Derry - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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To a stranger sailing up Lough Foyle to-day, the view of the Maiden City, rising so majestically above its waters, will long be a cherished memory. It is not easy to realise that a British officer sailing over the same waters in 1567 found nothing on the site of the present city but a deserted monastery of Augustine monks. Its fame in early times was chiefly ecclesiastical. In the Annals of the Four Masters it is called Derry Columbkill, after St. Columb, who built a monastery here in 546 A.D., and who, from the number of churches he built, obtained the addition to his name of “ceille” or “kill”—that is, of the “cells” or “churches.”

The ancient name of Derry was Daire Calgac, which signifies the oaks of Calgac, or the territory of oaks pertaining to Calgac. Ireland was in those days the genuine country of the oak, and so we have many places called by the oaks; as Derry-ar, Derry-lane, Derry-beg, Derry-more. So abundant was the oak timber in our island in former times, that it was exported to the Continent for shipbuilding and many other purposes, and we have it on good testimony that Westminster Abbey is at this day roofed with our Irish glen-wood oak. The glen-wood or coppice where the best oak was produced lay in the south-eastern parts of the County Derry, from Maghera to beyond Bellaghy and Magherafelt, and, near Desertmartin,—the so much celebrated royal oak claimed as a privilege by some of the Georges.

It was in 1567 that Colonel Randolph, an English officer, was sent from Bristol to the aid of Sir Henry Sidney, the Deputy, to suppress the rebellion of Tyrone. He had a rough and stormy passage, and did not reach Lough Foyle for fourteen days. As he sailed up to Derry his keen eye was struck with the formation of the ground for defence, and he considered the site well suited to build a colony. Soon afterwards he fell in battle, and his men had a trying time. They had pitched their camp on the grounds of the old monastery, and the men were sleeping over the graves of the monks. Many were stricken with serious illness, and the death-roll was heavy. The troops were removed to healthier quarters, and for a time the plan of building a colony was deferred, but not forgotten. Years afterwards Queen Elizabeth wrote impatiently to Lord Essex: “How often have you resolved us that until Lough Foyle and Ballyshannon were planted there could be no hope of doing service to the rebels.” This was, however, at length attained by Sir Henry Dockwra, with a force of 4,000 foot and 200 horse. On the 16th of April, 1600, he landed at Culmore, and six days after took Derry without opposition. Sir Henry thus describes the city: “A place in the manner of an island, comprehending within it 40 acres of land, whereon were the ruins of an old abbey, a bishop’s house, two churches, and at one of the ends of it an old castle; the river called Lough Foyle encompassing it on one side, and a bog most commonly wet and not easily passable, except in two or three places, dividing it from the mainland.”



The following description of the first or original town will be of interest. Sir Henry Dockwra stated he employed “the two ships of war with soldiers in them to coast all along the shore for twenty or thirty miles, and willed wheresoever they found any houses they should bring away the timber and other material to build withal, and O’Cane having a wood lying on the opposite side with plenty of grown birch, I daylie sent some workmen with a guard to cut it down, and not a stick of it but was well fought for. A quarry of stone and slate we found hard bye, cockle shells to make lyme we discovered infinite plentie in a little island at the mouth of the harbour. With these helps, and the stones and rubbish of the old buildings we found, we set ourselves wholie to fortifying and framing and setting up houses such as we might be able to live in.” Dockwra’s town of Derry was built in 1600, before the Plantation of Ulster. It had a short life. Eight years afterwards it was burned down by Sir Cahir O’Doherty, and its English Governor (Sir George Pawlet) and the garrison were put to the sword by the young chief of Inishowen. It was in January of 1609 that a project for the division and plantation of the escheated lands in six several counties of Ulster-namely, Tyrone, Coleraine, Donegal, Fermanagh, Armagh, and Cavan-was issued. It contains a schedule of the lands to be divided, county by county, and definitely stated the scheme of allotment to the undertaker, the servitors, the natives, and the church. Chief Justice Ley and the Attorney-General, Davies, conferred with the King and Council, with the result that the orders and conditions to be observed by the undertakers were published in March, 1609.

The largest division of land, corresponding somewhat to a barony, was styled a “precinct,” which was divided into proportions of three sizes. The “great” proportion contained 2,000 acres; the “middle,” 1,500 acres; and the “small,” 1,000 acres. Sir Arthur Chichester, the Deputy, one of the great proconsuls in the age in which he lived, had got a firm grasp of the main principles that underlay and were to guide the Ulster settlement. An equality of estates that would not give excessive power to any one person, but such as to induce men of influence to spread their fortunes on their lands, was of prime importance. On 29th January, 1613, the Irish Society was formed, and received its charter in the March following, granting the city or town of Derry, with a circuit of three miles round from the centre of the town, to be a county in itself; the lands in the west of the Foyle, containing about 4,000 acres, besides bog and mountain, which were to be regarded as waste acres, belonging to the city. The walls were required to be finished, and for this purpose a grant of £5,000 was made in 1615. The whole barony of Loughinshollin, with the great woods thereon, Was added to their territory. 4,000 acres were taken from Donegal and 3,000 from Antrim to form the liberties of Derry and Coleraine respectively, both towns being under the control of the Irish Society. The little county of Coleraine thus enlarged became the modern county of Londonderry.

The total number of houses built from 1609 to 1629 to restore the ruined city of Derry, exclusive of the Bishop’s and Dean’s, was 110, the cost of which was £13,450, and in addition a sum of £14,000 had been expended for fortifications and other matters within the city. In consequence of the dilatory conduct of the city of London in carrying out the stipulated improvements and plantation of Ulster they were cited in 1635, and condemned by the Star Chamber to surrender their charter received from James I. In 1641, King Charles I. expressed regret for what he had done, and gave orders to restore the Company their estates, but the massacre of 1641 soon after broke out, and his wishes were not carried into effect. It became an object of the insurgents to seize the city of Derry, but the plot was discovered, and Derry became the chief refuge for the English and Scotch settlers. The city was put into a state of defence. The twelve companies sent each two pieces of ordnance, which, with the twenty placed in battery some years before, constituted a sufficient force to resist the fury of the rebels. Upon the termination of the rebellion, commissioners were sent over to settle affairs and demise leases, renewing all the leases in Deny and Coleraine, and upon the restoration of Charles II. letters patent were formally granted upon 10th April, 1662, confirming the charter of James I. in a full and explicit manner.

For some years there was comparative peace and quietness in the city till 1688, when the great event occurred which has rendered the name of Derry famous in history. The siege furnishes one of the brightest instances of patriotic heroism that is to be found in the annals of any nation. The defence began on the 7th of December with the closing of the gates by the ’Prentice Boys against the army of Lord Antrim, and lasted until the 30th July following against a powerful and well-appointed army of French and Irish soldiers. The heroic defenders, under the immortal Walker, were frequently brought to the verge of starvation, but nothing could subdue their spirit. Their fearless watchword, “No Surrender,” was proudly given to every summons, till at length the expected succour arrived, and the army of King James II. having failed to prevent it, raised the siege, and retired from Derry immediately after. On the famous walls, not far from the north-western bastion, a monument was erected to Walker in 1828 by public subscription. This brave defender of his city did not long survive the siege. Clergyman though he was, he met a soldier’s death, and fell fighting at the battle of the Boyne. Had he survived, his appointment to the Bishopric of Derry was certain; indeed, Tillotson in his letter to Lady Russell states that the King (William III.), in addition to his first bounty of £5,000, had made him Bishop of Derry; but it is more than probable that he had only obtained the promise of succeeding to the vacant See upon the death of Dr. Hopkins, which event took place just three days before Walker was killed.

Since those early days many generations have been born and have lived and died in the Maiden City, but the old spirit of chivalry has never died, and many of Derry’s gallant sons, now sleeping their last sleep in the battlefields of Flanders and France, went over the top with, on their lips, the old war-cry of “No Surrender!”

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