THE BLOG

The Maiden City of Northern Ireland

18/03/2013 18:11 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 10:12 BST

I met Martin McCrossan in the lobby of the City Hotel.

The owner of City Tours, McCrossan was to be my guide for a walking tour of the UK's 'City of Culture' for 2013.

With his warm, rolling accent, McCrossan greeted me like an old friend, we pulled on our hats and gloves and headed out to explore.

McCrossan's tour begins with an explanation of why signage for the city is generally shown as Derry~Londonderry. The settlement originally established here was known as Derry (from the Irish word for 'oak grove'), however in 1662 the name was changed by Royal Charter to Londonderry after the city was rebuilt and walled by the London trade guilds (or livery companies). Following a submission by the Derry City Council in 1984, the High Court confirmed that the name of the city could only be changed (from Londonderry back to Derry) by the British Crown. The name remains a point of political contention, but for shorthand purposes for this article I will use the name Derry.

In recent times, Derry's international reputation has been defined by the sectarian conflict known as 'The Troubles'. It was here in this city that civil rights marches escalated into the street battles of the Bogside and the Bloody Sunday shootings.

However before beginning to try and understand how a small community could become so violently divided, it is important to look at how Derry was created and the unique role played by the City of London and it's trade guilds.

Derry's position on the River Foyle has always made it a place of strategic importance. In the late 1500s Ireland was caught up in the wider power struggle between England and Spain. By the early 1600s, Elizabethan England began to establish its control over the island and the most powerful Irish lords left Ireland in 1607 in an era-ending decision known as 'The Flight of the Earls' - which sounds like something of out the stories of J.R.R. Tolkein but represents an incredibly important turning point in the history of Ireland.

Following the departure of the Earls of Ulster, their lands were confiscated by the English Crown and a 'plantation' policy was followed - tens of thousands of protestant settlers (mainly from Scotland) were migrated to Ulster. London's trade guilds (collectively working in Derry as The Honourable The Irish Society) were charged with building the city that would become known as Londonderry. Begun in 1613 and completed in 1619, this was the first planned city in Ireland and solid walls were constructed to provide defenses against Irish insurgents. The layout of the old city and it's stone walls remain intact. Despite numerous attacks and a siege that lasted 105 days, the walls of Derry were never breached - leading to its reputation as 'the maiden city.'

Our first stop on our walking tour of Derry was to walk across the Peace Bridge to Ebrington Square - a military base since 1841 but recently transformed into a shared community space that has become the main venue for Derry's 'Capital of Culture' activities. The notion of a 'Peace Bridge' sounds cheesy, but locals talk with passion how the bridge has transformed the city and brought the Catholic and Protestant communities physically closer together by changing the way that they travel to and from the city.

Next stop was the Cathedral Church of Saint Columb which had, just the day before, held a thanksgiving service to mark the 400th Anniversary of The Honourable The Irish Society. In 1633, as part of its rebuilding of the city, The Honourable The Irish Society completed the construction of the cathedral. In the entranceway is a stone that reads:

'If stones could speake, then London's prayse should sound, Who built this church and cittie from the grounde.'

The cathedral is worth a visit - it's an imposing and impressive church and also on display are a number of artifacts from Derry's history, including the original silver chalice, regimental flags, and the mortar shell that was fired into the city during the siege of 1689 - it contained proposed terms which were rejected by a city united in its commitment to 'no surrender'.

Over time the political and social divide between Derry's Catholic and Protestant residents became entrenched and systemic - flaring at times, particularly around the time of the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s and then again with the Troubles that began in the late 1960s and continued until the early 1990s.

From the cathedral we walked out through the Butcher Gate and beyond the old city wall in to the area known as the Bogside. Taking its name from the marshy ground that it was reclaimed from, the Bogside is the Catholic neighborhood that has become synonymous with the Troubles - the iconic civil rights marches, the street battles, and Bloody Sunday when 13 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers.

The scars of the Troubles are still painfully visible on the streets of the Bogside - murals, memorials, and monuments illustrate the human cost that is inevitable with any sort of conflict. The best way to understand some of the context of this period is to visit the Museum of Free Derry - established to tell the story of the civil rights movement of the '60s and '70s and the conflict that followed. One of the driving forces behind the establishment of the museum is John Kelly whose brother Martin was killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972. Kelly carefully explained the museum to us and outlined the planned expansion of the museum (it will close at the end of 2013 while being rebuilt).

'The museum is not political' explained Kelly. 'We just want to ensure that the story is told from the people's point of view.'

He left us to go and greet a large group of German students who had arrived in the museum reception.

McCrossan's walking tours are incredibly good value - they cost GBP£4 per person for a full hour of walking and include a coffee at Java Coffee on the corner of Ferryquay and Artillery Streets where owner Katherine plied us with her home made coffee cake (they have free wifi too - amazing).

After warming up over a cup of coffee I headed to Legenderry Warehouse for lunch and a catch up with Chris McCann who runs the PR for Derry's City of Culture activities.

In many ways the people of Derry are pinning their hopes on their year as City of Culture transforming the international reputation and brand of their city. So far it seems to be working.

'There's a growing sense of confidence within the community,' affirms McCann; 'when it was announced that we had been selected at the City of Culture there was a nervousness, it was seen as a risk, but as the events have been announced I think that local people have been amazed and want to be part of it.'

The strength of the program that has been put together for this year of activity is beyond impressive. During my few days in Derry I had managed to catch a spectacular performance of Hofesh Shecter's Political Mother.

Other highlights to look forward to include:

With its fascinating history and an eye on the future, Derry is definitely a city to watch.

To plan your visit to Derry or explore what Ireland has to offer visit www.ireland.com.