For any visitor to Derry-Londonderry, there’s a historic presence.

Tour guide Martin Crossan smiles for the camera. For locals and visitors to the Walled City of Derry-Londonderry, his face is very familiar. Beside him, though, is an even more familiar face: actor Will Ferrell

Cannon along the city walls of Derry-Londonderry
Cannon along the city walls of Derry-Londonderry

Will Ferrell felt it; UK singer Susan Boyle felt it; the Governor of the Bank of England and Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan felt it, too.

For any visitor to Derry-Londonderry, there’s a historic presence. To understand what it’s all about, it’s best to ask Martin.

 “The walls of Derry-Londonderry are one of the most unique sets of walls on the island of Ireland. They’re one mile and an eighth around and, amazingly, they’ve never been breached since they were completed.

“You won’t get building like that these days!”

To find the original builders of the walls, you’d have to jog back quite a while into the past – 2013 will mark their 400th anniversary. If the walls could talk...

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A sense of history

“Walking the walls you feel a real sense of history,” says Martin. “You can let your mind wander and imagine what it must have been like all that time ago. Opposing armies were brutally besieging the city and people were starving to death to protect their homes.”

Protect it they did, and considering the condition of the walls today, they did a fine job. There was help, though. It came in the shape of stocky little cannons, dappled around the mile or so of the walls. They’re picturesque now, but 400 years ago, when they were used, they would have been more fearsome.

Gates to the city

It isn’t just the cannons that add interest to a walk along the walls, there are also the "gates", which were named for very practical reasons. There are four main gates into the city: Shipquay Gate, Bishops Gate, Ferryquay Gate and Butcher’s Gate. Mark Lusby, project coordinator with the City Walls Heritage Project, is passionate about the history of the walls, and the gates’ origins in particular. Their names are a portal into a difference slice of history, each with fascinating stories.

Take Butchers Gate: “Butchers Gate is likely to have arisen from the fact that the beast market for the new City of London-Derrie was located right outside this gate, and the butchers set up their stalls right inside”, explains Mark. “Interestingly the Beast Market, which was clearly shown in 1622 maps of Derry as being located just outside Butcher’s Gate, stayed in that location until redevelopment in the 1960s, when the Rossvillle Flats were built on the site.”

Point of Pilgrimage

And if you thought Croagh Patrick was Ireland’s foremost place of pilgrimage, you’re in for a surprise. Mark Lusby again:

“Remember that the present-day public square [or Guildhall Square] just outside Ship Quay Gate was once the quay at which the 12th C medieval pilgrims from all over Ireland and Scotland landed to do the Turás Cholmcille in honour of St Columba and the quay at which the 17th C Londoners landed their materials to build the Plantation City of London-Derry, 400 years ago this year!”

Huge cannon, tales of war and starvation, saints, devout pilgrims, clandestine gates and solid chunks of history – Derry-Londonderry IS the walls.

As Martin McCrossan tells us, he’d like it to stay that way: “The walls of this city are the best asset that the city has here for 400 years and hopefully for many more centuries.”

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