The great and the good of Derry remembered


The Journal’s Laurence McClenaghan examines the people behind the blue plaques

The Ulster Historical Circle erect the small monuments; “In honour of men and women who have made significant contributions to the advancement of ideas and the benefit of society, particularly in such fields as the arts and sciences, industry, religion, sport and public and community service.”



The voluntary, not for profit organisation was formed in the 1980s to fill what was believed to be a gap in the celebration of our history, the kind of history that all can share.

In order for an individual to be commemorated by a plaque they must be deceased for at least 20 years, or have been born over 100 years previous to the erection of a plaque.

A number of factors stand out, firstly that Derry is indeed a small place as the plaques are grouped quite closely together; there are three on Bishop Street (inner), one close by on the Verbal Arts Centre, two on Shipquay Street/Bank Place, two on Lawrence Hill and one at Magee.

Two of the nine plaques are also dedicated to former Foyle College boys.

The most glaring fact however is that all the plaques in Derry come due to achievements, feats and works completed OUTSIDE the town.

Each person commemorated left the place of their birth in order to make their own significant contributions to society.

Strikingly it would seem that the old addage ‘You’re never recognised by your own’ is true.

George Berkeley

George Berkeley was appointed Dean of Derry in 1724 and a blue plaque on Bishop Street (within) isn’t the only commemoration of his sizable contribution to philosophy, theology and charity.

The City of Berkeley, California, USA and its University are named after the Kilkenny man, as was a library at Trinity College Dublin. Berkley’s image has even adorned Irish postage stamps.

Born March 12, 1685 into a noble family young George was educated at Trinity where he later lectured in Greek. It was however his work on optics and the theory of light, vision and the perception of them that brought him to prominence. The central argument of his work was that an object must first be perceived in order to exist: ‘Esse est percipi’ - to be is to be perceived. That is, no physical matter exists without first being perceived in the mind.

In his later years Berkeley stated the medical benefits of pine tar, an antiseptic, in two extremely popular texts.

The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states Berkeley was “one of the great philosophers of the early modern period.”

It was only after much travelling that Berkeley joined the church in 1724. The Dean of Derry later became the Bishop of Cloyne in 1734. While Bishop he addressed the social and economic problems of Ireland as he saw them.

The former Dean of Derry died in 1753.

Cecil Frances Alexander

Hymn Writer Cecil Frances Alexander is perhaps best known for penning the hymns, ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful,’ ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘A Green Hill Far Away.’

She was an avid hymn writer and her three best known pieces, which remain popular today, were published in her 1848 collection, ‘Hymns for little Children.’

Alexander’s hymns have graced Church of Ireland song books since the early 1940s. Little wonder the poet and lyricist married a Church Of Ireland minister, later Bishop William Alexander in 1850. Bishop Alexander became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland and the Derry man brought his Dublin born wife to the city in 1867.

Born in Eccles Street Dublin to an Army Major, John Humphreys and Elizabeth Reed, Cecil Frances wrote songs from an early age.

A well intentioned lady the profits from ‘Hymns for little Children’ were donated to the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Strabane. She was noted as having often helped the sick and the poor in the local community.

Mrs. Alexander was a member of the ‘Oxford movement,’ that is the ‘Catholicism’ of the Church of Ireland, the doctrine was said to have strongly influenced her lyrics. In fact her works are lauded for making religious beliefs understandable to children. Considered by many as one of the finest female hymn writers, she is credited with writing over 400 hymns. ‘Hymns for Little Children’ has been republished scores of times around the world.

Her other works include The Lord of the Forest and His Vassals, An Allegory (1847); The Baron’s Little Daughter and Other Tales in Prose and Verse (1848) and Moral Songs (1849).

Mrs. Alexander died October 12, 1895 most likely due to a stroke.

The plaque to her memory is on the former Bishop’s residence, now the Mason’s Hall, Bishop Street.

Joyce Carey

Such has been the contribution to literature, Derry author Joyce Carey, has in fact two blue plaques to his name. One where he was born at Bank Place, Derry, and another at London’s Parks Road, which was home to him, his wife Gertrude and their four sons.

Regarded as one of the major novelists of his day, Carey, was born to a land owning family. The wealthy Careys had long collected rents from lands on Inishowen, but as their fortune dwindled following the Land Act of 1882, Cary joined the Colonial Service.

It was while under their command that he gained the life experiences, such as travelling Africa, which coloured the prose and narratives of his later works.

Carey was wounded in World War One serving with a Nigerian regiment which was fighting in Cameroon. Africa features heavily in his works as does Inishowen. In particular ‘Castle Corner’ and A House of Children.’

It is however 1939’s ‘Mister Johnson’ which was best received and is still on taught on some school cirriculums today.

Having originally trained as an artist in Edinburgh and Paris the themes of liberty, creativity and are constants in his art.

George Farquhar

The leading dramatist of his day, George Farquhar was born in Derry. The exact location and date of his birth is unknown, he was born either in 1677 or 1678.

Like many young Derry men since, George was forced to leave the city before he found greatness. Having previously worked as an actor for a brief period in Dublin’s Smock Alley where he stabbed a colleague in an unfortunate stage accident.

The unfortunate actor recovered unlike Farquhar’s acting career, however his writing blossomed from that accident. His debut effort ‘Love and a Bottle,’ premiered in 1698.

While writing for the stage Farquhar was also commissioned as a recruitment officer for the army and the play ‘The Recruiting Officer’ followed in 1706. Its success was outstripped by what is widely regarded as his finest work ‘The Beaux’ Stratagem’ in 1707.

Farquhar was denied a chance to enjoy the success as he died less than two months after its debut.

‘Stratagem’ was written while Farquhar was ill, in the preface, he even apologises for his illness and in particular any ‘faults’ caused as a result.

The phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” is attributed to the playwright.

A plaque commemorating his works was unveiled at The Verbal Arts Centre.

Sir Henry Lawrence

Former Foyle College pupil, Henry Montgomery Lawrence, was in fact born in former British colony, Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon.

The Lawrence family history is steeped in British imperialism. Lawrence Hill is in fact named after the wealthy tribe.

Aged a mere 16 years old Henry sailed to India where he joined the Bengal Artillery.

Later described as a ‘soldier saint’ Lawrence served in the Burma, Afghan and Sikh wars. A series of strategically important posts in Ferozepore, Nepal Lahore and The Punjab followed.

Lawrence later established a network of schools to care for the children and orphans of British Soldiers serving in India.

At the unveiling of the plaque an emotional tribute to Sir Henry was paid by Derek Gaw, chairman of the Northern Ireland branch of the Old Lawrencians’ Association, who said: “The compassion and understanding of the needs of the homeless orphans of British soldiers in India motivated Sir Henry and (his wife) Lady Honoria to set out to provide shelters for the children’s basic care and education.”

To commemorate that contribution to education, a statue of Sir Henry stands outside Foyle and Londonderry College Junior School, the family name of Lawrence is also one of the houses at the school.

On a headstone in the Residency graveyard of the Indian city of Lucknow, an epitaph confines the last words of the 19th century British colonial administrator to history. “Put on my tomb only this,” it reads, “Here lies Henry Lawrence who tried to do his duty.”

Henry Bettesworth Phillips World reknown impresario, HB Philips, as he was better known, is the second past pupil of Foyle College to be commemorated with a blue plaque.

Though born in Athy, Co. Kildare on 23 December 1866, he won a scholorship as a boy soloist in St. Columb’s Cathedral in 1877. While in the city he attended Foyle College for three years.

In 1890 he set up his ‘Piano and Music Salon’ in Marlborough Street, but it was his ‘Beethoven House’ shop on Shipquay Street for previous generations would have remembered him. The shop had the largest glass window in Derry, if not the country. At least that was the case until the antics of two visiting sailors led to it’s ultimate demise.

Perhaps father of two, Phillip’s greatest achievement was in bringing the most celebrated talents of the time to Derry.

In 1923 he acquired the Carl Rosa Opera Company and ran it until his death in 1950, during which time it provided most of the opera heard outside London.

Phillips was awarded a CBE two years before his death on March, 19, 1950.

A plaque to Phillips stands at the site of his former shop on Shipquay Street.

A memorial to him and his wife also stands at St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, London.

Martha Magee

Though born in Lurgan, Derry is the site of Martha Magee’s greatest act. Following her death in 1845, Martha, the widow of a Presbyterian minister, bequeathed £20, 000 to establish a theological school for Presbyterian minstry.

Over 150 years later the school is still expanding, in short it has proved a remarkable legacy.

After mucgh work, Magee College opened in 1865 and accepted students from all denominations.

The plaque was unveiled in February 2008. The then Pro Vice-Chancellor and Provost, Professor James Allen, said: “Without the generous contribution of this remarkable woman the College would never have been built.”

The donation by Mrs. Magee paved the way for the success that the University of Ulster enjoys at the Magee campus today.

Kathleen Coyle

Again like many of those on the list novelist Coyle had to leave the city before her greatness was acknowledged.

Coyle was born in 1886, the family lived on Bishop Street but moved after a fire destroyed her homestead. Further tragedy was to follow when, it is reported, due to her fathers heavy drinking the family were forced to leave their Glendermott House home.

Spells in Dublin, Liverpool, London, Paris, where she counted James Joyce among her friends, and New York followed.

As did work with the Labour movement, the suffragettes and an ill-fated marriage to a Charles O’Meagher.

With two children to support the resourceful and talented Derry mother turned to literature to make ends meet. Her work rate was little short of prolific. Between 1923 and 1942 she penned more than 20 novels, the best known of which is likely 1929s ‘Liv.’ In it Coyle draws on her experiences as an ex-pat but it is perhaps 1943s ‘The Magical Realm’ that will be of most interest to local readers.

In one of her final works Coyle recalls her memory in Derry at the turn of the century and is widely regarded as some of the finest Irish literature of this century.

Norah McGuinness

A blue plaque hangs on the building of 18 Lawrence Hill, in the shadow of what is now the Foyle Arts Building to Derry painter and illustrator, Norah McGuinness.

Born in 1901 Norah went on to exhibit works around the world and every major art collection in Ireland features one of her paintings.

Norah was said to “see everything and miss nothing” when it came to her paintings.

A certain semi-abstract style pervades the work of Ms. McGuinness

In a long distinguished career she also illustrated books by W. B. Yeats, designed window displays for shops, namely Altman’s, New York and Brown Thomas, Grafton Street for over thirty years, and sets for the Abbey and Peacock Theatres.

At the prestigious Venice Biennale she was one of the Irish representatives and her paintings were later exhibited in London, Dublin, Belfast, New York, Monaco, Derry and Paris.

Norah was as well travelled as her works, having studied in London and Paris, she later settled in New York before returning to Dublin to live during the First World War.

In 1957 she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. In 1980 she received an honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin. She died at Monkstown Hospital, Dún Laoghaire, on 22 November 1980.

Two further Derry men have been commemorated by the Ulster Historical Society, the achievements of John Mitchel and James Murray are noted in Belfast and Newry.

John Mitchel

Irish nationalist hero, journalist and author, John Mitchel was born near Dungiven on November 3, 1815.

The lifetime works of Mitchel are commemorated by a plaque in Newry. It was there the man who was to become an accountant for the Irish Republican Brotherhood and founder of the United Irishmen newspaper was educated.

An early member of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association he encouraged farmers to withhold rents during the famine and later came to the belief that Ireland should be independent from England.

Mitchel’s Nationalist views earned him 14 years ‘transportation’ to Australia for treason. He eventually escaped Oz and travelled to the United States. Strangely he became a voice for the continuation of slavery and the Southern states during the US Civil War. His outspoken believes earned him a second jail sentence in America.

Mitchel was elected MP for Tipperary (1874) after his return to the country of his birth. The Nationalist figure head who had escaped Van Diemans died at Dromalane House on March, 20, 1975.

Sir James Murray

Milk of Magnesia was invented by a Derry man. Sir James Murray was from Culnady, County Derry. He established a surgery in Belfast where his fluid magnesia treatment proved a hit. Murray also became Inspector of Anatomy in the Dublin College of Surgeons and published pioneering works on matters varying from chemical fertilizers to the effects of climatic conditions on health, by way of electricity as a cause of epidemics. He died in Dublin in 1871. A plaque in his honour was erected on High Street Belfast.