A wonderfully engaging lecture on the history of Derry was presented at The Playhouse on Tuesday evening in memory of late historian, Annesley Malley.
Mr. Malley, an adopted son of Derry, died last year, and the inaugural Hill of Derry lecture series, presented by The Holywell Trust, was given in his honour.
During the talk the audience learned that Derry was once home to the High Kings of Ireland; was probably totally destroyed by fire circa 788AD; how tourism was used as early as the 1500s to develop the city; how the name debate raged for hundreds of years before the plantation; that it was the centre of Gaelic clan disputes for some 2000 years; and that the most important man in the history of Derry is largely anonymous!
The lecture was delivered by the eminent Dr. Brian Lacey, a personal friend of Mr. Malley and CEO of the Discovery Programme, historical research centre.
Dr. Lacey said delivering the lecture, entitled, ‘Derry Before Londonderry’, was a particular honour. He said Annesley had carved himself out as “an evidence man”, winning respect for his ability to churn up fresh evidence on the plantation and the history of Derry.
Opening his lecture to the packed auditorium, Dr. Lacey courted controversy suggesting that the two things Derry was famed for, its foundation by St. Colmcille and the Seige of Derry, never actually happened.
Dr. Lacey provided evidence that a settlement here predated Colmcille while the Seige, he argued, was technically a blockade.
“We live in the first planned city in Ireland and it reflected Roman military encampment designs.”
Those audience members lucky enough to secure a ticket heard how the blueprint of the newly-built Derry some 400 years ago was also similar to Vitry le Francois. Except, argued Dr. Lacey, for one distinct difference - the freshly laid out straight street plans were adapted to incorporate the crooked stretch along Magazine Street.
This, argued Dr. Lacey, was due to a long existing pilgrimage along that route to the site of the Long Tower Church. This route was later used in an attempt to develop Derry in the 1500s by Manus O’Donnell, who died in 1563. Religious pilgrimages were often used, stated Dr. Lacey, as a driving force of economic development in the middle ages.
This was thought to be evidence that those planters who were building a new city on the Hill of Derry were not totally unaware ,and unaccomodating to existing religious practices, or as Dr. Lacey stated, the “issues of the past”.
The Long Tower site, however, was probably not the original monastic church site in Derry, according to Dr Lacey, who suggested instead the site on which St. Augustine’s Church now stands.
The earliest mentions of Derry in the Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Ulster, dated 535 and 545AD, were probably written in the 12th century, he continued.
The entries do, however, show how the name of Derry was confusing long before the first planters. Among the historical recordings of the name there existed many variations beyond Stroke City -Doire Calgaigh, Daire Coluim Cille and Dairi Chalgaigh among them.
References to Derry in the Annals refer to a fire in 788 and then all mention of the town we love so well “disappears from record for 100 years so it is possible that it was totally destroyed by fire,” suggested Dr. Lacey, adding that no mention of the cause of the blaze is recorded.
Dr. Lacey suggested that Derry was then subsumed into the territory of what is now Inishowen. In fact, it was to be the 12th century before local history was to heat up again, chiefly when Donal McLaughlin, “the epitomie of a ruthless medieval leader”, claimed power over Derry and most of Donegal, Derry and Tyrone.
He was effectively the High King of Ireland and referred to himself as such. This would, it was suggested, make Derry the capital of Ireland.
Incidentally, pointed out the academic, Donal’s 891st anniversary was yesterday, on February 9. The first McLaughlin to rule Derry died aged 73 in 1121.
A short time later in 1134 the first named woman in Derry’s history is mentioned, Bebhinn inghm Mic Cunchaille. She was the daughter of Brian Boru and her death was recorded.
Then we enter the period of Flaithbertach Ua Brolcháin or “the most important man in Derry’s history”, according to Dr Lacey.
Fla’ actually carried out the first piece of town planning in Ireland when he separated secular housing (by tearing down 80 homes) from the ecclesiastical part of the settlement, before building a wall around the church.
Having founded the Church of Templemór, Fla’ was, said Dr. Lacey, appointed head of all Columban Churches and is commemorated in the book ‘The Middle Life of Columbkille’, a sermon delivered every June 9.
It was under Fla’ that Derry in the 12th century became a literary centre, producing works such as the long lost Gospel of St Martin.
The first mention of a Doherty occurred almost 50 years after Bebhinn when the death of an Aindiles Ua Dochartaigh was recorded in 1180.
Touchingly Dr. Lacey said modern Anglicisation of Aindiles could perhaps be read as Annesley.
Further attempts to make Derry a ‘modern’ city were made in the 1300s by the Burkes of Greencastle. Their most notable legacy is perhaps the famous skeleton on the City’s coat of arms, that of Walter De Burgo (though that in itself has been the subject of some controversy).
The O’Donnells attempted development followed in the late 1500s but then, said the academic in 1566, the Hill of Derry was captured by the English and Derry became Londonderry. Well, sort of . . .