Atlantic Gateway: The Port and City of Londonderry since 1700

February 4, 2010

During the Second World War, the River Foyle, upon whose banks the city of Londonderry stands, was of vital military and strategic importance. At any one time, it was home to more than 100 Allied ships seeking to protect shipping and hunt U-boats. The Nazi U-boat fleet even surrendered on the river. The city's military and strategic importance was enforced by geography and the same attributes supported it in peacetime. Shielded from the Atlantic by Donegal and by its long, estuarine approaches, Derry was a natural base for trade, in goods and people, between Ireland and the Americas. In wartime, it was an ideal location from which to challenge an enemy seeking to starve Britain into submission.

More than three centuries earlier, the city's strategic importance had been recognised during the Plantations when the Ulster lands of the Gaelic chiefs were carved up following their defeat and departure in the "Flight of the Earls" in 1607. Derry was a chosen port of the Plantation, an ideal venue for trade in and out of the newly acquired lands. It remained a contested site: seized in the Plantation and fortified, attacked by restive Gaels, and, crucially, besieged in 1689 by James II's forces during the war of religion against William of Orange.

During the 18th century, the port of Londonderry brought all of its natural advantages together as a major centre in the flaxseed trade with the Americas, a factor whose importance, Atlantic Gateway shows us, cannot be overestimated. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the city was a major departure point for another commodity: people. Up to the 1740s, perhaps a majority of the colonists bound for the Americas utilised the shipping services between Derry, Philadelphia and other colonial ports. Although Liverpool came to dominate the Atlantic trade in people in the 19th century, Derry remained important for smaller flows of migrants, both across the Atlantic and, crucially, to Scotland.

The city developed a vigorous relationship with its hinterland. Towns such as nearby Strabane depended on Derry's access to the wider world. While flaxseed and yarns were exported, Derry also developed its own textile industry. Consequently, finished goods were also sent from the port. Railways spurred additional business in the otherwise remote west. By the mid-19th century, the city's hinterland cut deep into the north-west midlands of Ireland. The city came to Karl Marx's attention, who described its major shirt manufacturer, Tillie and Henderson, as the archetype of factory capitalism. Buoyed by its combination of resources and opportunities, the port also was quick off the mark in developing steamship sailings.

In the 20th century, like most ports and mill towns, Derry declined. The transfer from a command economy to a planned one did little for the city or its port. Closure of the railway lines that had served it so well added to the port's isolation. The city's acute sectarian conflict conspired with its remoteness to enforce its position in an already peripheral, post-industrial Northern Ireland. Thus, atrophy was hastened and deepened. While recent times have seen renewed optimism and a reinvention of the city economy, much remains to be done.

The book is broken up into dozens of small sections - sometimes two per page - and these convey the feel of a reference work rather than a monograph. Also, its narrative drive is affected by the fact that it is a manifesto as well as a history - examining the past to inform the present and future, and blending historical analysis with commentary on government policy and planning. Despite these two issues, Atlantic Gateway will reward academics and the serious general reader alike.

Atlantic Gateway: The Port and City of Londonderry since 1700

Edited by Robert Gavin, William P. Kelly and Dolores O'Reilly. Four Courts Press, 440pp, £45.00. ISBN 9781846821462. Published 14 August 2009

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