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City Walls and Martello Towers

City Walls

The seventeenth century development of the new town of Derry on the site of earlier settlements was made the responsibility of the City of London. A body was created to oversee this and other business which became called the Honourable the Irish Society, a society that brought together the London merchant companies who were involved in the plantation of the new county of Londonderry.

The society built the walls around their new town of Londonderry over the period 1614-19 and the settlement, strategically located on a navigable river and only a short distance from the sea, quickly grew to become the largest town in Ulster (a population of 500 adult males recorded in 1630). The most famous remnant from this period is the city walls. With a circumference of 1,500 meters, the entire length of the walls remain standing to this day, the only example of intact city walls in Ireland.

Originally there were only four gates into the city (Bishops, Shipquay, Ferryquay and Butchers Gate) but through time several more were added to aid commerce. Streets led from these gates to a central area called the Diamond.

Captain Nicholas Pynnar, an engineer despatched in 1619 to report on progress of the Plantation of Ulster, reported that the Walls had been completed by March that year:

“The Citric of London Derry is now compassed about with a veric stronge wall, excellentlie made and neatlie wrought, being all of good lyme and stone, the circuit whereof is 284 Perches & 2/3 at 18 feet to the Perche besides the fower Gates which Contayne 84 foot and in everie place of the wall it is 24-foot high and 6-foot thicke. The Gates are all battlemented, but to two of them there is no goinge upp, so that they serve to no great use, nether have they any leaves to their gates, but make two drawbridges serve for two of them, and two portcullises for the other two. The Bullwarks are verie large and good, being in number 9; besides two halfe-bullwarks, and in fower of them there may be placed 4 cannons or other great pieces, the rest are not all out so large, but wanteth verie little. The Rampart within the Citric is 12-foot thicke of Earth; all things are verie well and substantially donne saveinge there wanteth a house for the soldiers to watche in and a centinell house for the soldiers to stand in in the night to defend them from the weather which is most extreame in these parts…”

Londonderrywas threatened by siege three times in its first hundred years (1641, 1649 and 1688/89), the best known being the 1688-89 siege that lasted 105 days. This latter siege was finally broken when the ship the Mountjoy broke the timber boom downstream of the city and sailed in to the port with supplies. Many of the cannon mounted on the city walls date from the 1640’s when they were ‘lent’ by the Parliamentary forces, the City of London having sided with Cromwell in the English Civil War.

The walls of Derry remain as impressive today as when they built. Wide enough to accommodate teams of horses drawing cannon and with entire circumference intact, they offer perhaps the best example of city walls in Europe.

Martello Tower

In the early nineteenth century Britain reacted to the threat of French invasion by building defensive towers at strategic points around the coast of Great Britain and Ireland and –in lesser number- places in British possession overseas. These towers were named Martello Towers and some two hundred were built. The name is believed to derive (after some changes to spelling) from Mortella Point in Corsica where a tower of similar design withstood a heavy British bombardment, such was its strength. So impressed were the British that they adopted the design (with some modification) and name!

The natural harbour of Lough Foyle was an obvious invasion point and Martello Towers were built on either side of the entrance to the lough, one at Magilligan Point and one on the opposite shore at Greencastle.

The standard design of the Martello Towers was a stone built, cylindrical three storied tower with an entrance door at first floor level – cannon balls would deflect harmlessly off such a curved surface and a removable ladder was needed to reach the doorway. A further defensive feature was the machicolation over the doorway (pictured). Missiles and hot liquids would have rained from this projecting stonework that had holes in the floor, falling on invaders trying to break down the door. A cistern lay at the bottom of the tower, providing a steady supply of water in case of siege.

Although well imbued defensively, the main purpose of the towers was as artillery posts to ward off invading ships! To that end, the roof of the tower was flat to allow an artillery piece to be mounted. This gun was mounted on a wooden carriage that spun on a central pivot to give it a 360 degree field of fire, the carriage following a metal track laid around the circumference of the roof. The artillery piece was a 24 pounder, serviced by thirteen soldiers who were quartered in the floor below. The bottom floor of the tower was a timber lined magazine where powder and shot was stored (the timber lining was intended to reduce the risk of a spark being raised that would ignite the gunpowder in storage there).

The tower at Magilligan is a short walk from the Magilligan – Greencastle ferry terminal and it is particularly well preserved. Managed by Environment and Heritage Service (or EHS), there is limited opening but it is worth a visit just to view it from outside! Grid reference C661388