What’s in a name? It’s complicated

Emma Cownie
7 min readApr 17, 2022

The name of the city I am living in right now is contentious.

It’s official name is Londonderry but no one here seems to call it that, not even the council. Most people in the city itself, Protestants as well as Catholics, call it Derry. This suggests it is more of a contentious issue outside the city that in it. In 1984 the council changed its name council changed its name from Londonderry City Council to Derry City Council.

Generally, nationalists/Republicans/Catholics/the council and locals favour using the name Derry, whereas, wider afield, unionists/Loyalists/Protestants use Londonderry. Derry is also in the County of Derry or, as it is known offically, and mainly by Protestants, Co. Londonderry.

A suggested compromise dual naming of “Derry/Londonderry” (read “Derry stroke Londonderry”) has given rise to the jokey nickname “Stroke City”, as popularised by the local radio and television broadcaster, Gerry Anderson. When the city was made UK City of Culture for 2013 and the organising committee’s official logo read “Derry~Londonderry”. Another attempt to circumvent controversy is to call it “L’derry” or “L-Derry.

Walled City Sign

You will also see the city refered to as “The Walled City” or “The Maiden City”.

This last name alludes to the city’s having resisted capture in the siege of 1689. The walls were never breached.

The closer you get to the city the more likely roadsigns for Londonderry will be “altered”. There have been requests by a local politician to have signs which have include both Derry and Londonderry, but they have so far gone unheeded. To the south of the river, I have seen signs with Derry crossed out so they nonsensically read “London”.

The opening credits from Channel 4’s Comedy popular show “Derry Girls”, starts with a “Welcome to Londonderry” sign being graffitied as an army patrol passes by. “Derry Girls”, which is now on Netflix, is set in the city in the 1990s before the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement. The city walls also feature at the start of the first episode. The local council, Derry City, however, is at great pains to be inclusive. In a recent film about the city’s History and Heritage they labelled it “Everyone’s City”.

Just as an aside, there are many towns and cities around the world called Derry (10) and Londonderry (9). In New Hamphire, USA, both a Londonderry and Derry next to each other.

So where did the two names come from? You might assume that Derry is just a shortened form of Londonderry but that is not so. The name Derry existed long before that of Londonderry (and for much longer). The name of the settlement on the banks of the River Foyle, was originally called Doire from Daire Calgaich (oakwood or oak grove of Calgach) where a christian monastery was founded by St Columba in the 6th century. This actually is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland.

This oak grove was located on a small hill which was formerly an island in the River Foyle. The river which flowed past the western side of that island gradually dried out leaving a marshy, boggy area. In time this area became known as the Bogside (for more on the Bogside see here).

Early map showing the River Foyle flowing around the island of Derry and creating the Bog to the west of the walled city (from the Museum of Free Derry website.)

By the 11th century it was known as Daire Coluimb Chille (oakwood of Columba). In late Medieval times the name had been shortened to just Doire, and was later anglicised to Derry. (You can read about Derry’s Medieval History here). In 1604, the fortified settlement of “Derrie”, had recently been taken over by the English, was granted its first royal charter as a city and county corporate by James I of England.

So that seems pretty straight forward.

Well, no.

At the start of the 17th century this settlement was partly destroyed by the Irish and then rebuilt by English and Scottish settlers as part of the James’s Protestant plantation (or conquest) of Ulster.

This was organised by The Irish Society, a consortium of the livery companies of the City of London. They built massive stone and earthen fortifications around their new city. It was the last walled city built in Ireland and the only city on the island whose ancient walls survive to this day.

In recognition of the London investors, an 1613 charter stated “that the said city or town of Derry, for ever hereafter be and shall be named and called the city of Londonderry”.

Thus, the walled city of Londonderry was mainly a creation of the Protestant plantation. The name itself Londonderry, in the eyes of some, Catholics mainly, represents English (and British) Imperialism.

The walls, remarkably, are still owned by The Honourable The Irish Society. They put the walls into formal government guardianship in 1955. This means that the state looks after the walls but doesn’t own them.

Map of Derry city walls from https://discovernorthernireland.com/

Derry’s walls are a massively popular tourist attraction. In 2019, 466,000 people took the mile-long walkway around the inner city. The walls are massive and in excellent condition. The greenish grey stone, is called Derry Schist, and it came from local quarries to the South West of the city on the far side of the River Foyle from a place called Prehen.

Map of the area around the city
Map of the Walled City in C17th from https://www.ria.ie/digital-atlas-derrylondonderry

The walls are just under a mile in length and they varies in width from between 12 and to 35 feet. I am still learning the names of the gates and streets of the city. When it was first built, there were four gates — Bishop’s Gate, Ferryquay Gate, Shipquay Gate and Butcher Gate. These were later rebuilt and additional gates cut into the walls — Magazine Gate, Castle Gate and New Gate (you can read more about the gates here). It’s a relatively easy walk to do for a fit and abled bodied person.

The Wall near Magazine Street, photogrpahy by Emma Cownie
Derry Walls — acrylic painting by Emma Cownie

The walkway along the top of the walk is paved and wide, although it does underdulate in places.This is especially true where gates were later inserted into the walls. The main problem for those with mobility issues would be the steps up to the walls and some sections on the west end have a lot of steps along the top, but the good news is that there are two sections of the walls that have ramped, step-free access, so sections of the wall are accessible, just not all of it. I have seen many families with prams on sections of the walls.

Map of the Walled City taken from http://www.backpacksandbunkbeds.co.uk/ireland-2/view-historic-derry-city-walls/
Steps over Bishop Gate: Photography by Emma Cownie

It took me over an hour and a half to walk a complete circuit. It should be borne in mind that I was meandering at a snail’s space, taking photos and enjoying the view. On day trips to Derry, in the past I have just walked along the section near the Foyleside Shopping Centre and the big Primarks, rather than doing the whole loop.

There are some great views:

View to the north from the city walls towards the Bogside, photography by Emma Cownie
Wall near Ferryquay Gate: photography by Emma Cownie
Magazine Gate and the Guildhall, Derry, photography by Emma Cownie

Derry is famous for its murals (here’s a pictorial tour of some of them here). So, it is very appropriate that Channel 4, who made Derry Girls, commissioned a mural of the Derry Girls right next to the walls.

Derry Girls Mural, seen from the city walls, photography by Emma Cownie

It’s an incredible piece of art. It is a tourist attraction in its own right. The popularity of the vibrant show has really helped popularised Ireland’s northern most city, Derry.

Emma Cownie is an artist living in Derry and Donegal. This was originally published on www.emmafcownie.com



Emma Cownie

Landscape painter. Inspired by light and colour. Living in Derry & Donegal. www.emmafcownie.com