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15 June 2010

Derry or Londonderry?

Even the BBC can’t decide.

By Sholto Byrnes

Tuning in to the BBC late last night, I watched a report about the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, 1972, during which the studio presenter referred to the Northern Irish city of “Londonderry”. When we went to a report from the area, however, the name of “Derry” was used. Naturally, there are historical resonances attached to both versions.

Unionists — and especially their supporters in England — have a strong preference for Londonderry, as it was renamed in recognition of its connections with City of London livery companies during the Plantation of Ulster in the 1600s.

Nationalists tend to prefer the name that served perfectly well for centuries before the inhabitants of the large island next door decided to occupy the neighbouring lands across the Irish Sea — “ye that have harried and held/ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!”, as Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, called them in his poem “The Rebel”.

As Saville is going to be in the news in the coming days, there is a significance in the nomenclature used in reports. The Guardian style guide, for instance, states firmly: “Derry, Co Derry. Not Londonderry.” A BBC press officer tells me she doesn’t think the corporation has any internal guidelines.

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The Independent’s letters editor and style supremo, Guy Keleny, says that paper would aim to be “non-tendentious and even-handed as regards the history of Northern Ireland”. So, the local authority, which voted to revert to the original name of Derry in 1984, “has the right to call itself whatever it wants”. However, the high court ruled in 2007 that Londonderry is in the city’s royal charter and remains its legal name.

An old edition of the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors lists Derry as a “postally acceptable abbreviation” of Londonderry, while I gather the comedian Dara O’Briain makes light of the competing versions when he performs in the city by opening his show with the line: “Hello, my name is Dara, or if you prefer, you can call me Londondara.”

You can find quite a history of the dispute on Wikipedia here, although some of its statements are questionable. It says, for instance, that “The Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy”) is “seldom” called “The Derry Air”. Not so “seldom” in southern Irish circles, that’s for sure.

Keleny adds: “there ought to be a Platonic ideal” for the name of the actual place — but that is still only an aspiration. As Éamonn Ó Ciardha of the University of Ulster says: “The Ulster Plantation may have been 400 years ago but its impact is still being felt at home and abroad.” Not least in the findings of the Saville inquiry, which are published today.

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