The Town I Loved So Well is a personal lament by songwriter Phil Coulter for his home town of Derry and the way it was devastated by the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Coulter is one of Ireland’s most successful songwriters with numerous hits to his credit across a wide spectrum of styles.
These ranged from pop songs like Puppet on a String, which won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1967, to deeper songs written in a more traditional folk style such as Scorn Not His Simplicity.
The Town I Loved So Well is very much in the second category. Coulter was born in Derry in 1942.
He grew up there when it was still a peaceful place to live before the beginning of the Troubles in the late 1960s.
Phil Coulter’s intro to The Town I Loved So Well
Phil Coulter added this introduction to his recording of The Town I Loved So Well.
“Derry has a great tradition of music and a very proud history being one of the oldest cities in the country.
“In recent years it’s suffered more than its fair share of pain and heartache, but there’s something special about the place and the people that has helped them overcome the worst of times.
“Of all the songs I’ve written, this is the one I’d like to be remembered for. It’s my story but it’s also the story of Derry, the town I loved so well.”
A hard but peaceful town in the 1950s
The first three verses of The Town I Loved So Well describe what the town was like when Coulter was growing up there in the 1950s.
There is no attempt to gloss over the town’s faults. Coulter paints a gritty picture of a place where life was hard.
The children played in makeshift playgrounds by the gas yard wall amid the smell and the smoke. Many of the men were unemployed and had to stay at home playing a mother’s role while their wives went out to work in the local shirt factory.
Despite the hardship and deprivation, people were basically happy.
The final two verses describe Coulter’s shock and dismay at the way the town was then “brought to its knees” by the violence. The smell from the gas yard is replaced by the smell from bombs and gunfire which “hangs on to every breeze”. The children no longer play by the gas yard wall because the army is now installed there instead.
No political comment but hope for the future
Coulter was born a Catholic but there is nothing partisan about the song. He makes no political comment and doesn’t blame either side or any faction.
Instead, he focuses on the devastation brought on the town and its innocent residents. The final verse ends with a tribute to those people whose spirit may be “bruised” but never “broken”.
Like Coulter, they want an end to the violence with their hearts set on “peace once again”. That wish was achieved to some degree by the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
The Town I Loved So Well has been recorded by numerous artists across the world, most notably perhaps by Luke Kelly and The Dubliners, Tommy Makem and The Irish Tenors.