Derry / Londonderry

What’s this place called again?

For the outsider, and even for some locals, confusion reigns over the title of Northern Ireland’s second city. Look on most maps or road signs in Northern Ireland and you will see ‘Londonderry’ clearly written. Seems simple enough then, doesn’t it? Until you ask anyone in the City, who will often point out that it is administered by ‘Derry City Council’ and insistently refer to the place as ‘Derry’, or look at a road sign in the Republic of Ireland where Derry appears once more followed by Doire!

Confused? Well it gets more complex; on a Tuesday, Thursday or Friday you can buy the Derry Journal or the Derry News for all of the local stories and information. On a Wednesday you’ll need the Londonderry Sentinel to find out what’s going on. If you want to turn to alternative local media, the diplomatically titled BBC Radio Foyle wont give you too many clues either.

The roots of the City’s schizophrenic title are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a familiar combination of history imbued with an overpowering political influence. From its foundation as a monastic settlement the City was titled ‘Doire’, the original Irish term for ‘Oak Grove’, reflecting the thick growth of oaks in the area at the time. Legend has it that the City was originally known as Doire Calgach, after a great Celtic Warrior made it his own, and Doire Colmcille, after its spiritual founder.

Various texts refer to ‘Derrie’, ‘Derye’ and ‘Daire’ amongst other variations, with Derry becoming the accepted title around the sixteenth century. It is at this point that the waters begin to muddy and London enters the equation. The Plantation of Ulster in 1608 saw the British Crown seizing land in an effort to anglicise Ulster and create a loyal and acquiescent population here. The various lands were handed over to different guilds of British traders to develop and manage.

Today’s county of Londonderry was handed over to the London Guilds, who went on to become ‘The Honourable The Irish Society’, builders of the Walled City and all within it. In 1613, following intense investment and construction in the City, the Royal Seal was given to the Charter of Londonderry and the ‘new’ city was born.

It should be clear from this that the natives of the City were not necessarily pleased at having their land seized and taken from them by their English neighbours. The name Londonderry came to be seen as a calculated insult to remind them of exactly who was in charge of their new town.

And so it has remained, Londonderry has come to be synonymous with the pro-British, Unionist position whilst Derry has been seen as having nationalist connotations. However, it is not quite this simple, the vast majority of citizens of the City, whatever their politics, still refer to the City as Derry, at least informally.

In 1984 the Council was changed from Londonderry to Derry but the name is still a source of confusion to many. Local pundits often refer to it as Stroke City in a sideswipe at the tendency for writers to play a balancing act by referring to Derry/Londonderry. However, for many of us here the name is not really so important, to us it is just home!

Some famous views on the matter:

Brendan Behan - Brendan Behan’s Island (1962)

They are the people, too, who keep calling Derry ‘Londonderry’. That’s a name that’s not used by any indigenous Northerner, not even the Protestants, for they’d be too self-conscious. The right name for the city is Derry from the Irish Doire Cholm Chille – meaning the oak-grove of Colmkille. It got the name Londonderry from a company of swindlers that were founded in London, in the seventeenth century, to drive the native Irish off the land and to settle the place with English and Scots.

Robert Greacan - The Sash My Father Wore

The name of the city I was born in is disputed. At the time of my birth it was called Londonderry. Now the majority of its people call it Derry. If people in Ireland ask me where I was born I can, if wishing to be politic, say ‘The Maiden City’ or use the more recent coinage, ‘Stroke City’.

As a boy, from my aunts and mother I heard many a story of suffering endured by the defiant Protestant citizenry …. Derry for them – they said ‘Derry’ in conversation but used ‘Londonderry’ officially – meant Protestant Derry. History meant Protestant history.

Susan McKay - Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People (2000)

David Dunseith [a local broadcaster] had … got a call from an English broadcaster who explained that his newsroom had received a fax from an organisation called the Apprentice Boys of Derry. What puzzled them was that the Apprentice Boys of Derry were objecting to the fact that the local council had changed its name to Derry City Council. Could Dunseith explain?

Protestants have traditionally called the city Londonderry, and many who didn’t have started to do so since the council’s action. Some will point out that whereas there was a city called Doire before the London Companies arrived, there was no county, so that the county must be called Londonderry. Soldiers manning UDR checkpoints would routinely challenge drivers who said they were going to Derry: ‘You mean Londonderry?’ A response in the negative could well result in a full-scale search of the car. Coulter [a senior Boy] agreed that the Apprentice Boys called it Derry, and that he did so himself. But if he was writing, he used Londonderry. A member of the District Partnership for Peace and Reconciliation, set up after the ceasefires in 1994, told me proudly that that in their efforts to create a ‘shared city’ this had been the first problem. In the end, he said proudly, they had reached agreement. The partnership’s headed paper ended up with ‘Derry/Londonderry/Doire’, followed by the postcode.