Derry is fast emerging out of the shadows of neighbouring Belfast as a great all-year-round Northern Ireland city-break destination (especially for Halloween), with its important history, the famous 400-year-old walls and the warmth and welcome of its people. I spent two nights there to experience the city and it’s world-famous Halloween festival.
Derry (or London Derry, depending on your tradition) is a city that resonates with people for several reasons. It is associated with the Civil Rights marches of the late 60’s and early 70‘s and the watershed event that was Bloody Sunday in January 1972 which was the catalyst really for the 25 years of turmoil we came to know as ‘The Troubles’.
It is where political heavy-weights John Hume and Martin McGuiness hail from and of course it spawned one of punk’s best-loved bands The Undertones with their Teenage Kicks.
Derry was the shirt capital of the British Empire and Europe in the early 1900’s.
No tourism fatigue here folks, Derry people are very happy to welcome visitors to their gem of a city.
Derry is also famous for being a walled city, built 400 years ago – it is still mostly intact and the last one to be built in Europe. The newly planted population of Scots and English built the walls for protection from the native Irish and other Catholic forces. At 1.5 kilometres in circumference and up to 10 metres thick in places walls have never been breached (think ‘No Surrender’).
Since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s second city – located 70 miles west of Belfast on the banks of the River Foyle near the Donegal border – has been making great strides to attract visitors and businesses alike.
Derry has been bringing Halloween back home since the 70’s it seems and the USA Today agrees voting it ‘the Halloween destination in the world in 2015’
A breakthrough year for Derry came in 2013 when it became the inaugural city to be designated UK City of Culture. Also that year the most important event in the UK’s Contemporary Art calendar, The Turner Prize, moved to Derry as part of the City of Culture and it was the first time that the event left mainland Britain.
This momentous year for Derry was capped-off when it hosted the week-long 2013 Fleadh Cheoil held for the first time in Northern Ireland, attracting over 400,000 people to the city.
Friendliness is a virtue bestowed on many places on this island but in Derry people have it in abundance. The people are especially good-humoured and witty. They are very welcoming of visitors to their city. The locals are proud of their walled-city and I found that people are keen to engage with visitors to ascertain what they think of the place, it happened to me a few times.
A breakthrough year for Derry came in 2013 when it became the inaugural city to be designated UK City of Culture
No tourism fatigue here folks, Derry people are very happy to welcome visitors to their gem of a city, a place that had been overlooked somewhat by tourists until the recent years.
Things we saw and did in Derry…
Derry Walls tour
Well, the first thing that I would recommend is to take a walking tour of the city’s walls, no need to book generally. Usually takes about an hour and it is the best way to get a real feel for the history of the place, from the initial plantations, to the Siege of Derry, The Bogside, The Troubles and to the hope and peace that exists in the city today. Alternatively, feel free to amble around them yourself and read the signs.
We used the excellent http://derrycitytours.com/tours/
The Museum of Free Derry
To get an in-depth understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, the creation of Free Derry and the horrors of Bloody Sunday then this museum is a must for all visitors to the city. It is a sobering experience especially the events of 30 January 1972 when the British Army shot dead 13 unarmed civilians and wounded 18 others in the immediate area. The talks at the museum are given added poignancy as they are given by family members who lost loved ones on that fateful day.
This is the story of how a working-class neighbourhood stood up for their civil rights and paid a heavy price for it. Nearly 40 years later, after the botched Widgery Inquiry, vindication for the victims and their families, and an apology from the British Government by David Cameron in 2015.
The museum was awarded ‘the most Authentic NI Visitor Experience’.
You can also take a walk around the nearby Bogside to see the murals and the world-famous Free Derry Corner (or do it as part of a tour).
St. Columb’s Cathedral
Built between 1618 and 1633 it the oldest building within the city walls. The cathedral was named after important local Saint, St. Columb who was later banished from Derry and he is credited with taking Christianity to Scotland and the North of England. This Neo-Gothic Cathedral has strong links to the city and its history from plantation times, to WW1 and the present-day peace.
It was the first cathedral to be built by the Anglican Church after the Reformation in Britain and Ireland and the first non-Catholic cathedral to be built in Western Europe. Its Chapter House Museum displays artefacts from the Siege of (London) Derry in 1689 and also many other interesting items. The cathedral is worth a visit both as a place of worship, architecture and its importance to the city historically.
Walk the Peace Bridge
Derry’s Peace Bridge was open to the public in 2011 as walking and cycle link between the divided city’s Waterside and Cityside. The €16.5 million project was jointly financed by the EU, the Irish Government, and Stormont. It is only the third bridge to span the River Foyle in Derry. The Peace Bridge was built as part of the social and economic regeneration of the city.
The 300-metre long structure starts on the West Bank near the city’s impressive Guildhall, also well worth a visit, and follows an S-shape across the river to the parade ground at the former Ebrington Barracks on the East Bank, an area that is now being developed to include restaurants, accommodation and a distillery.
Our tour guide said that it is S-shaped because the ‘path to peace is never a straight one’. It is well worth walking over for the fresh air and the great perspective it gives one of the city, both sides.
Festivals and Events…
Halloween is a big deal in Derry, believe me! They go all out here with a week-long programme the highlight of which is the parade through the city on Halloween night followed by an awesome fireworks display from the banks of the Foyle. It’s the best place in Ireland to celebrate the Samhain!
Nearly everyone dresses up, children and adults, and people come from all over to be here, I met people from the US, Canada, and all over Europe over the two days. The walled city with its arched gates and hilly streets adds to the Halloween atmosphere and makes for a great location for a Samhain festival.
Indeed the walls are an integral part of Derry Halloween festival where they come to life as part of the ‘Waking of The Walls’ event where they are used by performers and as a site for variously themed installations.
Ireland is the home of Halloween after all, the source being the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which took place on October 31 after the end of the harvest where the souls of the departed would return to their former homes and when potentially malevolent spirits were released from the Otherworld and were visible to mankind.
Ireland is where it all started and it was brought to the US where it has morphed into its current form. Derry has been bringing Halloween back home since the 70’s it seems and the USA Today agrees voting it ‘the Halloween destination in the world in 2015’.
This year the city had over 100,000 visitors during the three days Awakening the Walls leading up to Halloween itself including parade/fireworks.
Check out www.derryhalloween.com for next year!!
Foyle Maritime Festival
Derry City and Strabane District Council also run the Foyle Maritime Festival, a hugely successful maritime event that takes place in Derry every two years during the month of July. It’s a 10-day festival of events aimed at showcasing the city and its maritime heritage. The organisers worked in partnership with Clipper Ventures for a number of years to host their Clipper Round the World Race as part of the festival.
The most successful festival yet was held earlier this year attracting over 225,000 people to the city to enjoy events that included water-based activities, education and heritage events, a Voyages Showcase and a Parade of Light.
While the festival is set to return in the summer of 2020, the dates and programme details have not yet been finalised.
During our two-night stay, we had lunch and dinner at the following places.
The Walled City Brewery
This is a very modern and unique venue located across the Peace Bridge in Ebrington Square. It is both a restaurant and a fully operational micro-brewery making great small-batch artisan beers. James Huey the owner and Master Brewer worked for Guinness for many years before he and his wife returned to Derry to pursue their passions for craft beer and good food.
This is Northern Ireland’s only Brewery Restaurant and this year it garnered the coveted title of ‘Best Gastro Pub in Ireland award’!
This is a real experience, and even if you don’t like craft beer, the food is excellent and the place is cool and atmospheric. My dining highlight of the trip.
70, Ebrington St. Derry
A lively funky restaurant that was buzzing with lunchtime diners. The menu was diverse – think Asian fusion meets local with a bit of Americano as well. The staff were friendly and the food choice was interesting, to say the least. They also have an extensive drinks menu and have a dinner menu as well.
12-14 Castle Street, Derry
Browns in Town
Brown’s in Town is a very well know Derry eatery and serves modern Irish/European food. The staff here were also very attentive and the food was very good too with great deserts.
21 Strand Road, Derry
Pubs and such…
During our visit, we went to Peadar O’Donnell’s the city’s best-known pub and where most of the tourists flock to. Good beer selection, lively atmosphere, and music every night, what’s not to like!
Another one that was recommended to us was The Blackbird which has a great selection of craft beers and music regularly. It is a spacious bar that is more classic in style.
We stayed at the very comfortable, boutique-style and centrally located Bishops Gate Hotel. Here too the staff were so friendly and made us feel so welcome.
Some more interesting things about Derry…
Shirtmaking was the biggest employer in Derry reaching its peak in the 1920s when the shirt factories, together with
their associated out-workers, employed over 18,000 people, mainly women. Derry was the centre of the shirt making industry for the UK, Europe, and the British colonies.
‘In the early morn, the shirt factory horn Called women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog’ from the Town I Loved So Well’ by Derry native Phil Coulter.
Today there is only one shirt factory left.
The Yanks and the WW2
Derry played an important part in the Battle of the Atlantic and it was the first American naval base in Europe and the terminal for American convoys en route to Europe.
Derry city and its environs have a strong artistic legacy, producing Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney as well as poet Seamus Deane, playwright Brian Friel and artist Willie Doherty, socio-political commentator and activist Eammon McCann and Nell McCaffery, journalist, playwright, and feminist.
Derry’s list of famous singers includes the tenor Josef Locke, Dana, Neil Hannon (Divine Comedy), The Undertones, Phil Coulter (singer and songwriter) and Nadine Coyle (Girls Aloud).
I really don’t know why this was my first time in Derry, but I know for sure that it won’t be my last!
Check out: http://www.visitderry.com/ for information on all things Derry!