The ongoing transformation of a Victorian-era military barracks in Londonderry into a vibrant public space filled with tourist attractions continues apace.
Dating back to the 1840s, the former Ebrington Barracks has been undergoing a dramatic process of renewal since it was vacated by the Army and later opened to the public.
Once an imposing military installation overlooking Londonderry’s cityside from the opposite side of the River Foyle, Ebrington is now a picturesque public space linked to the city centre by the iconic Peace Bridge across the Foyle.
Once home to sailors, soldiers and the instruments of war, Ebrington now houses an art gallery, a restaurant and a brewery as Northern Ireland’s second city turns swords into ploughshares.
The regeneration of the site is set to gather pace in the coming years with a museum expected to open in 2020 to celebrate the proud maritime history associated with Ebrington, which was used as a naval base during the Second World War and played a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic.
There have been rumours of a hotel opening at the site and a drinks company is hoping to open the first whiskey distillery in Londonderry for almost a century at Ebrington.
Ciaran Mulgrew, managing director of Niche Drinks, described the transformation of the site as “unbelievable” and said it could become a huge visitor attraction to rival the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.
“When we looked around us we realised that a lot of distilleries have very active visitor centres and that is something we wanted to do ourselves. If you look at Bushmills, they have 150,000 visitors every year. We realised we wanted somewhere that would be accessible to visitors and Ebrington is perfect.
“The transformation of Ebrington over the years really is unbelievable.
“It could become a whole new quarter to the city. Belfast has the Cathedral Quarter which is fantastic, it has the Titanic Quarter too. If you look at what has already happened here and what is in the pipeline, Ebrington could become something really attractive to visitors over the next couple of years.
“The maritime museum is due to open in 2020. We are hoping to open a whiskey distillery and visitor centre in 2018 if we get the planning permission. I think the Clock Tower building is going to be a hotel and that would be great. Add that to what’s already here and all of a sudden you have so much activity and life about the place.
“With the Peace Bridge being there it really has brought Ebrington into the middle of the town. As a public space alone it is a really great place now. The transformation has been amazing.”
The site itself has a long and storied military history, dating back to the Siege of Derry when it was occupied by the Jacobite forces. Ebrington was eventually chosen as the site for a 10-acre star-fort in 1841. The cream-coloured buildings overlooking the former parade ground date from 1841 to 1890 including the Clock Tower building, the hospital, the canteen, the first officers’ mess, officers’ quarters, the guard house, and the barrack master’s house.
It was home to First Battalion Cheshire Regiment during the First World War who counted war poet Francis Ledgewidge amongst their ranks at Ebrington. In the Second World War, the military base was occupied by the Royal Navy and played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Nazi bombs that rained down on Londonderry on April 15, 1941 were intended for Ebrington, due to its strategic importance.
In the post-war years, Ebrington became an anti-submarine training base before being handed back to the Army in 1970 after the outbreak of the Troubles. It was eventually vacated by the Army in the years following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, handed over to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2003 and opened to the public in 2011.