On 31 March 1841 an advertisement for “tenders for the erection of new barracks at Londonderry” was placed in local papers. Hugh Fortescue, Viscount Ebrington, Lord Lieutenant and General Governor of Ireland announced on 24 May 1841 (Queen Victoria’s 22nd birthday) that the barracks were to be named Ebrington. (The title of Viscount Ebrington comes from a small village in the north Cotswolds). The foundation stone was subsequently laid on 26 July.
The barracks were laid out in the shape of a Star Fort and buildings were laid out on three sides overlooking the city and the River Foyle. The original fort covered some ten acres, the centre piece of which was a parade ground measuring over 5 acres. The cream coloured buildings overlooking the former parade ground (now Ebrington Square) date from 1841 to 1890 including the Clock Tower, the hospital, the canteen, the first Officers’ Mess, Officers’ Quarters, the guard house, and the Barrack Master's house.
In 1875 the Star Fort was extended to the south, at which time the southern section of the Star Fort wall was largely demolished. Two stone married quarters were built, one of which remains - Cunningham. A second, much larger site extension took place in 1895 when land to the east was vested from the Hill estate which owned the adjacent St.Columb's demesne, now known as St Columb’s Park.
The second site extension in 1895 resulted in a comprehensive building plan and the red brick buildings remaining on site all date from that period including a second Officers’ Mess, several barracks buildings, a schoolhouse and two additional married quarters (Benbow and Raleigh). Within the Star Fort walls is an enclosed oval yard which is part of the original structure. Over time, it has been used as a fuel yard and an ‘engineer's yard'. In the middle of it is a small single storey building which was erected around 1900.
In 1914 the barracks was home to the 1st Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment. Elements of Irish Regiments 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Royal Inniskillen Dragoon Guards were also stationed at Ebrington.
Two famous writers served at Ebrington during World War I - the poet Francis Ledwidge (1887 - 1916) and the 18th Baron Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (1878 - 1957). Francis Ledwidge was born in Slane, Co Meath and was described as an ‘erratic genius’. His local landlord was Lord Dunsany, who was also interested in the Celtic revival and published over 80 books including short stories, plays and novels.
Lord Dunsany joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1914 and Francis Ledwidge also joined the same regiment and became a corporal. The regiment was sent to Ebrington in 1916. While he was in the barracks Ledwidge composed 47 poems including one entitled 'Derry'. He was very interested in the 1916 rising and it was Lord Dunsany who prevented him from deserting to join the Rising in Dublin. The regiment was transferred to France in December 1916 and Ledwidge was killed on 31 July 1917.
“Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic. It became our most westerly base for the repair, the working up and refuelling of destroyers, corvettes and frigates. By that critical spring (1943) when battle for the security of our Atlantic lifelines finally turned our way, Londonderry was the most important escort base in the north western approaches”. 'N. Ireland in the Second World War', Professor J W Blake (1956)
In 1939 Ebrington was home to the Welsh Borderers regiment, but with the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 the barracks played a very important role in the city’s contribution to the war effort.
Ebrington was taken over by the Royal Navy in December 1940 and re-named HMS Ferret for the duration of the war. In February 1941 the main HQ for the Western Approaches was transferred from Plymouth to Liverpool and Derry became the backup to Derby House in Liverpool. During the war, Derry was home to over 200 ships of the Royal Navy, the American Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the Free French and Free Dutch Navies. Some ships from the Royal Indian Naval Reserve were also based in Derry for convoy duties. The HQ for the Western Approaches was housed in two large underground bunkers in the grounds of Magee College.
In an attempt to disable Ebrington, the Luftwaffe bombed Messines Park, a residential area in the North of the city on 15 April 1941, killing 13 people and injuring 33.
The sinking of many supply ships in the Atlantic made America agree to a secret deal with Churchill in which America would supply 50 ageing destroyers for four bases within the UK. The base at Lisahally was included and on 30 June 1941 some 400 American technicians arrived at HMS Ferret, working in civilian clothes, as America only officially entered the war in December 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour. HMS Ferret became the main base for all naval operations covering the Western Approaches and the main Royal Navy base for anti-submarine operations throughout World War II.
HMS Ferret was home to service personnel and many of the buildings were used by the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), known as 'Wrens', as quarters and places of work. Building 70 was the Pay Office and the Wrens were quartered in Building 49 (original hospital).
Secret projects were undertaken to develop new equipment to outwit the U-boat fleet and the squid mortar was invented at HMS Ferret. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted for the entirety of World War II and was the longest battle of the war. Up to 1943 the U-boat fleet greatly increased but the war then turned in favour of the allied forces when they started to win in North Africa and Italy.
On 8 May 1945 more than 60 U-boats surrendered at Lisahally (now the city’s port), just three miles upstream from the city centre. Former service men and women still return to the city to visit Ebrington and the memorial at Lisahally.
According to the Public Record Office in London the base was re-named HMS Phoenix after the war, until it became HMS Sea Eagle. The end of the war in 1945 led to a period of uncertainty whereby the Admiralty considered what the future of the base might be. The visit of the then First Sea Lord, Sir John Cunningham in November 1946, however, resulted in the decision that while the site should remain an anti-submarine base it would become a dedicated training base. At that stage the base was given its fourth name – HMS Sea Eagle. During the Cold War, NATO military personnel were trained at HMS Sea Eagle.
In honour of his visit to the base, the Cunningham building was named after the First Sea Lord. It is naval tradition to posthumously name buildings after illustrious naval personnel. Naming the building while Cunningham was still alive was a tribute to his distinguished naval career and his contribution to the continued fortunes of the base.
In 1947 HMS Sea Eagle became a Joint Anti-submarine Training Base along with the Fleet Air Arm. The flying section was based at the old wartime airfield at Eglinton (now part of City of Derry Airport) which was called HMS Gannet. The establishment of HMS Sea Eagle saw the construction of a substantial number of new buildings and the base gained an international reputation as a state-of-the-art anti-submarine warfare training centre.
With the outbreak of the troubles, the base reverted to army and the original name of Ebrington in July 1970. At the height of the troubles 1,000+ soldiers were billeted at Ebrington. On 22 January 2002, as part of the peace dividend post Good Friday Agreement, it was announced that Ebrington would cease to be a military base. In December 2003 Ebrington was gifted to the people as part of the peace process and Ilex urban regeneration company was given responsibility for regenerating the 26 acre site.
The construction of the Peace Bridge, opened in June 2011, has extended the city centre to encompass Ebrington Square, which subsequently opened 14 February 2012. Now the largest public space in the city, it hosts large scale events including Radio 1’s Big Weekend, the Walled City Tattoo, and Fleadh 2013.