Derry City Peace Bridge Sign
Derry City Peace Bridge Sign

Derry City and War. How memorials can grow old but remain cool. Sometimes.


Derry City has an historical legacy which is at the forefront of its tourism and also its image. These two elements crystallise around the Siege of Derry in 1689 and also the Civil Right’s movement of the 1960’s and the violence which came after. Memorials are not so good at keeping a low profile at a time of high emotions. But some memorials are more embraced than others. 

1. Diamond War Memorial

War Memorial Diamond Derry
War Memorial Diamond Derry – By SeanMack – Own work, Public Domain,

An issue which emerges in relation to War Memorials is who owns them and who should take care of them. So when you have an historical monument, which will require substantial funds to maintain, then such projects are often procrastinated until eventually there is no choice but either knock the monument or repair it. One might even hope that the State will intervene. We see this again in reference to the World War One memorial in the Diamond in Derry. Most institutions in every city have budgetary constraints, so if someone else will pay for a project then you will allow them do this.

In 1927, a memorial was erected in Derry to commemorate those who died and volunteered from the city in World War One. Even at the time the supporters of the monument struggled to raise the necessary funds or to get planning permission for its erection in a prominent place. And this was when the council in the city was dominated by pro-British Unionists. But in 2017, ninety years after the war, the city is firmly controlled by Catholic Nationalists. A recent estimate showed that repairs could end up costing £250,000 pounds.

In other cities, there might be apathy towards a war monument; there is no such problem in Derry where memorials can get people quite excited. Identity politics is appreciated on both sides of the religious/political divide. An Independent nationalist politician Paul Gallagher questioned the fairness of spending such a large sum of money on a memorial more identified with one side of the community while ignoring monuments dedicated to nationalist figures.  Unionist councillor Graham Warke said that Mr Gallagher’s comments were a “disgrace” and also criticised the council in general for procrastinating on the maintenance of the memorial:

The First World War should never be politicised.

One noticeable element of this war memorial is that it depicts ordinary soldiers at war rather than something more celebratory. There is also no mention of the King nor does it name the Country for which the men died. “To our honoured dead” is for the people of the city of Derry.  The memorial was designed by brothers Sydney and Vernon March who came from Kent in England from a family of artists. Their father was originally a seed crusher and later a builder’s clerk. There is a modern feel about this family arising from humble working class roots, and yet eight of the March children became artists, and three of them sculptors. Perhaps the human focus and scale represents this changing world where a commoner can end up designing a war memorial. 

Now lets look at the World War One memorial in a much more divided Belfast where until recently Nationalists were very much in the minority. 

Belfast Cenotaph
By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0,















The Belfast memorial is a much more substantial edifice compared to that of Derry, and was designed by a man from of the elite of society. It was built by Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas. He was the son of Edward Thomas, and practised in partnership with his father in London from 1894. He was knighted in 1906.  He was a Baroque Revivalist and was popular with the establishment – though clearly he was also very talented. He designed Belfast City Hall which gives the city a sense of majesty that might differentiate it from say Cork. Important people wanted to make sure that Belfast was dressed up honourably. The War Memorial Cenotaph was completed in 1927 and unveiled in 1929 and is somewhat posh compared to its humble compatriot-memorial in Derry. No Catholic organisations were at the unveiling. This is a statement memorial, not just about the war, but also about how Belfast feels about itself. Now lets look at the dedication:



This is all about the Great War, and its heroism, all done in the honour of King George. There is a wish to demonstrate the unfailing loyalty of the Ulstermen to the British cause. At this time, many still expected the new Northern Ireland to collapse and become part of an All Ireland state. This is clearly a Unionist monument for the pro-British community fearful that they would lose their identity and here they are trying to manufacture a an impressive space both large and indestructible to solidify their emotions . However at the same time I’m sure there must have been Protestant war veterans who did not identify with this memorial. At this time, many people no longer considered war to be so glorious, and this memorial feels part of something older than its age, especially now when commoners were increasingly gaining confidence in themselves.  

Vernon Marsh also designed the National War Memorial in Canada, which despite being a much larger edifice has the same focus on the humanity of the soldiers that it depicts:

The postures are animated and strained, not in parade form, and the expressions “convey pride, longing, defiance, a strong sense of purpose, vacancy, camaraderie and perhaps a touch of dejection, but mostly firm resolve

Unfortunately for Vernon, he would die of pneumonia at only 38 years in 1930, and it was left to his family to ensure the work was unveiled in Ottawa on 21 May 1939 well ahead of time for the German invasion of Poland.   The National Memorial in Canada is unusual in a tragic way related to the memorial itself. In 2014 a soldier Nathan Cirillo was killed, by a drug addict who had taken on Islamic beliefs, while performing sentry duty at the monument. There is a plaque at the site in the memory of Cirillo. The sentries were on duty in an effort to prevent anti-social activity such as skateboarding and riding bicycles on the podium. This is a very poignant example of that which is necessary to just look after these memorials and how interaction with monuments by the general public changes over time. One man seen this as a place to attack, the youngsters to play, the soldiers to defend. There is not only a need for different monuments for new ages, but also a reassessment of how to accommodate older monuments in current times. 

2. Peace Flame

Derry Peace Flame
Derry Peace Flame

I think if you are a war memorial, it is much better when you are not in the news. If you are making headlines, it is almost always for the wrong reasons. Such as this Peace Flame – which was supposed to be eternal but went down for eight months due to design problems and vandalism. 

The flame itself is part of an international initiative promoted by the World Peace Flame organisation, a charity based in the Hague, whose vision is the following:

Imagine if every man, woman and child in every nation and country, from every religion and creed, were united in peace

Rev David Latimer, who was with the British troops in Afghanistan, was deeply affected by the horrors of war and returned to Derry with this idea. The flame was launched as part of a five-day peace initiative during Derry’s City of Culture year in 2013. Among those to attend the unveiling was Martin Luther King III, son of the assassinated US civil rights leader.

3. Free Derry Sign

Free Deery Sign
Free Derry Sign by

The Free Derry Corner has hosted not only its original sign as pictured above in the photo, but also many other messages, of which there is an example below. After a Police attack on Civil Rights marchers, on the January 5th, 1969, Derry teenager Liam Hillen was encouraged by local politician Eamonn McCann to write the words “You are now entering Free Derry” across the wall of a derelict house. Now only the gable of the house remains. McCann who later became an author was inspired by students involved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California in Berkeley. 

However the current message in its current iconic font was a later addition by local painter  John “Caker” Casey.  The original was more of a scrawl, until Casey became involved. Hillen himself admitted that he had a problem spelling and had to ask how how many r’s were in entering. Free Derry Original Sign

Free Derry original sign by Liam Hillen

This wall graffiti was happening at the same time that the Catholic communities in the Bogside, who were living in poor standard of housing, barricaded themselves into their own areas. This local revolution had begun, and the self-proclaimed autonomous zone now had an iconic sign.  The fame of the Free Derry period attracts many tourists and indeed there is a museum to remember that time:

There is also a souvenir shop called Checkpoint Charlie in Derry which appropriates the legacy of Berlin, and superimposes it on Free Derry, which is an interesting juxtaposition of historical kitsch.  Visitors to Derry may go to the shop to have a Free Derry stamp on their real passports. I note that the shop also sells Che Guevara images. Free Derry Check Point Charlie

Free Derry Check Point Charlie shop

And you can also buy Free Derry mugs on the Internet and probably in Derry also. 

Free Derry Mug
Free Derry Mug










In 1972, a Provisional IRA ceasefire broke down, after failed talks with the British Government, so the British took the decision to move. Free Derry came to an end on 31 July 1972, when thousands of British troops moved in with armoured cars and bulldozers to occupy the area. Ultimately many of the residents’ original reasons for protesting were addressed with the passing of the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972 and with the end of Gerrymandering, Catholic’s took control of the city and the Free Derry area was rebuilt with modern houses and apartments. 

The Wall has been used to promote many issues including Organ donations. What one side of the community see as a famous wall, the other see as an infamous wall! Rosemary Barton from the Ulster Unionists complained about the use of the wall to promote Organ Donaton Week. In this case the wall had already been painted pink, from a coexisting campaign to promote the Foyle Pride week – even the name of that week suggests there is more divide related to politics than perceptions of sexuality. Free Derry Wall and Organ controversy

Free Derry Wall and Organ controversy 


UUP Barton Organs Derry

The trust addressed the issues brought up by Barton and apologised for any offence caused. 

4. Peace Bridge

Derry Peace BridgeDerry City Peace Bridge

At 235 metres long, and designed to carry pedestrians and cyclists, the Peace Bridge connecting the city and the Waterside across the Foyle opened up in 2011. It cost €16.5 million and was jointly financed by the EU, the Government and Stormont. At the opening EU commissioner Johannes Hahn said:

One of the key objectives of the European Union is to bring people together to live in peace, with a common respect both for shared values and for diversity

It was designed by Wilkerson Eyre to be a structural handshake across the river. Having walked across it myself on my only trip to Derry, it seems impossible to imagine that the city had been so disconnected. You leave the hustle and bustle of the city centre and come to the calm of Ebrington Square and St Columb’s Park.  The bridge seems to have been an outstanding success. It has been noted that in a city famous for conflict (from the Siege to the Troubles) that you can use this change of cultural policy in order to modify the need for conflict. The focus now is on peace memorials, and where it is necessary to reference war as in the next example, it is designed in a way which is more inclusive. 

5. International Sailor Derry City

International Sailor Derry City
International Sailor Derry City

I have written about the International Sailor in Derry elsewhere. It is an Everyman memorial with which even pacifists can identify. This is quite an evolution from the Diamond War Memorial which depicts a battlefield scene and focuses on the loss and heroism of the men. The International Sailor depicts a more mundane task away from the killing fields.  This is no cenotaph. 

6. Siege of Derry Defending canons

Siege of Derry Defending canons
Siege of Derry Defending canons

The canons at the city walls in Derry are a symbol of the identity of the city, and also a draw for tourism. In 2005 the Economic Development Section of Derry City Council called for the preservation and restoration of the cannon as a priority tourism development project.  The restoration process also proved to useful source of historical information. Removing the over-paint from one demi-culverin canon bearing the rose-and-crown emblem revealed the initials of Thomas Johnson, royal gun founder to Elizabeth I between c. 1584 and 1595. History Ireland has more detail about the history of the Derry canons. For tourism reasons, it was also decided to use a replica canon to fire shots to celebrate the 400 anniversary of the walls.  Though the canons are a significant element of the Orange Order traditions of celebrating the Siege, they have been promoted without any controversy to bring income to the city.  

7. Walker Siege Memorial

Derry Walker siege memorial
Derry Walker siege memorial

Some memorials are more liked by some people than others. The maintenance of the Walker Siege memorial never became an issue. The statue of Rev. George Walker, minus one arm, had stood on a 96 foot high pillar from which it had looked down on Derry’s Bogside for 145 years. It was blown up by an IRA bomb detonated just after midnight on August 27, 1973. Only the stump remained. Walker’s Pillar was a memorial and a tribute to Rev. George Walker, the rector of Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone, who came to Derry prior to the Siege of 1688-89. The foundation stone of the monument was laid on December 18, 1826, by the city’s Mayor, Major Richard Young. The column itself was completed in August 1828 at a total cost of 4,200, including 100 for the statue, paid for by members of the “Apprentice Boys and friends” and included a donation of 50 guineas from The Honourable The Irish Society and 50 from Londonderry Corporation.

The Royal Bastion and plinth has since been restored and opened to the public in 2019. There are no plans to rebuild the pillar or statue. 

George Walker plinth
George Walker plinth 2019

Billy Moore, Siege Museum chairman, said:

We have always held that hope that with enough goodwill from everyone the pillar can be rebuilt again, but we realise that is not going to happen in the near future.

In 2010 a different sculpture of George Walker was attacked by vandals. The restoration of guns is quite a different matter to the restoration of heroes. George Walker towered over a city, most of whose residents had no particular friendship with. 


Cannon in the Maiden City: symbol and document




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