Derry’s architecture up to 1800

A History of Derry architecture until 1800

'The view of Derry, at a distance of a mile or two, is the most picturesque of any place I have seen; it seems to be built on an island of bold land rising from the river which spreads into a fine bason at the foot of the town; the adjacent country hilly, the scene wants nothing but wood to make it a perfect landscape.'
Arthur Young, August 1776

Rather than being wooded, however, Derry’s outskirts have seen a rash of cornflake box housing developments – unimaginatively and aspirationally Manor this and Court that. Closer to the city centre, big business has been allowed to erect dreary block after block along the River Foyle. For all this many architectural gems remain, not least the city walls – one of the only intact city walls in Europe; St Columb’s Cathedral – the oldest pealing cathedral bells in Ireland; the late Georgian and early Victorian housing between Great James Street, Francis Street and the Strand Road and Derry’s beautiful new Millennium Theatre.

In the beginning of the 12th century, Doire, meaning oak grove, was a thriving proto-urban settlement, as close as anything was in Gaelic Ireland to fulfilling the definition of a town. The powerful Ua Lochlainn kings dominated Derry at this time and as the century advanced we find numerous references to the vitality and wealth of the area as both a secular and ecclesiastical settlement. New buildings were erected, in particular the great church or Tempull Mór and later in the 13th a Cistercian nunnery, a Dominican abbey and a Franciscan friary.

Sometime around the end of the 15th century a small tower house castle was built in Derry for the lords of the neighbouring territory of Tir Conaill – the O Donnells. The castle was built by the O Doherty family of Inishowen for their O’Donnell overlords who may have contemplated some sort of minor renaissance for Derry. The O Doherty tower was recently reconstructed as part of the Tower Museum in 1986.

It was the Tudor reassertion of English power in Ulster that brought an end to the medieval appearance of Derry. In 1566 English troops, under the command of Colonel Edward Randolph, were sent to Derry to take in hand the rebellious leader of Gaelic Ulster, Shane O Neill. When they left Derry was in ruins.

In 1600 the English made another attempt to take control of Derry with Sir Henry Dowcra at the helm. The scene at Derry as Dowcra approached must have looked much like what we would find now as we approach the ancient Irish monastic centres at places such as Clonmacnois in Offaly or Devenish in Fermanagh. Far from being the thriving settlement of the Middle Ages, Dowcra tells us that most of the hill, or island of Derry as he called it, was sown with corn.

To obtain materials to fortify the city, Dowcra demolished the ruins of its medieval buildings. He left only the tall round tower to the cathedral belfry that was to give its name to the Long Tower district of the town. Our very first sketch maps of Derry, sent back to London in dispatches, date to this period.

In July 1604 King James I issued a charter creating a new city of Derrie. In 1610 about one hundred and thirty stonemasons and carpenters were sent over from London to begin the process of building the new city. Most of what had survived from the medieval period and from Dowcra’s city was in ruins. Only two of these structures would survive into the new city: the church of the ancient Augustinian monastery and the old O’Donnell tower house castle. Whatever houses still remained, only those required for the workers were to be retained; the rest were to be demolished. It was to be the first planned city or town in Ireland. Londonderry can be said to stand at the forefront of the history of Irish town planning.

Town planning had been revitalised during the Renaissance, drawing on ideas derived from the classical world. New towns, designed in imitation of the geometric layout of Roman military camps, were being built all over Europe. Londonderry bears a striking resemblance in layout to the frontier city of Vitry-le-François, in eastern France. Vitry had been finished in 1560 for Francis II, King of France, who was married to Mary Queen of Scots, mother of James I who was the progenitor of Londonderry. This family connection may have influenced the design of the new city in Ulster.

The city’s walls and gates were completed in 1618 and between 1628 and 1633 a new cathedral was built, in Planter’s Gothic style, in the south east corner of the town. Post Siege, the next public building of note, was the New Market House, which stood in what is today known as the Diamond. Built in 1692, meal and potatoes were bought and exchanged within its open arcades and it continued as an exchange for the next 130 years.

Throughout the 18th century Derry, like the rest of Ireland, was to suffer the economic stagnation that a system of absentee owners imposed. The city was tied to the London companies through the Irish Society that owned the land. The corporation was self-elected and suffered from the defects inherent in such bodies.

The quays at this time were much closer to the city, for the shallows created by the bend in the river Foyle before the north east face of the walls had not been filled in. An irregular pattern of wharves, jetties and the shipquay itself, stuck out into the river, gradually filling up the shallows as the century progressed. In 1788 the river still came up to the East Water Bastion, in front of which ‘The New Walk’, which would become part of Foyle Street, had just been constructed.

For most of the 18th century, Silver Street, the steep hill leading from the quays up to the town square was the town’s main thoroughfare of trade. Today, this street, now known as Shipquay Street, retains some of the character and sense of mercantile enterprise that was the mid-Georgian town.

Bishop Street, leading to the high south end of the walled city was less concerned with trade. Its development was less compact, with haphazard openings behind the street frontages to the Bishop’s house and garden, the free school and St Augustine’s Chapel of Ease on the west, and to the Cathedral and Church yard on the east. By 1788 the cathedral side of the street from the Diamond to Bishop’s Gate had been filled in completely. There are many images and descriptions of Derry during the 18th century. Most stress the picturesqueness of the place, not least, the philosopher George Berkeley - Dean of Derry from 1724 – 1732 who wrote:

'The city of Derry is the most compact, regular, well built town that I have seen in the King’s Dominions, the town house, (no mean structure) stands in the midst of a square piazza from which there are four principal streets leading to as many gates. It is a walled town, and has walks all round on the walls planted with trees as in Padua.'

In 1768 Frederick Augustus Hervey assumed the Bishopric of Derry. He brought a new conception of the role of architecture to the city. He restored the cathedral, redesigned the Bishop’s Palace and erected many new churches throughout the diocese but perhaps his most influential gift to the city was the first bridge across the River Foyle, built in 1789.

By the 1780s Bridge Street had become the centre of the town’s skilled trades, with printers, dyers, cutlers, glaziers and cabinetmakers working there. A row of cottages had sprung up along the lower slopes of the west wall, running down from Butcher’s Gate to the ‘Gullet’ Dock, long since built over by the Waterloo Place. Another line of cottages ran into the Bogside. Here linen industries were established, with clothes-brokers and ropemakers all concentrating in the west of the town.

Ribbons of development had begun to fringe the main routes out of Derry: the Long Tower, Howard Street, and St Columb’s Wells, with from 1788 a line of cottages, Nailor’s Row hugging the walls. A substantial part of Bishop Street Without was developed now as far at least as the Bishop’s own gardens on the level of the hill. Here, on what is now Lumen Christi’s school grounds, the Earl Bishop had laid out a bowling green with walks, lawns, and a grove of Spanish chestnut trees.

Work began on the Bishop’s bridge in 1789, marking an era of expansion. By connecting the city to the whole country, the bridge brought vital trade to Derry as a port. By 1799 the street pattern of lanes running down from the ridge of the hill to the water’s edge had begun to emerge. Carrigan’s, Feruson’s and Bennet’s lane all came into being at this time. Wapping Lane, Hakins Lane ( now Hawkins Street), and the Fountain Street area had been developed beneath the city walls and in the Bogside, Willaim Street and Fahan Street had been laid out. As the 19th century opened Derry was laying the foundations of its present plan.

The waterfront too was changing. The new bridge brought a new faith in woodwork and the wooden quays extended rapidly. A long timber wharf was erected onto the river opposite Shipquay Gate. More of the shallows were reclaimed in front of the Water Bastion. At the foot of Sugar House Lane, Mr Robert Alexander, one of the main merchants in the city, built his own great square quay. By 1835 others had followed his example and a continuous line of quays extended from the bridge almost to Shipquay place. Derry had pushed the river away from its walls to gain an extra strip of land about 150 yards wide.