The History of Derry's City Walls

Derry City Walls
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Derry City Walls (or the walls of Londonderry; the name, like everything in "Stroke City", very much depends on which side of the divide you see yourself to stand) are one of, if not the, most iconic urban sites in Ireland. Derry City Walls tell the story of Northern Ireland's "Troubles" in a nutshell and are rivaled maybe only by Dublin's General Post Office.

After having been closed to the public for decades, mainly due to them being an ideal vantage point for snipers and the odd stone-throw, the peace process has allowed them to become Derry's most visited attraction.

Derry City Walls in a Nutshell

Surrounding the old (and today slightly cramped) city center of Derry, the city walls are an original and astoundingly complete 17th-century urban fortification with amazing views. You will almost always look down on something, as the walls are not only high in themselves but also straddling a hill. Add to that the opportunity to literally take a walk through Irish history, as this is one of the most iconic urban sites in Ireland, with a strong connection to the history of Northern Ireland.

Having said that, the walk can be slightly depressing on wet and foggy days, when all is gray, with not much of a view.

The Derry City Walls were completed in 1618 and mainly planned as a defense of the prosperous city against Irish raiders from Donegal. They are up to 26 feet high, and up to 30 feet wide, enclosing the old merchant city (where the money was). The walls then earned their immortal place in Irish history through the defiance of Derry's Protestant apprentice boys, whose slamming of the gates in the face of an approaching Catholic army made the Walls of Derry an iconic emblem of Loyalism and Unionism.

What to Expect on the Derry City Walls

First things first: the Derry City Walls are a must when you are visiting the "Maiden City" (so-called because her defenses were never breached). Derry is not that blessed when it comes to beauty spots. Her history and the buildings connected to it make it a worthwhile visit from a tourist's point of view, not her sheer opulence.

That is, if you discount the city walls, Derry is one of the few cities in the British Isles fortunate enough to retain its complete town walls, sturdily protecting the town, burghers and (in this special case), the rule of Protestantism.

The Walls of Derry gained instant fame within Protestant circles when the town's garrison was about to surrender to King James' forces in 1688. During this episode of the Williamite Wars, the approaching army looked a sure winner, and the soldiers tasked to defend the city decided to hasten the inevitable, therewith gaining a few concessions.

Or so the plan went, until the more firebrand variety of local Protestantism took over in the shape of a motley crew of apprentice boys, who disagreed vehemently, and with a resounding cry of "No Surrender!" took charge of the already opened gates, slammed them shut again, blocked them against the enemy without and within and thus started the Siege of Derry. The Siege of Derry is one of the defining moments of Ulster and Irish history. The "Maiden City" myth, of defenses having never been breached, and honor having never been defiled by an uncouth stranger, arose.

Today you can walk the length of the walls and witness views of a still divided community, despite years of the Peace Process.

You may look down into Protestant areas that proclaim to be "still under siege" and you might see a still somewhat fortified police station almost cheek to cheek with the cathedral. An unassuming church has photographs of the destruction after an IRA bomb sent a pillar crashing through its roof. And from a battery (on which fairly recently cannons still stood), you look down on "Free Derry"—the Catholic Bogside—scene of many disturbances and the disturbing massacre that was "Bloody Sunday", when British paratroopers opened fire on a Civil Rights March.

With all this recent history in plain view, it is small wonder that few visitors seem interested in the fortifications themselves. The distinctive outline of a walled town is, however, still traceable, so take your time to do so.

The Walls of Derry are definitely recommended for a stroll into Irish history. They are generally open during daylight hours and quite safe to walk (just don't do any climbing). You may want to join a guided walk (they usually are arranged through the tourist information center) if you want more background information.