Limavady (Limavadde) derives its name from 'Leim an Mhadaidh' and means ‘Leap of the Dog’. The name ties the original location of the settlement to the O’Cahan’s castle in the Roe Valley Country Park, signposted and on the Roe Valley Scenic Drive. The Dog Leap relates to a faithful guard dog of the O'Cahan's which is said to have leaped over the river gorge to warn its master of approaching enemies. The O’Cahan's ruled the area from the 14th century until their last chieftain Donal Ballagh surrendered to Sir Henry Docwra in 1602, during his campaign in Ireland under the authority of Queen Elizabeth 1st.
The Limavady we know today developed during the Plantation of Ulster and was originally known as Newtown Limavadde. The County of Coleraine (O’Cahans Country) was granted to Thomas Phillips by James 1st of England, the same Thomas Phillips who was granted a license to distil whiskey at Bushmills in 1608. He effectively became commander of the area and forged ahead with establishing new settlements between Coleraine and Londonderry as part of the plantation. He built a substantial residence here which included the remains of O’Cahans Castle where he resided. Two miles north he built eighteen houses and an Inn which became Newtown Limavadde, in 1870 the Newtown was dropped from the name.
On Limavady's Main Street you will see a sculpture created by the artist Philip Flanagan to commemorate Jane Ross and the town’s connection to the world renown melody ‘Danny Boy’ or the ‘Londonderry Air’. Jane was an avid collector of unpublished Irish melodies and one day heard the tune being played on a fiddle outside the Burn and Laird shipping office, opposite where she lived, by a fiddler known locally as blind Jimmy McCurry (1830-1910) who resided in Limavady workhouse.
Jane wrote down the notes of tune which she later passed on as part of her collection to George Petrie who published the air in 1855 with the title of ‘Londonderry Air’. The lyrics to the air that gave it the name happened in a roundabout way, the melody was heard by a Margaret Weatherly being played by gold prospectors in Colorado in 1912, some say they were from the Roe Valley area and had taken the tune with them. She was so taken with the melody that she acquired a copy and sent it to her brother-in-law Fred Weatherly who resided in Somerset, England and wrote lyrics as a pastime. He had already written lyrics for a song entitled ‘Danny Boy’. On hearing the air the lyrics he had worked perfectly with the tune and so was born the anthem which the town now claims fame to and celebrates each year with a Danny Boy Festival.
Roe Valley Country Park is located a couple of miles outside the town on the Roe Valley Scenic Drive to Dungiven. The fast flowing river cascades over and through pre-cambrian rock outcrops providing a centre piece for excellent walks and a challenge for white water sports. The park was originally a private estate belonging to the Ritter family who ran a dairy farm, mineral water works, market garden and an hydro power station. The hydro power was pioneered by John Edward Ritter who owned the estate, he first began generating electricity 1893 for the Roe Park House and farm with an engine and dynamo, later he moved to an operational water wheel. In 1896 he built the power house, installed water turbines and turned his attention to supplying electricity for Limavady. The first power was delivered in 1897 and by 1900 he had 75 customers. Limavady became the first town in Ireland to have hydro electricity, the business flourish despite opposition and competition from the gas works. After his death in 1901, his wife took over the running of the business helped by her eldest son Stanton and it continued in the family right up to 1946 when the Electricity Board for Northern Ireland bought it over. They inherited 1095 customers and 48 miles of electric circuits, it ran for another 19 years before closing in 1965 on the grounds of expense in comparison to the cost of oil at the time. The power house is open to the public and the area is highly recommended for a visit, a small interpretation display exists on site.
Mullagh Hill or Drumceatt Mound which is adjacent to the Roe Valley Radisson Hotel is referenced as a site having a long history of religious and mystical connections. It was the venue for a major event around 575 AD known as the Convention of Drumceatt, the site replacing Tara as a venue. This convention brought together civil and religious rulers of Ireland and Scotland and was attended by St. Columba. The meeting was called by the King of Ireland and acted as a forum where debate took place, alliances were forged, laws for rule in Ireland where established and policies formulated for relationships to other kingdoms.
St. Columba has close links to the area, he was born near Gartan in Donegal and founded the first monastic settlement in Daire (now Londonderry or Derry). A close friend of his was St. Canice who was born a few miles outside Limavady at Drumramer, he is referred to as the patron saint of the Roe Valley. St Canice is credited with founding the monastery at Drumchose, the Parish Church of Faughanvale in Eglington is named after him.
The area around Limavady and the Roe Valley is scattered with ancient cairns and artifacts. The famous Broighter Gold, named after the townland where it was found in 1896 by Thomas Nicholl while he was working the land, is an exquisite collection of finely worked gold. Incidentally in 1996 the Mint produced a pound coin with the Broighter Collar stamped on it. The hoard consisted of a thick collar, a bowl, two necklets, two plaited wire chains and a model of a boat with eighteen rowlocks and fittings including a small spear. The collection dates to 3000 BC.
Limavady was also the birthplace of William Massey who was born at Keenaght in 1856. He emigrated to New Zealand when he was fourteen and worked his way from being a ploughman to Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1912. He return twice to Limavady, a commemoration sculpture was commissioned by the artist Phillip Flanagan which today stands outside the Council Offices.
If you travel up the Roe Valley Scenic Drive to Dungiven it will take you to the top of the mountain, here you will see signs for Ness Wood. If you really like walks and woodlands it is well worth a visit. A deep gorge cut by the Burntollett river drops over the Ness, the largest waterfall in Northern Ireland from which the woodland takes its name, Ness derives from 'an las' and means waterfall in Gaelic. Pathways follow either side of the gorge, winding there way down to the valley floor. This is an old decidious woodland of mixed species and wonderful in autumn as the colours change, if your lucky you could also spot a red squirrel as they inhabit the area.
Another fascinating location is Limavady Airfield which was known locally as Aghanloo, it is adjacent to the Causeway Coastal Route as you head towards Magilligan or on the right as you approach Limavady. This was opened in 1940 with three operational runways. It was used by Wellington and Liberators to patrol the north western approaches. Hudsons, Blenheims and Whitley bombers also used the base as well as Hurricane fighters. It was also used by Churchill's secret transport command of women pilots who flew Liberators from a transit airfield in Canada to Limavady and other local airfields. The airfield had a high aircraft loss due to the fact that Binevenagh mountain was in line of sight for take off and also the circuit for landing, highlighted by the nickname of 'Ben Twitch' given to Binevenagh by pilots who had to clear it, often in cloud cover. One of the biggest losses in one day occurred in early 1943 when five planes took off from the airfield and only one returned. One landed on Downhill beach, another crashed in Kent, one crashed on Binevenagh mountain and another on Loughermore Mountain with the loss of all the crew.
Many of the local churches contain the graves of young servicemen and women who lost their life in connection with the RAF bases here. At Christ Church on Main Street in Limavady there is a memorial to all those lost during the second world war and post war, it takes the form of a tail fin for an Avro Shakleton.
Another interesting location is Limavady Workhouse, visually impressive and a hauntingly beautiful piece of architecture which dates back to 1842 when it open its doors for the first time. It was built in response to the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 created to relieve destitution of the poor. The Irish Act followed a similar Acts in England and Wales where Poor Law Unions were formed to set up workhouses in their areas. The Newtown Limavady Poor Union was formed in 1839 and covered an area of 240 square miles. The town dropped the Newtown from its title in 1870.The workhouse was designed by George Wilkinson who originated in Oxfordshire, he had been invited to Ireland in 1839 by the Poor Law Commission after building 24 workhouses in England. In Ireland he was given the task of designing 130 workhouses for the Poor Law Unions. He spent the next 11 years creating these, after which he designed railway stations in Ireland. The Limavady workhouse is one of the finest examples of his work in Ireland and well worth seeing. The workhouse accommodated 500 inmates, a fever hospital was added during the famine.
There were three burial grounds, the last one was opened from 1841 and many of those buried here were famine victims, during the famine the numbers of inmates doubled. A memorial plaque marks the centre of the burial ground. The building is fabulous to see but the stories around the workhouse and the hardships endured where unbelievable in relation to today’s reality. The workhouse was open right up to 1930 when the remaining inmates were transferred to Coleraine, the building then became the local hospital and from 1937 to 1997, the Roe Valley Hospital. Today it is occupied by the Limavady Community Development Initiative and you can get a guided tour around the building on request, within are some really fascinating displays and stories relating to the life in and around the workhouse. There are also stories of hauntings and ghosts being seen in and around the site.
Jimmy Curry, the blind fiddler who is credited with playing the lament that Jane Ross overheard, which later became the air ‘Danny Boy’ or ‘Londonderry Air’, in his later years lived and died in the workhouse. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Tamlaghtfinlagan Church at Ballykelly. The area around Limavady is well worth exploring with much more to be discovered than I have outlined here. For somewhere not to far away to stay, I would recommend Ballycarton House which you can find in the accommodation link on the frontpage under Magilligan. Another exceptional location for views, walking and wildlife is the Ballymacran and Ballykelly Bank which you can access from the Causeway Coastal Route between Limavady and Ballykelly. If you have time then you should not miss this unique environment beside Lough Foyle.