I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Stroke City


Hugh Davey of Derry and Samuel Carsan of Strabane were typical of Ulster-born merchants who pioneered in the flaxseed trade from Philadelphia. Davey and Carsan shipped flaxseed and flour to Londonderry on the accounts of prominent Derry merchants such as Alderman William Hogg, Ninian Boggs and Arthur Vance.

The sentences above are quoted from an article in the Derry Journal by Brian Mitchell based on Richard K MacMaster’s book Scotch-Irish Merchants in Colonial America. Mitchell’s interesting essay focuses on the important commercial links that existed in the eighteenth century between the port of Derry and Philadelphia, links which rested principally on the valuable flax and linen trade.

But why have I highlighted this particular quote from the article? Well, it’s the second sentence. Still puzzled? More particularly it’s the ninth and fifteenth words of that sentence.

When I was growing up there in the 1960s, there were two local newspapers in Derry, the Derry Journal, which came into our house every Tuesday and Friday, and the Londonderry Sentinel, which didn’t. As most people are probably aware, there has been considerable antagonism over the correct name of the city, and to a lesser degree there still is. If you are driving from Dublin to Derry you will notice that around the mostly Catholic town of Strabane, fourteen miles from your destination, outraged elements of the nationally-minded population have gone out with black paint to blot out the hated prefix “London” on road signs. Every village between there and the equally majority-Catholic town of Derry – Ballymagorry, Bready, Magheramason, Newbuildings – loudly boasts its unionism and Protestantism with flags, bunting and painted kerbs.

Londonderry has been the official name of the city since the early seventeenth century, though the relevant local government body has been Derry City Council since 1984. The key to the origins of the official name can be found inscribed on a tablet in the grounds of St Columb’s Cathedral, inside the city walls: “If stones could speak, then London’s praise should sound, / Who built this church and city from the ground.” This is no more than the plain truth. The building of the splendid walled city, still intact, was financed by the London livery companies and carried out between 1613 and 1619. Nationalists may, and do, object that there was a previously existing monastic settlement, Doire or Doire Colmcille (doire is an oak grove). There was, but this was a quite separate, and more small-scale, affair than the city.

Catholics, probably not a huge factor in Derry’s history until the Famine and the industrial revolution drew in numbers of the poor of adjacent Donegal (in particular Inishowen), became a majority in the city in the course of the twentieth century. Yet they were denied the political power their numbers justified by a kind of electoral fraud known as gerrymandering until political reforms were introduced in response to pressure from the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

It is my clear memory that in my childhood and youth both Catholics and Protestants who lived there routinely called their city “Derry”, though on more official occasions Protestants, and more particularly unionist politicians, might call it “Londonderry”. (The main fraternal Protestant organisation associated with the city’s history is, however, the Apprentice Boys of Derry.) The Troubles exacerbated sectarian differences, increased mutual suspicion and led to a flight of Protestants from the west bank of the city, where they no longer felt safe. In this atmosphere, and with the emergence of some “we are the masters now” sentiments in the now empowered Catholic majority, the name was to become, to a much greater extent than ever before, a shibboleth: if you were a Catholic it was Derry, if a Protestant Londonderry, and Derry/Londonderry (or Stroke City as the broadcaster Gerry Anderson had it) if you felt that everyone should rub along together.

Back in the 1960s nomenclature was a serious matter for the disenfranchised Catholic majority in Derry, and nowhere more so than in the organ of the local nationalist establishment, the Derry Journal. It goes without saying that “Londonderry” was a banned word here, but it was not the only one: “Ulster” could not be used either, or the common variant “the Province”, since we all knew that the state we lived in (“statelet” we sometimes called it) was not a real province at all but an amputated, mutilated section of one. The Journal was strict on these matters, sometimes to a quite surprising degree. Northern Ireland’s bus service was run by a body called the Ulster Transport Authority or UTA (later to become Ulsterbus). One winter a UTA bus met with a mishap on a country road not far from the city, ending up picturesquely on its side in a ditch. The photograph made the front page of the paper and the caption read, to the best of my recollection: “A ‘U’.T.A. bus which left the road after skidding near Donemana yesterday”.

One might have thought that direct, quoted speech would have posed an insuperable problem for the Journal, but not a bit of it. Unionist politicians were always rabbiting on about Ulster, so how could their remarks be reported without breaching the paper’s style rules? The solution employed was simply to apply the same rule as in the ‘U’.T.A. bus caption. Thus when the Unionist Party leader, Lord Brookeborough, said something like “I was elected to defend Ulster against its enemies and that is what I will do”, the Journal had him saying “I was elected to defend ‘Ulster’ against its enemies and that is what I will do” as if he had uttered the revered word with a curl of the lip and a sneer.

Good enough perhaps for the man who upbraided Protestant businessmen who employed Catholics, adding that personally he “wouldn’t have one about the place”. It is nice though to see that today’s Journal has lightened up sufficiently to permit the use not just of “Ulster” but of “Londonderry”, even using both the city’s names in the same sentence, as in the quote at the beginning of this post.

Most newspapers have a style book: it’s where the rules are set out that establish a conformity of usage, enforced by sub-editors, across the paper and among the many people who write for it. Thus it will be clear to everyone (one hopes) that we write, for example, “July 10th” rather than “July 10” or “10 July” or “July the tenth”, “Argentinians” rather than “Argentines”, “Tehran” rather than “Teheran”. In terms of their approach to style there was a fair amount of overlap between the two Dublin newspapers I worked for, the Irish Press and The Irish Times. While some of the Times’s rulings seemed to stem from a form of political correctness (figurative use of the word “schizophrenic” banned, and the phrase “road accident” – it’s someone’s fault), the Press’s were more traditionally ideological. When an old Fianna Fáiler died, for example, one could not write: “He took the Republican side in the Civil War”; one wrote “He stayed with the Republican side in the Civil War”. It should be said, however, that both papers had clear rules on matters to do with nationality and national sensitivities, agreeing, for example, that it is not “the Irish army” but “the Army”. And it’s not “the British Army” but “the British army”. Nor would either the Times or the Press have been in any doubt about the name of Ireland’s fifth city, though getting it wrong might have been more severely viewed in the Press.

According to a no doubt apocryphal tale, the paper’s able and formidable deputy editor, the late John Garvey, a Newry man, once had to discipline a sub-editor over this very matter. The story goes that the employee in question – a perhaps implausibly innocent chap let it be said – was greeted on arriving in work one afternoon with the grim news “Garvey said he wants to see you in his office as soon as you come in.” On knocking gingerly on the door he was told to come in and sit down while JG finished the piece of work he’d been engaged in. Then the dialogue started:

You subbed that PA [Press Association] story on page seven?
Mmm, which one is that?
The one about the civil rights march.
I think so. Was there a problem with it?
There certainly was (tossing the paper, open at the relevant page, across the desk).
(Quickly scanning the story) I’m sorry, I don’t see it.
Third sentence.
(Pause) Sorry, I still don’t see it.
Fifth word. I’ll spell it out for you: (loudly) L-O-N-D-O-N-D-E-R-R-Y.
Oh, should it have a hyphen?

Photograph: Lord Brookeborough: speaking of ‘Ulster’ with a curl of the lip and a sneer


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