Derry or Londonderry?

Londonderry/Derry is the 2nd largest city in Northern Ireland, second only to Belfast yet whether it is called ‘Londonderry’ or ‘Derry’ by residents of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has a lot to do with politics, religion and heritage.

Checkmate Clans and CastlesIn my book, Clans and Castles, the first book in the new historical Checkmate series, I refer to the city—then a village—as Derry. The name was originally Daire—pronounced as Derry—and though it was Anglicized, the original Gaelic name meant “grove of oak trees.” Here is an excerpt from the book describing its early history:

For five hundred years, the village had basked in its wild remoteness; while the rest of Europe had been engulfed in the Dark Ages, it had remained the peaceful and picturesque site of a monastery. Saint Colmcille himself had begun it in 521. The son of an Irish princess from Leinster and a father whose family had captured Saint Patrick and brought him to Ireland as a slave, Colmcille was said to have bridged two worlds. He was a member of the O’Neill Clan, one of the largest and most powerful clans in all of Ireland, and also a devout man of God and follower of the Catholic faith yet he somehow managed to achieve respect and reverence by both the Celts and the Gaels as well.

The land had been given to him, and although the O’Neill Clan held vast territory east of Derry, the monastery was situated on the west bank at the junction of the O’Donnell and O’Doherty domains. It was, perhaps, a gift from the O’Donnells to maintain peace between the two clans, which was often a tenuous peace at best, more often than not giving way to treachery and war.

No longer a monastery, Sir Henry Docwra had set out to change its history and was now considered the founder of the spirited village that had sprung up in its place since the English had begun her colonization of Ireland. From all accounts, after a dubious beginning, Docwra had fallen in love with the country and had striven to make Derry the jewel of the island; a lively port village and bustling trading post, it was a routine stop for journeys heading further west.

As the book unfolds, Docwra—having fallen out of favor with the English monarchy—was replaced with Sir George Paulet, a man who despised the Irish and who ruled Derry with hostility and discriminatory practices. He also coveted the land to the west of the village—land that had belonged to the O’Doherty Clan for more than a thousand years and that was ruled by Cahir O’Doherty. Cahir had come to power as a mere teenager when his father passed away and he was only 23 years old at the time my ancestor, William Neely, arrived in Ulster. He had been known as “The Queen’s O’Doherty” for his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth I, and he had married an Englishwoman, Mary Preston.

Paulet was determined to drive O’Doherty off the Inishowen Peninsula and had sent troops many times to O’Doherty castles, where they attempted to establish residency. Cahir had appealed to King James I, who had issued an edict that the Inishowen Peninsula was to remain in the hands of the O’Doherty for his loyalties during the Nine Years War, but Paulet ignored it. Finally, in April of 1608, Cahir had had enough. He had been humiliated in public by Paulet, an occurrence that he considered worse than death, as he was an honored soldier and king and had been knighted in his teens by Queen Elizabeth herself.

Cahir burned all of Derry to the ground, sparing no building, and killed Paulet. It touched off O’Doherty’s Rebellion and would make Cahir the last of the Gaelic Irish Kings.

After the Rebellion, there was no money in Ireland to rebuild Derry so the settlers—English and Scots—appealed to London. Largely funded through private donations as well as the monarchy, Derry was rebuilt and in 1613 was renamed “Londonderry” to honor those in London who had funded its resurrection.

Today those with ancient Irish roots, predominantly Catholics, continue to refer to the city as Derry. Those of English and Scottish descent, predominantly Protestants, refer to the city as Londonderry. On maps, it is frequently shown as Londonderry/Derry and in typical Irish fashion it is also nicknamed “The Slash City”.

It has been the site of much strife between the Unionists (those in favor of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom) and Loyalists (those loyal to one united Ireland). I am currently writing the second book in the Checkmate series, in which once again Derry is the site of fighting. During the 17th century, my ancestors defended it from attack during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 as well as during the Siege of Derry in 1688.

View the book trailer for the first book, Clans and Castles: