to the creation of the Irish Free State—later the Republic of Ireland—in 1922, which encompassed most of the proposed Southern Ireland.

The drawing of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State was contentious, and it did not follow strict geographic or demographic lines. Consequently, it became a symbol of division and a source of ongoing tensions.

The Troubles (1960s – 1990s)

The historical and religious divisions in Ireland that were triggered by the Plantation of Ulster, the subsequent struggles for power and land, and the later partition of Ireland in 1921 intensified tensions and conflicts between Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist communities in Northern Ireland, which resulted in a series of violent events that made up a long problematic period known as The Troubles.

The Troubles lasted for approximately three decades, spanning from 1969 up until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. They took place in Northern Ireland, primarily Belfast and Londonderry.

So, in the late 1960s, the civil rights movement emerged in response to discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland. However, peaceful protests faced violent opposition, leading to the radicalisation of elements within both nationalist and unionist communities.

In the early 1970s, the conflict escalated with bombings, shootings, and paramilitary activities. For instance, Bloody Sunday of 1972, when British soldiers shot and killed unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry, became a turning point that intensified hostilities.

The violence continued and soared with more military clashes, hunger strikes in prisons, and increased bombings and assassinations. Ceasefires were attempted but were often short-lived. It was not until the early 1990s that political negotiations and attempts succeeded at applying a permanent ceasefire.

The Good Friday Agreement (1998)

So in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was signed, outlining a framework for peace, political stability, and reconciliation in Londonderry and all of Northern Ireland.

For instance, the agreement involved the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive with responsibility for local affairs like education, health, and agriculture. This assembly was formed through power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties where the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who head the Executive, were from different political designations.

The Good Friday Agreement also played a crucial role in bringing an end to the violence of The Troubles in County Londonderry. It facilitated the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the release of political prisoners. It also established institutions for cooperation and consultation between both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, promoting cross-border cooperation in various areas such as politics, trade, and tourism.

County Londonderry
Peace Bridge, Derry, County Londonderry

The implementation of the agreement brought peace and contributed to economic and social development in Northern Ireland. Since then, the region has seen increased foreign investment and efforts to enhance infrastructure and education.

That being said, it was not all red roses, and some challenges did emerge, such as periods of political deadlock and the suspension of the Executive not once but multiple times due to disagreements between unionist and nationalist parties. This was also topped by some more challenges that resulted from the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit).

The history of County Londonderry is a compelling narrative that unfolds across the tapestry of time, weaving together the threads of ancient heritage, medieval foundations, and the dynamic forces of change that shaped its destiny. From its establishment during the Plantation of Ulster to the challenges faced during periods of conflict, such as the Siege of Derry and The Troubles, County Londonderry has stood resilient against the tides of history.

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