Ripe for Improvement



As anyone who has watched Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls will be aware, the city above the river Foyle has had a tumultuous history in recent decades. However, as the television series demonstrated, despite multiple and often appalling tragedies, both Derry and her people have survived with their distinctive character intact. The core of the city is defined by her walls, built 1613-19 by the Honorable The Irish Society, a consortium of London livery companies given responsibility for this part of the country by the English government in the aftermath of the Nine Years War; hence the name Londonderry. Although besieged on a number of occasions, most notably in 1689, Derry’s walls were never breached nor were they demolished, as tended to be the case throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries when such defences were deemed no longer necessary. As a result, Derry is the only intact walled urban settlement in Ireland. The walls run approximately one mile in circumference and, depending on the terrain beyond, vary between 12 and 26 feet in height. Today in state care, a walkway runs along the walls which project out at eight points for bastions, platforms on which cannons were placed: that shown immediately above is one of a pair made in 1642, this one provided by London’s Fishmongers’ Company and nicknamed Roaring Meg.



Derry enjoyed great prosperity during the 18th and 19th centuries. The port flourished, and the city also became one of the centres for industry, particularly shirt making; at its height some 18,000 people – predominantly women – were employed in this sector. Evidence of the city’s wealth throughout the period can be seen in the many houses then built, many of which survive. The two above are 19 and 20 Magazine Street, so named because the former stands on the site of what was once a gunpowder store, or magazine. The house dates from c.1840 and is of five bays and three storeys, although the ground floor breaks with the upper levels by being of only four bays, with the doorcase off-centre. Since the street slopes, the latter is approached by a short flight of stone steps, and is set inside a shallow arch, the door flanked by Ionic columns and pilasters and below a wide fanlight, its glazing bars taking the form of arrows. The house’s immediate neighbour, No.20, although smaller (just two bays) was evidently built at the same time.


The houses on Magazine Street look to be in good condition, but the same cannot be said for a number of properties on Pump Street, which runs just below St Columb’s Cathedral; the street’s name derives from the town water pump once located here. A substantial stretch of the side, Nos. 10-14 is taken up by a three-storey, seven bay building of red brick. It dates from 1780 when opened as the King’s Arms, or County, Hotel but in 184o the building was purchased on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishop and eight years later became the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, remaining in this order’s hands until some 15 years ago when sold. Along with its immediate neighbour No.16 (also once part of the convent complex) it now stands empty and looks to be in poor condition. The doorcase is similar to that at 19 Magazine Street, approached by a flight of steps, with the space usually reserved for side lights filled with wood panelling, although in this case the order used for the door is Doric rather than Ionic. A second, plainer door to the right marks what would have been the hotel’s carriage entrance. Other buildings along Pump Street look similarly vulnerable to dilapidation, not least 26-28 which greet all visitors leaving the grounds of St Columb’s Cathedral.



‘The Belfast Bank of 1853 is one of Charles Lanyon’s most confident Renaissance Designs, high and massy like a Genoese palazzo, only three windows wide and three storeys high but big in scale with a rusticated central archway surmounted by a Corinthian aedicule so large that it erupts into the attic window of the floor above, like Gibbs’s pediment at King’s College, Cambridge.’ (from The Buildings of Ireland: North West Ulster by Alistair Rowan, 1979). Shipquay Street is one of Derry’s most important thoroughfares, providing access into the walled city from the banks of the Foyle. The former Belfast Bank stands immediately inside the gates and is likely to be one of the first buildings seen by anyone entering Derry. The Foyle Civic Trust’s Living City Project reported it vacant in 2005 and 15 years later nothing seems to have changed.
Derry is a city with an enviably rich architectural heritage, but one which of late appears to have been badly neglected. In the Diamond, for example, which stands at the centre of the city, is the now-shuttered Austin’s, which until its sudden closure in March 2016 could claim to be the world’s oldest department store. The building on the site, an example of Edwardian baroque at its most exuberant, now looks in poor repair, and despite a restoration application being lodged in April 2017, nothing seems to have happened here. A similar tale can be told across the historic core with many buildings standing empty and in poor condition. But Derry Girls has shown the resilience of the city, and at the start of a new decade one must hope that the years ahead will bring fresh opportunities for improvement to conditions here. Below are photographs of either side of Bishop’s Gate, a triumphal arch erected in 1789 to commemorate the centenary of the city’s siege. Designed by Dublin-based architect Henry Aaron Baker and faced with ashlar Dungiven sandstone, it features panels containing martial trophies and, in the keystones, faces of river gods: that facing outwards represents the Foyle, the inwards the Boyne. Anyone familiar with the Custom House in Dublin will recognise these, as in both instances they were carved by Edward Smyth.


4 comments on “Ripe for Improvement

  1. This was a very well-crafted post, absorbingly informative and entertaining in equal measure, with your usual emphasis on giving credit where due, identifying craftspeople and architects, and employing Classical terminology with a lightness of touch that can never be disparaged as pedantic. I wonder, though, at that particular shade of blue on the doors, inexplicably ubiquitous in London itself, and whether its corresponding appearance in ‘Londonderry’ might have a cultural component.

  2. sam burnside says:

    very apposite article

    the pictures alone tell a story – “if stones could speak” indeed

    a little bit of loving care and attention much needed

  3. James Canning says:

    Great piece, and photos.

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