Exploring the secret history of Derry's Walls

Thousands of visitors flock to Derry each year to stroll along the city's historic walls but most remain unaware of the fabled history of the secret tunnels deep within these broad imposing structures.

According to some historical sources, the passages facilitated secret meetings designed to save the city during the 'Forgotten Siege' of 1649 as the English Civil War battles between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians raged across Ulster.Now there are calls for the tunnels to be opened up to the public as an historical tourist attraction, writes Ian Cullen

A Spanish-trained elite soldier ghosted into the besieged city through a secret passage, aiming to strike a deal with the enemy and be rewarded with essential supplies for his weary comrades-in-arms.

Readers may be surprised to learn that the daring incursion was not a Spanish Civil War operation or a covert Axis mission during WWII but rather a dangerous liaison in Derry at the height of the English Civil War and just weeks ahead of the blood-drenched Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland.

Having returned from the brutal battlefields of the Eighty Years War - where he commanded a Spanish garrison against the forces of the Dutch Republic - the revered General Owen Roe O'Neill was entrusted with the northern command in the Irish rebellion which exploded on to the pages of history in 1641 and would later grip the city of Derry.

The outbreak of civil war between the mostly Catholic Royalists and the Puritan Parliamentarians in England complicated the rebellion, not least for the local chieftain whose sole desire was to rid Ireland of all English planters.

After the execution of Charles I in early 1649, O'Neill backed the Royalist Scots planters and laid siege to Derry which was garrisoned with troops loyal to the English parliament under the control of Sir Charles Coote, Lord President of Ulster.

However, during the 'Forgotten Siege' - with the Parliamentarians locked in the city - O'Neill found himself and his army isolated and in dire need of supplies after refusing to join other Gaelic Irish armies in siding with the dethroned King Charles II who commissioned additional force for the Derry's besiegers.

The legend goes that, in highly dangerous circumstances, the general was spirited through the hidden tunnels inside Derry's walls for crisis talks with Coote and that subsequently - although temporarily - he gave his allegiance to Derry's Parliamentarians with dramatic consequences both for his bedraggled soldiers and the besieged city.

Peter Campbell, of The Honourable The Irish Society, believes the fabled secret passages were "an important method of communication" and a key factor in the survival of the city and its inhabitants at that turbulent juncture.

"On August 8 1649, Owen Roe attacked his former allies in the siege force and drove them off to the delight of the city inhabitants. Sir Charles Coote formally thanked O'Neill and provided him with much needed supplies.

"The passage is very much a part of Derry's history and should be opened up as a tourist resource - everyone loves a secret passage," he added.

Mr Campbell has traced his family roots directly to the architect of the historic walls Peter Benson. "He was brought over to Derry by The Honourable The Irish Society in 1625 as a master builder and was responsible for the building of the city's walls. I traced it quite easily using Burke's landed gentry. I keep an eye on those walls," he said.

Great tourist potential

Several years ago Mr Campbell asked the city council why the passages had not been opened up. "They told me 'somebody is buried there and we can't disturb them'. I regard that as just an excuse, I think it would be terrific to have it opened up - it would have great tourist potential.”

A spokesperson for the archaeological department at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency - the body responsible for the preservation of the walls - confirmed that the tunnels have been documented through the centuries.

She explained that a group of what was originally thought to be the ‘siege tunnels’ were exposed in the late 1960s during works at the old YMCA at East Wall. The passageways were later re-opened during the construction of the Millennium Forum. However, examination of the tunnels showed that they were, in fact, cellars with documentary evidence suggesting that, rather than relating to the siege, they almost certainly dated to pre-1629.

She explained: “This particular group consisted of 12 narrow, barrel-vaulted cellars, some of which were well-preserved while others were in a ruinous condition.” These cellars are now protected under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995, although access to them is no longer possible.

Tunnels or cellars have also been reported in many other areas of the city, such as Shipquay Street, Bishop Street and the Diamond, although NIEA has never had an opportunity to access or study these.

The spokesperson added: “If tunnels or cellars do exist, they are likely to be mostly in private ownership and in variable condition, making it difficult to open them up for public access. If The Honourable The Irish Society has further information on any tunnels associated with the walls, NIEA Built Heritage would be delighted to receive this and incorporate it into our Monuments and Buildings Record.”

Sally-port

One tunnel which NIEA is currently looking at making more publicly viewable is the Sally-port which runs through the walls in the area of St. Columb’s Cathedral.

“This tunnel is very much connected with the history of the sieges but was bricked up some years ago for safety reasons. NIEA and Derry City Council have recently been giving consideration as to how this important part of the history of the walls can be made more accessible for the public and would hope to address this issue in the near future.”