Until the mid nineteenth century, local posties were faced with a conundrum when delivering letters addressed to people in the village of Muff.
It was a case of too many Muffs spoiling the postal run, because at that time Derry had two neighbouring villages sharing the name - one in on the west bank of the Foyle which we all know and love as Muff, Co Donegal and another - perhaps less well known these days - on the east bank.
Thanks to a visit to Muff in the Faughanvale parish by a Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1858, the confusion was abruptly ended and postmen could finally get on with their businesses without the hassle of having to figure out which correspondence was bound for which particular village. It was the residents of the Muff now located in the northern side of the border which decided once and for all to end the correspondence chaos, supposedly because they had taken just about enough of their letters and parcels going astray. And it wasn’t only to Donegal that the letters were, as the villagers put it, being “mis-sent” - another Muff, located in County Limerick was also receiving mail intended for the Derry village and no doubt correspondence from its Donegal namesake as well.
The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Faughanvale Parish, which were compiled around 1835, noted: “The village of Muff is sometimes called Grocers’ Hall from the company on whose manor it is situated. It is frequently confounded with another Muff, on the opposite shore of Lough Foyle, and this identity of names is a source of inconvenience in directing letters.”
And so on Tuesday, August 17 - when Sicilian-born Etonian and staunch Tory politician, Archibald William Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton and Wintoun and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, steamed into Derry on the Enniskillen train to much fanfare - the population of the Faughanvale village prepared to make their big request. Indeed contemporary reports seem to indicate that it was more of a plea than a request when, two days later, almost the entire population of Muff appealed to the viceroy to lend his name to the village so that forever more it would be known as Eglinton.
The reason for the viceroy’s visit was to view Templemoyle Agricultural Seminary which had been opened in 1827 to educate young farmers and improve farming practice. Most of the college was demolished after its closure in 1866 and the one remaining wing is now a nursing home. It was at the college and in the presence of a “distinguished circle” of lords and knights of the British realm, that the villagers’ proposal - signed by 140 inhabitants - was put to Queen Victoria’s representative on the island of Ireland.
The ‘Journal’ of August 25, 1858 recorded the address of Reverend John Conroy, the Curate of St Canice’s Church.
“May it please your excellency - we the undersigned inhabitants of the town of Muff, Derry and its vicinity beg leave to tender to your Excellency our most cordial welcome. Your visit to this part of the country gives us an opportunity of soliciting a favour which, if granted, will be highly appreciated. It will always be considered a distinguished honour if our town instead of bearing the name of ‘Muff ‘shall for the future bear the name of ‘Eglinton’. Many reasons might be given for our desiring this change. One may be mentioned, the great inconvenience arising from our letters being very frequently mis-sent to another post town in Donegal, bearing the same and also to Muff in the Co Limerick. By condescending to comply with our request, this inconvenience will be remedied - a high honour will be conferred on our town, and a lasting memorial will be left of your Excellency’s visit to the north.”
The viceroy’s reply was music to the ears of the villagers and was met with cheers, according to the newspaper report. “His excellency in reply, said he was flattered by the request of the inhabitants of Muff, and was happy to accede to it. He was thankful for the kind reception he had received from all classes and he was happy to think that, near Derry, a town called by his name would bring him to their remembrance when he would be away. (Cheers)”
A centenary plaque commemorating the name change is located at the bridge leading into the village on the Coolafinny Road. The plaque reads: ‘This plaque commemorates the centenary of Eglinton 1858-1958 previously known as Muff 1611-1858’.
In his book ‘Historic Eglinton - A Thriving Ornament’, Derry Genealogist Brian Mitchell argues that Eglinton is an “appropriate” name for the village as it is derived from the place name of Eglinton in the district Cunningham, Ayrshire, Scotland where Archibald William Montgomerie hailed from. Mr Mitchell explains that it is particularly apt as “Ayrshire was the original homeland of many Scots who settled in this area in the mid to late 17th century”.
According to Mr Mitchell there is “no doubt” that the village of Eglinton owes it charm to the improvements introduced by the Grocers’ Company in the 1820s. “Between 1821 and 1834 the company spent £51,154 on its estate and received £55,143 in rent. Clearly the Grocers’ Company wanted to create a showpiece.”
The Lord Lieutenant’s visit to the tidy Grocers’ village in 1858 was only somewhat incidental to his visit to the North West where his primary task was to officiate at opening of the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland’s annual showpiece.
The ‘Journal’ of August 19, notes the great celebration in the city: “It is seven years since the Society’s last exhibition in Londonderry.” It further describes the transformation of the city for the show and the great influx of visitors. “Described as we Hibernians have the liberty of expressing it, the residents of Derry are now principally strangers. An immense concourse have flocked into the city from all points of the compass . . . Most distinguished of all, we are honoured with the presence of the Viceroy himself.”
His visit to Templemoyle Agricultural Seminary, where the Journal noted that “not a weed” could be found, was also well documented in the local press. The ‘Journal’ of Wednesday, August 25, states: “At Muff most of the inhabitants were assembled to greet his Excellency, and over the road was suspended a white flag having the words ‘Welcome Eglinton’ inscribed upon it. Over the entrance to Foyle Park, through which his excellency passed, also appeared a flag bearing the name ‘Eglinton’ and above this floated the British and American flags.”
The mention of the flying of an ‘Eglinton’ flag in the above report may well be interpreted as an indication of the confidence of the villagers of being granted the new name they longed for. As it turned out, such confidence was by no means misplaced because August 19, 1858 became an historic day for the village formerly known as Muff. Both local villages could now also look forward with confidence in terms of receiving their letters on time.