The waters of the Foyle were flowing to the ocean long before man’s foot trod its banks. In early Irish history those waters carried the flimsy boats of fishermen and travellers. The latter included the Donegal monk, Colmcille, travelling to establish the monastery on the Scottish Island of Iona. Over the centuries since then, many from the North West have followed in his wake. Some travelled to Britain while others crossed the Atlantic to North America or sailed even farther afield to Australia and New Zealand.
Both Vikings and Normans used the Foyle. The Vikings sailed inland as far as Dunalong – the fort of the ships – in County Tyrone while the Normans established a stronghold at Greencastle and controlled Derry. The skeleton on the city’s coat of arms represents a Norman Knight of the de Burgo (Burke) family who built Greencastle.
In 1664 King Charles II granted a Charter to Londonderry Corporation giving it responsibility for the Port. Over the next 200 years shipping increased greatly with exports of linen and provisions, as well as emigration. In 1771 the city’s merchants owned 67 ships with a total tonnage of 11,000 tonnes.
LONDONDERRY PORT & HARBOUR COMMISSIONERS
In 1854 the Londonderry Port & Harbour Commissioners were established to take control of the port and the waters of the Foyle from the city to the mouth of the Lough Foyle. Thus began strategic development of the Port.
Within seven years the Commissioners had spent £150,000 to improve facilities. From the wooden bridge at the bottom of Bridge Street, to the new graving dock at Meadowbank, a line of quays was built. Other quays were built on the Waterside and tramways were laid to link up with the railways that connected the city to the rest of Ireland.
The graving dock allowed large vessels to be dry-docked for repair and was built at an angle to the river. Granite-walled and fitted with heavy oak gates, it cost £25,000 and came into use in February 1862. The McCorkell Line ship Zered was the first to be docked there while the next ship was the Cooke Line’s Doctor Kane. Both were local ships belonging to Derry-based shipping companies.
By this time the port was Ireland’s fifth largest and exports were increasing. The Foyle was home to a small shipyard and so locally built ships operated from the city. The revolutionary Great Northern, the first ever propeller-driven ship, was built by Captain Coppin in the city.
Coppin had turned to ship repairs by 1854 and used the graving dock for this purpose. When he closed his repair business in 1873 the Commissioners decided to create a shipyard. They spent £25,000 to turn the slob land beside the graving dock into a yard. Charles Bigger leased this new shipyard in 1886 and, over the next five years, built 25 steel-hulled sailing ships. Some, such as the Osseo for the McCorkell Line were built for local owners.
French, R., & Lawrence, W. (18941912). Quays, Derry City, Co. Derry [Published 1894 - 1912]. National Library of Ireland Catalogue
The Allan Line began a weekly service from Liverpool to Canada in 1861. Ships called at Moville where local passengers could board. Mail was also taken aboard. Five years later the Anchor Line began a Glasgow-New York service which also called at Moville. The Allan Line service ended with the First World War but the Anchor Line, which became Anchor-Donaldson, continued sailings to Canada until 1939.
The liners that called at Moville carried many emigrants from these shores. These passengers boarded a tender at the Trans-Atlantic Shed on the quay and travelled down the Foyle to Moville where they transferred to the liner. Today’s Tourist Information Office stands almost on the site of the Trans-Atlantic shed.
The traffic across the Atlantic played a major part in the port’s growth. From 200,000 tonnes in 1866, the transatlantic service grew to its highest point of 940,000 tonnes in 1905. Averaging about 600,000 tonnes each year until 1931, it began dropping to half that figure by 1939 when the trans-Atlantic service ended.
The core of the Harbour’s trade during the 19th century was cross-channel business. Between 1860 and 1910 tonnage increased from an annual 200,000 tonnes to just below 300,000. 1910 was the peak year for such traffic.
Both passengers and goods travelled by ship from the city to destinations in Britain such as Heysham, Fleetwood, Liverpool, Greenock and Glasgow. The Laird Line operated six passenger steamers each week to Heysham or Fleetwood. In addition the Belfast steamship company connected the City with Liverpool twice-weekly and G. & J. Burns and the Laird Line provided six sailings each week to Greenock or Glasgow.
Passenger services began declining in 1912 when the Fleetwood service ended. In 1922 passenger services to Liverpool ended, although cargo and livestock were carried until 1965. No passengers were carried to Heysham after the early 1930s but a cargo service operated until 1963.
In 1922 G. & J. Burns Ltd. and the Laird Line amalgamated to form Burns and Laird Lines Ltd. By 1930 the company had a sailing each weekday evening from Prince’s Quay to Glasgow. A passenger service to Glasgow continued to operate until September 1966 when Burns and Laird transferred the Laird’s Loch, their last passenger steamship, to the Dublin-Glasgow service.
Livestock was an important element of the shipping trade from Derry. In 1884 over 57,000 cattle almost 15,000 sheep and more than 19,000 pigs were carried to ports in Britain. Cattle exports through the Port increased from over 49,000 in 1918 to 91,000 six years later.
The passenger ships carried many emigrants as well as seasonal workers and businessmen. There were also holidaymakers, especially from Scotland, who continued to visit the North-West until the last passenger sailings in 1966.
THE FOYLE AT WAR
During the Second World War Londonderry became the most important escort base in the UK. In mid-1940, following the German capture of the French Atlantic ports, convoys were routed through the North-West Approaches around Ireland’s north coast.
As Londonderry was the most westerly port in the UK, a naval base named HMS Ferret, was established here in June 1940. The old shipyard was re-activated and the graving dock extended to repair and maintain warships which guarded the Atlantic convoys. A new jetty was built at Lisahally (Irish: Lios a' chabhlaigh meaning "Fort of the Fleet") and “dolphins” also known as mooring points, extended along the quays.
Lisahally wharf under construction Jan 28 1942. © IWM A 9560
INTO THE FUTURE
With the city centre port becoming increasingly unsuitable for larger ships the Harbour Commissioners decided to relocate to Lisahally. The move was made in February 1993. The new deep-water port, with 440 metres of quayside and an eight-metre-deep channel can handle ships of over 62,000 tonnes and bulk cargoes.
Principal imports are grain from the United States and coal from Colombia and South Africa. Vessels carrying various cargoes including cement, logs and fertiliser also visit Lisahally from ports across Europe. A separate terminal handles oil tankers and has a capacity of 88,000 tonnes. Uniquely in Ireland it can handle four grades of fuel: Gas Oil, Kerosene, Low Sulphur Diesel and Unleaded Petrol.
in recent years Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners have established a number of diversified trading divisions including Foyle Marine Services a division set up to handle the Port’s dredging and towage services and to offer marine services externally to other ports. Foyle Consulting Engineers is a division set up to provide structural and civil engineering services while Foyle Engineering offers a steel fabrication service.
Today, Foyle Port is the key marine gateway in the North West for both commerce and tourism and its strategic location means that the port can continue to serve the whole north western seaboard of Ireland.