A Guided Tour of Derry, Northern Ireland

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As I spend more time in Ireland I find myself searching for more stories and striving to have a personal connection to an area. One of the best ways I have found to do this is to hire a private guide. Whether you hire a driver guide for your Ireland vacation or an individual guide for a short tour, it adds an element of  personalization to your Ireland travels.

Northern Ireland, with over 1500 years of history, is a perfect example of a location well suited for a private tour. During our time in the north we took a guided tour of Derry, and it was one of the highlights of our week.

Gleann Doherty, owner of Derry Guided Tours, led us along the city walls, narrating the history of Derry in a way that both engaged my daughters and intrigued my husband, a keen historian. As we left the city walls and entered the Bogside, the city's story spread on the muraled buildings before us, Gleann  proved quite adept at sharing the turbulent times of The Troubles with young listeners in a way that piqued their interest but didn't delve too much into the terror of the period.

Below Gleann shares a story of an interesting turn on a Derry walls tour, as well as a bit of his own background. All accompanying images are my own, taken during our tour with Gleann. I can't recommend him highly enough for when your Ireland travels take you to the wonderful city of Derry.

The Story of a Guided Tour of Derry

Ok, so I've been sitting here trying to figure out how to begin this tale for 15 minutes and I haven't figured it out yet so I've just started typing. I received a request for a tour of Derry's walls by an American couple just before Christmas 2016. Nothing new there you might think, given that I am a tour guide, but it is their story that panned out during the tour that I found most interesting. I thought that this story would be an interest to the Irish-American community and the different reasons that people have for coming to Ireland.

A Little About Gleann

I would like to introduce myself first of all. My name is Gleann Doherty (Gleann O’Dochartaigh) and live in Derry City, Ireland. I am a tour guide/historian and have been since 2013. I now run my own tour guide company, Derry Guided Tours, in the city since 2015. I have a BA Honours Degree Irish History and Politics from the University of Ulster, Magee, graduated in 2013 when I was 42 years old, a late starter as they say here. I conduct tours around two areas of Derry that are steeped in history: The Derry Walls walking tour, the content of which I will go into later and the Bloody Sunday- Bogside murals walking tour. This tour deals with the more modern history of Derry and Ireland, but focuses mostly on The Battle of the Bogside, Civil Rights period, and Bloody Sunday in Derry on the 30th January, 1972. It is in this massacre that my own father was murdered, Patrick Doherty aged 31. The tour brings you through some of the worst periods of the conflict but also into the brighter era of the peace process and better times ahead.  (Other tours available include County Donegal and the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim Coast.)

But anyway, I had a tour booked for the week just before Christmas.

I had a tour booking for a Derry Walls walking tour by an American couple from Utah; they had booked their tour the week before and I was hoping that it wouldn't freeze in the mean time. We met at the Tower museum in the city centre as arranged. We exchanged names again and what we were going to see and do and how did I pronounce my name, was it ‘Gleen or Gle-ann’, happens all the time (it's pronounced ‘Glenn’ named after Glenn Cambell the singer by the way.) Just before we began the couple asked did I know where the windmill is in Derry? They had asked a few people but nobody seemed to know and I told that I did know where it was and that I could take them there as part of their walking tour and they were delighted so off we went and on to Derry’s walls for their tour.

I explained to them that we would be covering around 1500 years of Irish history on our 90 minute tour and do a complete circuit of the city walls, 1.4 km. They had a pretty good knowledge of Irish history and had also researched their own family history before hand. The tour began with St. Colmcille, an Irish Prince turned monk who set up a monastery on the island of Doire (Derry) in the year 546 AD before moving on to Scotland to spread the word of Christianity to Britain and Europe. As we walked the only fully walled city in Ireland the topics moved on from the Nine Years War and the invasion of Ulster, the last Gaelic stronghold in Ireland, the Plantation of Ulster from around 1609. The Plantation of Ulster is not the American idea of a plantation but a replanting of English and Scottish Protestants brought over to Ireland and Ulster in particular to repopulate the area that had been cleared of native Irish; this is where most Unionists-Protestants in Ireland get their roots from. Derry and it’s walls were the main stronghold for the Plantation.

Ferryquay Gate, Derry, Northern Ireland. Ireland travel tips | Ireland vacation | IrelandFamilyVacations.com
Ferryquay Gate, one of 4 gates in the Derry city walls.

Derry’s walls were built in 1613-1618 and controlled the main waterway into Ulster, the river Foyle which flows though Derry splitting it in two. As we passed over the 4 original gateways I explained their names and how they came about, Bishop’s Gate, which is where the Church of Ireland Bishop resided, Butcher Gate, where the butcher’s shops were situated, Ferryquay Gate, the gate used to go get the ferry across the river Foyle, and lastly Shipquay Gate, were the ships would tie up at the quay just outside the gate. Then we had a discussion on how the word ‘quay’ is pronounced we say ‘key’ as were my American friends pronounced it ‘kwee’, but we over came our difficulties and moved on to a new topic, The Siege of Derry 1689.

Cannon on the Derry City Wall, Northern Ireland. Ireland travel tips | Ireland vacation | IrelandFamilyVacations.com
Cannon sit atop the city wall of Derry, a reminder of the Plantation of Ulster.

The Siege of Derry would play a huge part in the Unionist tradition’s history. The Siege of Derry was fought out between the Catholic King James II and the Protestant King William III, Prince of Orange (this is where the Orange Order gets it’s name.) King James II was attempting to get his English throne back from William III who had replaced James on the English throne. The siege became the longest siege in Irish and British military history lasting 105 days- but you will have to visit Derry and take a tour to find out who won. As we rounded the top of the walls at St. Columb’s Cathedral going towards Bishop’s Gate and after revealing Derry’s connection to the American Declaration of Independence, I informed them that to see the old windmill we had to leave the city walls and walk down Bishop’s Street outside of the walls.

At the site of the old windmill, which is in the grounds of the old St Columb’s college, my guests informed me as to why they wanted to see the windmill. They said that their ancestors, 2 brothers, fought at the Battle of Windmill Hill during the Siege of Derry 1689. The 2 brothers were of Scots Presbyterian stock and the family had come to Ireland during the Plantation period of the early 1600’s. The old windmill, of which only some of the base walls still survive, was a strategic piece of high ground close to the walled city and was fiercely fought over on 2 separate occasions. As far as I can recall the brothers left for America after the siege ended with at least one of them becoming involved in politics in Texas. After these revelations we stepped back on to the city walls, passing Derry gaol, to the Double Bastion over looking the Bogside were we resumed our tour.

Free Derry Wall, the Bogside, Derry city, Northern Ireland. Ireland travel tips | Ireland vacation | IrelandFamilyVacations.com
The Free Derry Wall as you enter the Bogside.

High up over the Bogside area of Derry I gave my captive audience a short explanation of the recent conflict here in Ireland and the part that Derry played in it. We briefly covered the Partition of Ireland, creation of the Northern and southern states, and the consequences of partition, the sectarian discrimination shown to the native Irish Catholics in the 6 north eastern counties that remained under British rule after partition. We discussed the Civil Rights period around 1967 and the influence that the American Civil Rights movement had here in Ireland. I then explained the white gable wall that stands in the Bogside known as Free Derry Wall/Corner with the slogan ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ and the slogan’s American origins. We also talked about my personal connection with Bloody Sunday, a connection that my visitors were not aware of. As we made our way down hill we passed along the Apprentice Boys Hall and The First Derry Presbyterian Church, it’s beginning, destruction, and rebuilding again, as well as the Penal Laws in Ireland and Presbyterian or Scots-Irish emigration to America.

As the tour came to an end back at the Tower Museum I thanked my now American friends for sharing their family story and history and they thanked me for sharing the history of Derry and Ireland and for filling in some blanks as to why the two brothers had left Ireland for America. I realized after we had parted ways, that as we had come full circle on our tour, that history had come full circle also. The 2 brothers that had left Ireland for the New World some 330 years ago, their relatives had returned to Ireland, Derry, and the windmill to get answers as to why the 2 brothers had left in the first place, completing the circle. This is why I love history, taking an event some 330 years ago and following and piecing together the events that lead back to modern times and meeting the relatives who had completed the circle.

So folks, if you have come this far in this story I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as enjoyed writing it. I've really enjoyed recalling the events of the day and relaying them to yourselves, where ever you may be. It’s a small world as they say. Go raibh maith agaibh.

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A Guided Tour of Derry, Northern Ireland 

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