County Londonderry is one of the six historic counties of Ulster that in 1921 formed Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. These counties have been abolished as units of local government, and since 2015 Londonderry is administered in three districts: Derry and Strabane, Causeway Coast and Glens, and Mid-Ulster. Nevertheless it retains a distinct regional identity.
While the City of Londonderry is commonly called "Derry", this is less common for the county. While some people prefer to call it "County Derry" or Contae Dhoire, this article uses only "Londonderry" for the county. In 2011 the county population was 247,000.
Cities and towns
- 1 Derry / Londonderry is a fascinating city with 17th century walls and in-your-face history.
- 2 Limavady is a small market town in the scenic Roe Valley.
- 3 Coleraine is the former county town. It remains a transport hub, and has the main campus of Ulster University.
- 4 Portstewart is a coastal resort with a long sandy beach.
- 5 Castlerock is a seaside village with the eccentric Mussenden Temple and ruin of Downhill Demesne.
- 6 Magherafelt is near 17th-century Springhill House and the shores of Lough Neagh.
Glaciers scoured out fjords such as Lough Foyle then melted and sea levels rose. The coastal lowlands became carpeted by oak forest, in Irish called doire, hence "derry". Stone Age people arrived soon after, and Mount Sandel in Coleraine had settled habitation in 7000 BC - that's Mesolithic, way before the stone monuments and villages of the Neolithic Age. At the other end of the spectrum, Grianan of Aileach (whick looks as old as the hills) was occupied as late as 1050 AD, until its owners finally succumbed after centuries of nagging, and re-housed their families in nice wattle-and-daub huts like their get-ahead neighbours.
Ireland's bays and rivers were essential for transport and for fishing. A monastery was founded on the River Foyle in the mid 6th century by St Colmcille, better known as St Columba. This was the beginning of Derry city, but it was repeatedly destroyed by the Vikings. By the 12th century the Vikings were ousted from Ireland, and the new powerful tribe were the Normans, who grabbed land in the southeast and divided Ireland into shires or counties, but never gained control of the northwest. It was only in the 16th century that Tudor England was able to assert its might. Yet still the Gaelic chiefs of Tyrconnell and Tyrone held out, until routed in the Nine Years War. In 1607 those chiefs fled to Europe: mission accomplished! But it wasn't.
The last Gaelic rebellion was in 1608 by Sir Cahir O'Doherty of Donegal, who destroyed Derry. English troops poured in, killed O'Doherty and most of his men, took reprisals, and hunted down the last few rebels holed up on Tory Island. Right, let's sort this place so it stays sorted. The novel solution was to outsource Derry to a London business consortium, "The Honourable The Irish Society". The Society rebuilt Derry with stout walls, carved up the territory between their twelve leading merchant companies (in order the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Saltners, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothworkers), and populated it with loyal Protestant settlers mostly from Scotland. What had been County Coleraine became County-definitely-Londonderry-no-way-Derry, the eastern part of Ulster was similarly settled and industrialised, and the seeds of Irish partition were lain.
Those city walls enabled Derry to withstand sieges in 1649 and in 1688, when the apprentice boys famously slammed the gates against the forces of catholic King James. Over the next 200 years, Protestant control was cemented in Belfast and the east, while to the west rural Donegal became de-populated - its Catholics found no welcome, housing or jobs here so they moved on to Glasgow and North America. Londonderry therefore became a pivot as the 19th / 20th century "Troubles" escalated into the Anglo-Irish conflict and Irish civil war. The 1921 Treaty partitioned Ireland, and specifically Ulster, with Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan joining the Republic, Londonderry joining the North, and a "hard border" suddenly appearing on Derry's city limits.
The border blighted trade and development on both sides. Economic grievances and sectarian tensions simmered especially in "interface areas" such as Derry / Londonderry; the border was always resented, but what propelled Ulster into the late 20th century "Troubles" was the new dynamic of civil rights. On "Bloody Sunday" on 30 Jan 1972, British troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in Derry, who were marching against mass imprisonment without trial. How could Britain govern its own backyard in this way?
This meant that in the 1970s, Beirut, Kabul, Teheran and Baghdad were agreeable places for westerners to visit, people even walked safely on the moon, while Derry and Belfast were off-limits, blighted, dangerous. Of course many still visited for business or family, but leisure travellers averted their eyes from the moral crater of Ulster. Not until 1998 was the conflict defused by the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement has been sorely tested but has largely ended violence, downgraded the border to a mere county line, and allowed Derry to re-launch itself as a tourist destination. The uncertainty in 2021 is because Brexit has created a new border with the European Union, and the long-term effects of this remain to be seen.
Car ferries sail from Cairnryan in Scotland to Belfast and to Larne, then an hour by road brings you into the county. By road from Dublin it's usually simplest to take M1 / A1 north to Belfast then M2 / A6 west.
In summer a car ferry plies across the outlet of Lough Foyle, between Macgilligans Point north of Derry and Greencastle in County Donegal.
Train is the best public transport between Derry, Castlerock and Coleraine, with hourly trains from Belfast.
Buses on that route only run 4 or 5 times a day: Ulsterbus 134 / 234 runs from Derry via Eglinton (for Derry airport), Ballykelly, Limavady and Castlerock to Coleraine.
Buses from Coleraine run a frequent triangle to Ulster University, Portstewart and Portrush.
You need a car to explore much of the county, or be a keen cyclist. A network of national cycleways crosses the county, though they're mostly on road.
- Walled city of definitely-Londonderry, that name is what they were built to preserve. The walls are in good condition as they were only built in the early 17th century, in an age when other cities were demolishing the straitjacket of their medieval walls. The difference is that the city within was built to a grid pattern to aid defence, unlike the higgledy-piggledy alleys of other walled cities.
- Bogside in definitely-Derry lies at the foot of the walls, with Free Derry Corner and the Museum.
- Grianan of Aileach is a well-preserved ringfort. It's 5 miles west of Derry city, which means it's in County Donegal in the Republic, but easiest visited from the city.
- Mussenden Temple is an 18th century oddity teetering on a cliff-edge above Castlerock. It's part of Downhill Demesne, a ruined mansion.
- Binevenagh is the plateau rising abruptly northeast of Limavady. It's popular for rock-climbing and hang-gliding, but most visitors just drive up for the view.
- Beaches: most of the coastline is sandy beach, with resort strips at Portstewart, Castlerock and Benone.
- Lough Neagh is accessed from Ballyronan marina near Magherafelt.
- Gaelic games: Derry GAA play football and hurling, with their usual home ground at Celtic Park in Derry. There are 40 GAA teams across the county.
- Year-round soccer: can you stand the excitement? Derry City FC play in the Republic's League of Ireland, which is April-Oct. All the other teams in Northern Ireland (such as Coleraine) play in the NIFL Aug-April, same as the season in England, Scotland and Wales.
- Northwest 200 is a motorbike race held in May on a triangular on-road circuit between Coleraine, Portrush and Portstewart.
- East to County Antrim for the big tourist attractions of Bushmills, Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Bridge.
- South to County Tyrone for the Ulster American Folk Park and prehistoric sites around Cookstown.
- West to County Donegal and indeed north: these Atlantic-dashed headlands of the Republic of Ireland extend further north than Northern Ireland. The last outpost is the island of Inishtrahull, nowadays uninhabited.