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AAA World Article

Derry Transformed

Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland, has moved from a no-go zone for tourists to a must-visit destination.

By Kathleen M. Mangan


Kayaking under the Peace Bridge spanning the River Foyle in Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland, takes a long time because you find yourself putting your paddle down often to take photos of your changing perspective on this massive engineering marvel. The two white angled structural spikes of the pedestrian bridge crisscross like a massive good luck wish for the city’s future. And it seems to have worked.

Derry, Ireland
Paddle boarding on the River Foyle.  
Photo Courtesy of Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Opened in 2011, the Peace Bridge connects the mostly Unionist “Waterside” with the largely Nationalist “Cityside” and has been a catalyst for shared community development between the formerly polarized communities. The suspension bridge curves in each direction as it crosses the river, much like the winding path to peace. This modern-day icon of hope is constantly used by locals and visitors, and it’s visible from vantage points across the city day and night.

From Riots to Renaissance
Positive reminders are good in a place where there is still living memory of civil unrest. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of what became known as the Troubles. During the pivotal year of 1969, the Bogside community declared itself Free Derry, the three-day Battle of the Bogside developed from a parade demonstration, and the British Army was first called in to assure civil authority. It’s also the year that Derry native John Hume was elected to the Northern Ireland Parliament. Decades later, he brokered the 1998 Good Friday Agreement where all sides agreed to new Northern Ireland governance, winning the Nobel Peace Prize with politician David Trimble.

Derry, Ireland
The walls are visible from the Bogside neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of Northern Ireland Tourist Board

President Bill Clinton said in a 1995 speech in Derry, “The time has come for the peacemakers to triumph in Northern Ireland.” When he returned in 2014, he walked over the Peace Bridge with Hume and remarked to an assembled crowd, “You have inspired the world.”

Today, Derry-Londonderry (commonly called Derry) is a renowned cultural hotspot that earned a place on Lonely Planet’s 2013 Top 10 Cities list. The upbeat energy here is palpable as historic buildings are renovated, new businesses focus on tourism, restaurants crowd the waterfront, and festivals draw visitors from around the globe. Here, we explore five keys to the city’s transformation. 

Promote Culture First
Derry’s rich legacy in music, literature, poetry and art helped it earn the UK government’s first City of Culture title in 2013. The Peace Bridge played a role, as the parade grounds on the Ebrington Square former military site across the river from the city center were tented to host the biggest concerts and events. The cultural designation and 140 impressive events during 2013 helped Derry forge a new identity and put it on the international tourism map.

Derry, Ireland Halloween
Derry is renowned as one of the world’s best Halloween destinations.
Photo courtesy of Northern Ireland Tourist Board

The city continues to impress with a variety of entertainment at the Millennium Forum; performances at the refurbished Playhouse Theatre; and festivals such as Imbolc International Music Festival in February, City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival in May and the Walled City Tattoo in November. Derry was named the Best Halloween Destination in the World by USA Today in 2015, and it now attracts 40,000 people in costume over the six-day festival. A highlight of Derry Halloween is the Awakening the Walls illumination trail with 40 different creepy experiences dramatized by special effects and performers.  

Showcase Unique Assets
Derry is the only completely intact walled city in Ireland and is among the finest examples in Europe since the walls were never bombarded or breached in battle. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the completion of the walls, and planned cultural events throughout 2019 incorporate the massive fortifications and 24 original cannons.

Derry, Ireland
Derry's 400-year-old walls are completely intact and walkable.
Photo by Kathleen M. Mangan

Once closed to the public, the one-mile wall circuit rising to 26 feet is typically busy with walkers enjoying the panorama of the city center, surrounding hills and waterfront. It’s the perfect place for costumed history interpreters and walking tour guides to tell stories of the British Plantation of Ulster, the colonization effort starting in 1609; emigration; the shirt factories making it one of the biggest shirt producers in the world at one time; the U.S. base in World War II and the Troubles.

Bishops Gate Hotel, Derry, Ireland
Gate Hotel
Photo courtesy of Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Views from the wall also reveal the landmark architecture inside the old city that appeals to new business owners. Two hotels opened in historic buildings—Shipquay Boutique Hotel in 2015 and Bishop’s Gate Hotel in 2016, which won the AA (Automobile Association) 2019 Northern Ireland Hotel of the Year.  A Norman stone tower hosts the Tower Museum, housing artifacts from the 1588 Spanish Armada shipwreck of La Trinidad Valencera.

Embrace Your History
Derry has a compelling story to tell about conflict and redemption. Eyewitnesses and family members on both sides of the Troubles reveal their stories on walking tours through neighborhoods, past symbolic wall murals, through cemeteries and in museums. It’s one of few places in the world where you can learn about a modern-day conflict on such an intimate human level, and the drama and lessons resonate with tourists.

Derry, Ireland

Photo by Kathleen M. Mangan

An exhibition in the neo-gothic Guildhall completed in 1890 explains that the roots of the Troubles date to the 17th century, when deposed British King James II, a Catholic, tried to re-gain his throne by getting a stronghold in Londonderry. The Protestants swarmed inside the city walls, and the subsequent long siege was broken by the Protestant forces of William of Orange. Commemoration of the siege victory became a flashpoint for conflict 300 years later. 

The Siege Museum, opened in 2016, explains this event in an effort to change perceptions and build tolerance for different traditions in the community, says Director Stuart Moore. The Museum of Free Derry, expanded in 2017, explains the Troubles with a focus on Bloody Sunday, a 1972 incident when a protest march turned deadly. Jean Hegarty, a museum guide who lost a brother on that day, says justice was finally served in 2010 when a second inquiry into Bloody Sunday resulted in an apology from then-British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The People’s Gallery of 12 outdoor murals on gable walls along Rossville Street in the Bogside add dramatic interpretation to events over three decades. Although there are some stark images of people in gas masks with petrol bombs painted between 1993 and 2001, the Bogside Artists created a new peace mural of a dove in 2004. In 2006, they revised the “Death of Innocence” mural to symbolically break a gun barrel in half and add a butterfly of hope.

Derry, Ireland
Mural of leader Bernadette Devlin is one of 12 in the Bogside.
Photo by Kathleen M. Mangan

Food Knows No Alliances
Although political tourism has devotees, great food has universal appeal and is a major tourism draw here. The locavore/artisan food trend has captured Derry’s dining scene as the economy has recovered. Case in point is the award-winning Walled City Brewery in Ebrington, the first craft brewery in the city in over 100 years.

Co-owner James Huey left Derry for Dublin, where he worked for Guinness and married a Dubliner. When the couple saw new opportunities developing in Derry, they moved back to start a business that combines their passion for craft beer and food. Walled City Brewery, opened in 2015, was named Best Gastropub in Ireland in the 2017 All-Ireland Irish Restaurant Awards and Most Atmospheric Restaurant in Ireland in the 2019 Georgina Campbell Awards. Ten small-batch brews are on offer, with tasting flights so that you can choose favorites. “When customers leave here, they’re arguing about beer rather than politics,” Huey says.

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Other restaurants earning top awards for all of Ireland include Primrose Strand Road, Browns in Town, Browns Bonds Hill and Pyke ‘N’ Pommes. Further showcasing the city’s best chefs and artisanal producers are the Made in Derry Food Tour, LegenDerry Food Festival in March and Slow Food Festival in October.

Fun Is Infectious
Waterloo Street is Derry’s compact version of Dublin’s Temple Bar area, making it easy to pub-hop. Peadar O’Donnell’s anchors the district with nightly music, while Tracy’s Bar, Dungloe Bar and Castle Bar compete for pint-lifting pub-goers. Traditional music sessions are a big draw here, packing the pubs with an appreciative, foot-tapping audience. Musicians sit in the front corner, the fiddle player starts a jig or reel, and the other musicians jump in as the tempo builds to a crescendo.

Derry, Ireland
traditional music session
Photo courtesy of Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Periodically, a singer will belt out a ballad while the pub silences in respect. But when someone sings Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well” about Derry, everyone joins in, and there are tear-filled eyes around the room. This sentiment is something everyone can agree on. It is another—and perhaps more profound—bridge to peace.



This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.

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