Bishop’s Gate Hotel Represents Both Derry’s History And Its Future
“Legen-Derry,” is the word the tour guide conjures up when I asked his opinion of whether his Northern Ireland hometown should be referred to as Derry or Londonderry. It’s a sensitive political question at heart, and one that Gavin Kerr, a walking guide for the award-winning Martin McCrossan City Tours, answered diplomatically.
“It’s a legendary city, in either case, so ‘Legen-Derry applies,’” said Kerr, who has seen his share of Troubles with a capital “T” – the ongoing struggle between Unionist Protestants and Catholics in support of a unified Ireland living in the six counties of Northern Ireland controlled by the British. “I lived through troubled times as a teenager and have seen some things people should not see in their lifetime. I am proud of my city today, though.”
Kerr is a lifelong Derry man who bounced through town while giving the tour with an enthusiasm and sense of pride and drama that has made him a word of mouth star on TripAdvisor. During our tour Kerr was greeted more than 10 times by friendly locals.
Derry, Northern Ireland’s second biggest city, is a historic, medieval walled city and was a flashpoint for sectarian violence over the years, but Ciaran O’Neill, managing director of Bishop’s Gate Hotel, has seen Derry move on through the peace accords in Northern Ireland.
“The north has a different history, particularly here in Derry. We had the Troubles in the 1970’s and 80’s and moving into the ‘90’s, but hopefully shows like “Derry Girls” will show both the dark side and the funny side,” he said, in reference to the hit comedy television series now enjoyed worldwide by Netflix viewers.
Derry Girls to the Rescue
In fact, in a city known for striking and shocking political murals, Kerr started his walking tour in front of the newest, most photographed mural in town, a big, colorful display featuring the stars of the “Derry Girls” ensemble show.
“We never thought the show would go worldwide on Netflix, but now everyone wants their photo taken with the Derry Girls. Tourist after tourist,” said Kerr, who is a neighbor to Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who plays Michelle on the program. “This show is one of the most iconic things to happen to our city. It tells the life of the people here. The show’s creator, Lisa McGee, wrote from her own heart about her school days.”
Tuesday night televisions are tuned to the show and some pubs put on Derry girls “watch parties.”
Even the show’s title has become a point of pride for women in Derry. Una Kelly is a BBC radio broadcaster from Derry and smiles when referred to as a “Derry girl.”
“The dialogue and humor of the show is pitch-perfect. It even appeals to an international audience. The people from Derry get it, but the people around the world are laughing, too. What Lisa McGee has written is magic,” Kelly said.
Humor in the Face of Horror
“If you don’t laugh you’ll cry,” said Kerr, referring to a January, 2019 incident that hinted of the troubled past when a car bomb exploded in front of the courthouse. “The courthouse over history was bombed 13 times because it was the seat of British justice. The recent car bomb incident was totally ineffective. It wasn’t like the car bombs of the 1970’s. It was weak and small and didn’t even break any windows.”
No one was hurt, but the bartenders at the Bishop’s Gate Hotel next door to the courthouse heard the noise and felt the rumble.
“The response was typically Irish: please don’t interfere with our entertainment,” said Kerr. First Bishop’s Gate had to evacuate the whole area while they sized things up and figured how long the security response would last. Once the area was sealed off and secured they actually began to let the people back into the hotel again. Ciaran O’Neill, the manager, called all the guests in and opened the bar again. The guests ended up having a shindig that night until all hours of the morning and a sing song.”
O’Neill, one of Northern Ireland’s hotel industry leaders, explained, “The Irish are just born to be hospitable. We like to party and enjoy ourselves and entertain. My father was an Irish musician so we had a party in the house every day. We have a great sense of humor and it is important to be able to laugh at yourself.”
Welcoming the World With Hospitality and Heritage
Derry’s historic walls, and their Bishop’s Gate, are also virtually beside the hotel of the same name.
“Donald Trump has not been over to examine the walls,” Kerr laughed.
The restaurant in the stylish Bishop’s Gate Hotel is named the “Wig and Gown,” in reference to the barristers and judges who worked in the courthouse next door and frequented the former elite gentleman’s social club the Bishop’s Gate used to be to play darts and snooker while smoking cigars. Because of the hotel’s historic nature and top quality, it has been already included in IrelandsBlueBook.ie exclusive list of hotels of significance – one of only two in Northern Ireland.
“Bishop’s Gate Hotel is a restoration project. We brought this building back to life,” O’Neill explained. “Churchill and Yeats have stayed here. The building had been lying dormant for 30 years, and we’re surrounded by cathedrals, walls and old churches.”
A cursory walk around Derry finds locals already referring to Bishop’s Gate as the best hotel in town. The staff members at the boutique hotel are clearly encouraged to be helpful, friendly and fun, despite the upscale but comfortable setting. Historic photos of the property and Derry are positioned in the hallways. The color schemes are cool and pleasing and every inch of the bar and guest rooms are designed with style in mind. The hotel is full of eye candy and thoughtful details.
Roisin McColgan, a bright-eyed Bishop’s Gate concierge, kindly tipped us off to the “Derry Girls Watch Party” at Brickwork Lounge, one of many contemporary bars among Derry’s pubs.
“In Northern Ireland we’re on a new journey seeing tourism grow. There are 40-percent more hotels now than there were six years ago,” said O’Neill. “90-percent of our hotels in Northern Ireland are under 15 years old.”
Generations of Derry Citizens Remember
In terms of Derry’s past, O’Neill points out that he was born two years after “Bloody Sunday,” the 1972 Bogside area massacre when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed citizens during a protest march, but Derry still lives that history daily. Kerr, though, is old enough to remember well the sound of shots and the news reports of the tragedy which touched his family personally.
“Michael McDade, 20 years of age, was killed marching for civil rights. His brother was married to my sister,” said Kerr.
An elaborate, interactive “Bloody Sunday Museum” tells the story and the ongoing legal repercussions in dramatic sight and sound throughout its halls.
“14 people were killed in those shootings and 15 severely maimed,” said Kerr during his tour while showing me a monument to the fallen. The memorial is across the street from the museum. “There was a dark cloud over our town with three days of mourning. Schools closed and businesses were locked down.”
Large, sometimes haunting murals painted on the sides of buildings tell the stories of the violence in the Catholic nationalist neighborhood best known by the mural reading: “You Are Now Entering Free Derry.”
(Kerr also showed us, on the other side of town, the Protestant neighborhood’s equivalent: a mural accompanying the red, white and blue painted curbs reading “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists Still Under Siege No Surrender.”)
Terror Turned to Tourist Sites
Visitors flock to these historical sites for photographs and perspective.
“One of the most feared areas in the world – the Bogside – which saw rioting, shooting, and tear gas, is now one of the top tourism attractions in the world,” said Kerr while we stopped to warm up in Peader O’Donnells’s, perhaps the most popular pub in Derry. The traditional pub is named for a prominent Irish republican and radical political activist, but it is owned by the brother of the late Martin McGuinness. “McGuinness was an Irish nationalist from the Bogside area who stepped up for the Irish people and became a member of the Irish Republican Army. After doing time in prison, since he was a very educated man, he decided to go the peaceful route and went on to become Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.”
Ultimately, according to Kerr and the history books, McGuinness was instrumental in facilitating the Northern Ireland peace process and ceasefire. O’Donnell’s, which offers live traditional Irish music later in the evenings, retains a tinge of politics. The flags of other nations and causes drape the ceiling, which Kerr explained.
“Most of the flags here are sympathetic to the fight for freedom, such as the Basque flag, Palestinian flag, and the Quebec separatist flag, to name a few. That sentiment is part and parcel of our troubled country. Of course the tri-color (the green, white and orange flag of the Republic of Ireland) is here in support of a unified Ireland.”
Kerr says the youth of Derry will hopefully bridge the gap of Derry’s segregtion. The recently installed and now iconic “Peace Bridge” stretches across the River Foyle at the foot of the “Hands Across the Divide” statue of two men reaching out to each other in friendship.