The Guildhall:Derry’s museum in glass

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Volume 17

‘Sir Henry Docwra landed at Culmore 16th April 1600 AD’ (above). It is ironic that Sir Henry’s arms are represented immediately above those of his great antagonist, Hugh O’Neill, second earl of Tyrone (below).

‘Sir Henry Docwra landed at Culmore 16th April 1600 AD’ (above). It is ironic that Sir Henry’s arms are represented immediately above those of his great antagonist, Hugh O’Neill, second earl of Tyrone (below).

The construction of Derry/Londonderry’s Guildhall and its stained glass windows was financed by the Honourable the Irish Society to replace an earlier town hall destroyed by fire in 1908. Reporting on the opening ceremonies, the London Times of 21 September 1912 declared that ‘. . . The Londonderry Guildhall is a fine modern building, the chief treasures in which are the stained glass windows presented by the various London Companies that once owned land in Ireland, and have not forgotten the old association’. Sir Alfred Newton, the incumbent governor of the Society, had a profound influence on the rebuilding and particularly on the windows. In 1972 an IRA bomb destroyed the interior and windows. Fortunately the watercolour drawings of the originals had been preserved and were used to restore the windows to their original glory.

Celebration of an imperial age
The windows recount the history of the city from earliest times to the very recent past, a celebration of the achievements of the London Companies and a snapshot of Irish and British history in the early twentieth century. They celebrate a heroic imperial age and locate the Plantation of Londonderry firmly within that context. One of the first windows encountered on entering the Guildhall is emblazoned with the Royal Coat of Arms, the Seal of Empire and the symbols of the principal British overseas Dominions, celebrating imperial unity. These motifs form a recurrent theme throughout the ensemble, represented in the Girdlers Window, which contains the maple leaf for Canada, the lotus for India (or Egypt), the floral emblems of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, and the Red Hand of Ulster. The harp and shamrock feature prominently, as do the oak leaves of Doire Cholmcille.
Individual company windows are invariably emblazoned with their arms and mottos and often commemorate incumbent or past masters. Former mayors and other civic officers also donated windows, which often depict more recent economic developments in the city fostered by the Society, such as the building of Carlisle Bridge or the arrival of the railways. Other windows commemorate the achievements of the three Irish divisions in the British Army, with representations of their cap badges and regimental colours. The main displays, in particular the 1913 tercentenary window, tell the city’s story and the Irish Society’s role therein. This symbolic account explicitly locates the events of the Ulster Plantation in the wider course of Irish history but also validates and legitimises colonial settlement, emphasising continuity rather than change.

St Colmcille
75_small_1258417100The new cathedral at Derry, the first purpose-built Protestant cathedral constructed in these islands since the Reformation, was named in honour of St Colmcille, one of Ireland’s patron saints and founder of a monastic confederation that included Durrow, Swords, Kells, Iona and Derry (546). In honouring Colmcille, the Church of Ireland and the London Companies tried to show that Protestantism was not a break with the past but rather a return to the theological purity of the early Christian church. The inclusion of the earlier Columban settlement in the stained glass represents a secular counterpart to this argument, a theme further reinforced by the surrounding iconography. In 1912 the Skinners, Grocers, Fishmongers, Drapers and Vintners Companies of the City of London presented the Tracery Light above the gallery as decoration for the principal window in the main hall. The ‘illustrations, consecutive in character’, tell the story of Derry from the foundation of St Colmcille’s monastic settlement. It includes Derry’s round tower, a characteristic icon of Early Christian Ireland, whose remains are now in the grounds of Lumen Christi College, the Oak Grove/Doire Colmcille, and celebrates Colmcille’s departure from Derry to found the monastery at Iona (563), ‘the luminary of the Caledonian region’, in the immortal words of Dr Johnson.
The second light recounts the history of an early settlement under the Normans and carries the arms of Richard de Burgo, second earl of Ulster (the Red Earl). The skeleton and castle on the city’s arms refer to Greencastle and the grim fate of the unfortunate Walter de Burgo, whose brother William entombed him alive in the castle walls. Granted lands by Edward II, de Burgo built Northburgh or Greencastle in 1305 to guard the approaches to Lough Foyle and control the O’Dohertys and O’Neills.

Sir Henry Docwra and Hugh O’Neill

The resurgence of Gaelic power in Inishowen is represented by the arms of the O’Doherty, lords of Inishowen, and depict Burt Castle, their fourteenth-century stronghold and later residence of Sir Cahir O’Doherty—‘the Queen’s O’Doherty’—in the late 1590s. The third light depicts the arrival of Sir Henry Docwra at Culmore in May 1600, with the unenviable task—or ‘desperate enterprise’, as he referred to it—of seizing Derry and its hinterland as part of a concerted attack on the earl of Tyrone and prince of Tyrconnell (see p. 66). His campaign contributed in no small part to O’Neill’s eventual surrender at Mellifont in 1603. This window is the only memorial in the city to a man who might well claim credit for founding the modern city. Docwra received the first city charter for ‘the Derrie’ from King James I in 1604. It is ironic that Sir Henry’s arms are represented immediately above those of his great antagonist, Hugh O’Neill, second earl of Tyrone (see p. 66).

King James and the ‘four, wise, grave and discreet’ citizens from London

Derry/Londonderry’s neo-Gothic Guildhall was completed in 1912 to replace an earlier city hall destroyed by fire in 1908. (The Honourable the Irish Society)

Derry/Londonderry’s neo-Gothic Guildhall was completed in 1912 to replace an earlier city hall destroyed by fire in 1908. (The Honourable the Irish Society)

The arms of King James I dominate the adjacent light beneath a representation of a crucial event in the history of the city, and indeed of Ireland and Britain, showing the earl of Salisbury suggesting to the king the project for the settlement or the Plantation of Ulster in 1609 (opposite page). After conferring with the mayor of London (Sir Humphrey Weld), it was considered that ‘the late ruinated City of Derry situated upon the river of Lough Foyle, navigable with good vessels above the Derry, and one other place at or near the castle of Coleraine, situate upon the river Bann . . . to be the fittest places for the City of London to plant’. The adjacent scene shows the departure of the ‘four, wise, grave and discreet’ citizens from London appointed by a Court of Common Council ‘to view the situation proposed for the new colony August 1609’. The commissioners are shown under the seal of the Honourable the Irish Society with the following inscription, ‘The Society of the Governor and Assistants of London, of the new Plantation in Ulster, within the Realm of Ireland’, viewing the site of the proposed colony standing on a hill overlooking the settlement at Derry (front cover).
Light number six illustrates the development of the new town, depicting the rebuilding of the walls between 1610 and 1616. The paternalism of the Irish Society is referenced by a view of Blue Coat Boys on the walls of Derry, some of the twelve children sent from Christ’s Hospital, London, to be apprenticed, ten in Derry and two in Coleraine, in 1615. Below are the arms of King Charles II, who granted a charter to the city in April 1662.
The terrible events of the latter part of the century form the subject of two other lights. In 1688/9 the Williamite forces in the city held out for 105 days against a besieging Jacobite army. The scene shows the famous incident when thirteen apprentice boys slammed the city gates in the face of the Jacobite earl of Antrim and his ‘redshanks’ (above). William, prince of Orange, is depicted landing at Carrickfergus on Saturday 14 June 1690. The final two lights commemorate the siege: the Mountjoy in the act of breaking the boom that French engineers had thrown across the River Foyle to starve the city, and the jubilant citizens giving thanks for their deliverance as the Phoenix and Mountjoy arrive at the Shipquay.

Bloody Sunday

‘Earl of Salisbury explains the project for the settlement to King James I 1609 AD.’

‘Earl of Salisbury explains the project for the settlement to King James I 1609 AD.’

The most modern window in the Guildhall is also a product of troubled times and commemorates all the innocent victims of therecent conflict, although the names recorded on the window are of those who died on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972. In the centre, from top to bottom, is a trail of poppies symbolising remembrance for the dead, whose names are written on crosses. The window was commissioned by Derry City Council.
The stained glass windows in the Guildhall have been internationally acclaimed as examples of this disappearing art form. Without doubt, the visionary investments of the Irish Society, the London Companies and other benefactors have bequeathed to the city a treasure for all time. Visitors to the Guildhall today are enlightened in more than one sense by Derry’s museum in glass.  HI

Billy Kelly lectures in the School of English, History and Politics at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568