With the exception of St Brecan’s Church, which was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, none of Derry’s medieval buildings survive. There are no maps or drawings to go on and the Annals don’t give detailed descriptions.
We do know, however, what the principal buildings were called and the position of some features like St Columb’s Wells. From evidence elsewhere in Ireland, we also know what these buildings may have looked like.
For example, we know that from the fifth century the focus of the settlement was a monastery, associated with St Columba. This would have been built of timber like all of the other monasteries on the island. For obvious reasons all of these are gone but a number of high crosses and reliquaries indicate what they looked like. Monasterboyce Cross, in Co. Meath, is a good example. It shows decorated crossed timbers at the end of the roof and the heavy timber columns to the side.
By the tenth century, such buildings began to be replaced in stone and builders copied the form of the timber predecessors which now had a symbolic meaning. The tomb of the founding saint at Banagher is a well preserved miniature example. It shows the steeply pitched stone roof and projecting side walls found in surviving churches.
At Banagher, the main church ruin, dating from around 1100, shows the influence of Roman architecture on the island for the first time. The inside of its doorway is a round headed arch while the exterior is a flat headed opening with inclined side walls in the traditional manner. Over the next 100 years this developed into the ‘Romanesque’ style with doors of increasing sophistication flanked by many columns and round headed arches.
The Annals record that, in 1155, a new door was made for the ‘Tempaill’ in Derry. This would have been a sophisticated feature in the Romanesque style. At the time, the local king, Muircertach MacLochlainn, was bidding to be the High King of the whole island. The abbot of the monastery, Flaithbertach O’Brolchain, was also recorded as ‘successor of Columbkille’ for the first time (This was a title previously reserved for the abbot of Kells in Co Meath).
These were, therefore, ambitious times for the city. It is to be expected then that this door was an impressive feature reflecting such high status. Clonfert Cathedral, in Co. Galway, has the most impressive Romanesque door to survive on the island. It would not be far fetched to suggest that the Tempaill door was something similar.
In 1157, Muircertach was present as High King at the dedication of Mellifont Abbey, in Co. Louth. This was one of the first Cistercian houses in Ireland and imported continental European monks and building techniques. It marked a significant change in scale for Irish church building.
Seven years later, the Tempull Mor, or Great Church, was constructed in Derry. By this time, Muircertach was High King ‘without opposition’ and it is likely that this new approach was adopted for the main church of his capital. The early parts of Mellifont are now gone but Boyle Abbey is a similar Cistercian church, commenced in the same year (1162), and gives some idea of this type of building.
In 1167, Muircertach died leaving a power vacuum behind him. Rory O’Connor of Connacht became the High King. An era had ended.
But what about the Long Tower? Like Templemore, this was a building important enough to give its name to a later part of the city. It is shown in 1600 on the first known map of the settlement and was a typical round tower with four floors indicated by slit windows and a conical stone roof at the top similar to the one which survives at Devenish in Co. Fermanagh.
There is nothing now left of this building, bar its name, that can be positively identified today. However, if you visit the bottom end of the City Cemetery, you can see a miniature replica. Over the grave of a former mayor is a tall round tower built as his memorial. He clearly was a man who valued his city’s long history.
This article and drawings are taken from a forthcoming exhibition and book on the city called ‘Marks of Time: The buildings of Derry~Londonderry’.
The project looks at how the city’s buildings reflect its history. It will run in The Playhouse, Artillery Street, from June 10-18 and later in the year at the Millennium Forum.
The accompanying book will be published by the Guildhall Press.
The project aims to support the City of Culture and is sponsored by Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service, the Inner City Trust and The Honorable the Irish Society.
Entry to the exhibition is free.