Thursday, September 4, 1997

Derry and St. Colmcille

Last weekend I visited Derry and completed a journey of pilgrimage which I had first embarked upon earlier this Summer. My visit to Derry followed on an earlier trip to the Island of Iona and the common link was St. Columba or St. Columcille as he is known in Ireland.

The recorded history of the city located on the river Foyle goes back to 546 when a Monastery was established there by Columba who was later to leave Ireland to found a monastic settlement in Iona. The Town and later city of Derry was to develop from Columba’s first Monastery which was known as the Black Church. Derry takes its name from the Irish “Doire” which means “place of the oaks” after the oak forests which were once to be found in the area. Nowadays the name Derry is synonymous with Bloody Sunday, Apprentice Boy marches and perhaps most significantly the seige of Derry which still serves to excite some minds even though more than three hundred years have passed since the Jacobites and Williamites squared up to each other.

I had never before visited Derry but this year’s 1400 Anniversary commemoration of the death of St. Columba afforded the opportunity to see at first hand the city known “so well” in song and so readily identifiable from countless years of television coverage.

The first call was to St. Columba’s Church known as the Long Tower church which although only built in the 1780’s is believed to occupy the site of Columba’s 6th century church . Overlooking the Bogside, the Church is itself overlooked by part of the walls of Derry and the nearby Apprentice boys headquarters. This strange almost eerie juxta positioning, enlivens ones interest in the neo Renaissance style church which was the first catholic church built in Derry after the Reformation. It remains largely unchanged despite the liturgical renewal of Vatican 11 and a certain pride is taken in what is locally referred to as “the commendable restraint exercised following Vatican Council” . The elaborate use of carrara marble throughout the church coupled with the most extensive central gallery I have seen in any Irish Church lends a uniquely appealing aspect to this ecclesiastical treasure. It was here that I came across the first of many links between Derry and Athy as I gazed upon a picture to the left of the baptistry door which serves as a Memorial to the Dominican’s who once had a Monastery in Derry as they also had in Athy.

The next stop was St. Columbs Anglican Cathedral which when built in 1633 was the first specifically Protestant Cathedral built in Ireland following the Reformation. It was one of the new buildings in the City of Derry which was then being laid out on the directions of the Trades Guilds of London. These Guilds as part of the plantation of Ulster were granted the county and the settlement on the River Foyle which in honour of this association was renamed Londonderry.

It was in the Cathedral chancel that I found the next link with my home town when I read the opened pages of the Irish War Memorials laid out in a specially constructed oak case. There amongst the names of the Irish killed in World War 1, I were two Athy men, Edward Stafford Private Dublin Royal Fusiliers died of wounds in France, September 24th 1914 and Thomas Stafford, Lance Corporal, Royal Dublin Fusiliers killed in action in France, 6th September 1916. Strange how it is that in a city synonymous with bigotry and an unquestioning adherence to divisive traditions that these once young men from what could only be regarded as a republican town were still being remembered.

In the Cathedral porch is a metal plinth on which sits a large cannon ball about sixteen inches in diameter which was reputedly fired into the besieged city of Derry in 1689 carrying with it terms for surrender. It was apparently presented to the Cathedral by the Apprentice boys of Derry just before the Great Famine.

The Cathedral bearing Columba’s name is festooned with regimental flags and colours and these with the siege cannonball speaks not of a peaceful Columban heritage but rather of battles and conflicts and emnity between people who in the case of Derry must still serve out their days as one community.

It was with these thoughts that I moved on with my companions to the Guild Hall to meet the Deputy Mayor of Derry. Alderman Miller D.U.P. Member welcomed us to the City of Londonderry whose Guild Hall or Townhall has been bombed on several occasions over the last twenty years. Even the obviously pleasant man with the welcoming words for his “southern neighbours” was himself once the subject of an assassination attack. He survived and was now in a time of a fragile peace extending a hand of friendship to visitors to his city. It was here that I found yet another link with Athy when I noted the name of one of the members of the Irish Society who presented the Guild Hall to the City of Derry at the end of the last Century. It was Sir T. Bowater a name which will be familiar to many of those who worked in the Bowater Wallboard Factory in Athy during the 50’s and 60’s.

There are many contradictions in a City which prides itself on its links with St. Columba. Not least is the almost fastidious observance of traditions which seem to contradict the Christain legacy of the man who was credited with founding Derry or if you prefer Londonderry.

The Columban trail is not confined to the Northern City but extends into neighbouring County Donegal. It was here on the last day of my visit that I ended my pilgrimage to the sites associated with St. Columba. On the shores of Gartan Lough is the Colmcille Heritage Centre which tells the story of the Saint and his association with the area. Not far away is Gartan, some ten miles west of Letterkenny where he was reputed to have been born in 521.

When Columba died, 77 years later on the Island of Iona, he had achieved an importance in the Church which he was never to lose. Ireland’s greatest missionary and his followers have given us the most important illuminated manuscripts in the Christain World. The Book of Durrow, the Book of Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells, all works of Columban missionaries represent, the supreme achievement of Celtic Christian Art.

From the shores of Lough Gartan in Donegal to the Island of Iona off Scotland, the Columban trail afforded me in a unique insight into Saint Columba and his legacy. In the City of Derry, it brought me in to touch with a different type of legacy, the reality of which threatens the very people who inhabit what was the site of the saints first Monastery.

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