Historian Michael Sheane, who lives in Antrim, goes on a whistle stop tour of some of the highlights of 18th century Derry.
In 1700 the population of Derry was estimated at 2,850 people, but by the end of the 18th century it had risen to about eleven thousand.
The overwhelming majority in the town, particularly in the early decades of the century, were Protestants, for Derry was a colonial town, a society governed directly or indirectly by the Penal Laws. Catholics and other non-conformist groups were placed under severe legal pressures.
With the easing of the penal laws, it was decided the time was right to build a Catholic church just outside the city walls in what was to become known as the Bogside. The great church of Teampeall Mor, completed in 1164, had stood in this place, but it was long gone. Work started on Long Tower in 1783, and it was to be extended and improved in the early years of the 19th century. In the years before it opened, Mass was held in the local priest’s house or in the shadow of the hawthorn tree which marked the site of Teampeall Mor.
Contributions to the Long Tower came from the Protestant Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey, as well as from local Protestant people.
Bishop Hervey is, of course, one of the great personalities of the time in the North-West, a leading public figure of the day and one opposed to sectarianism and intolerance. It has been said that he brought the Enlightenment to the city.
Bishop Hervey was a great traveller, a rich man who was a collector and builder. The ruins of his house at Downhill, around twenty miles from Derry, can be visited, and some objects associated with him can be seen in the city. Part of his legacy to the city is the first bridge over the river Foyle, a wooden structure completed in 1790. There were unkind suggestions that his interests were entirely personal for on his travels away from Derry he was likely to be one of the bridge’s greatest users. He spent around half of his 36 years as Bishop out of the city, and didn’t set foot in it for the last 13.
Revolution was in the air towards the end of the century, with the French Revolution beginning in 1789, but when the rebellion of the United Irishmen came along in 1798 Derry firmly in the government camp. The city also held supporters of the Act of Union in 1801.
The founding of the Derry Journal in 1772 was an important event for the city, producing a more detailed record of what was happening locally.
One of the events it reported on during its early years was the 100th anniversary of the Siege of Derry. It seems that in the years after the siege commemorations were spasmodic and fairly low-key. That changed as the centenary approached. The first burning of Lundy was in December 1778. In that year and the following there were significant commemorations, and they involved the town dignitaries and local clergy, including the Catholic bishop and priests. At that time the ‘Glorious Revolution’ as seen as a blow against tyranny which brought liberty to people of all Christian denominations.
There are many descriptions of Derry in the 18th century, most quite favourable. The famous Irish philosopher George Berkeley was appointed to the lucrative post of Dean of Derry in 1824, holding the position as an absentee. Visiting Derry he saw that it was in a most agreeable condition, although situated on marshes. The traveller, Arthur Young, visited Derry in the 1770s and said that the city was a travellers’ ‘ must ‘, with its fine Georgian buildings.