Northern Ireland news

Volunteers breathe new life into Derry heritage centre

St Columba's Heritage Centre in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Seamus McKinney

A GROUP of volunteers have re-established a Derry heritage centre in preparation for next year's 1,500th anniversary of the birth of St Columba.

Áras Cholmcille, in the grounds of St Columba's Church, Long Tower, overlooks Derry's Bogside and lies at the very heart of the Columban legacy.

Born in Gartan in Co' Donegal in 520/21, Columba established a monastery in Derry, before emigrating to the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast. It was from there than his monks helped spread Christianity throughout Europe.

With St Patrick and St Brigid, Columba was one of Ireland patron saints and his life and connection with Derry is found in every aspect of the city's life, even giving his name to the city itself in Doire Cholmcille (Colmcille's Oak Grove).

The St Columba heritage centre, Áras Cholmcille was set up in a former primary school which had been opened in 1825. On its closure, the building was let fall into disrepair. It was eventually restored as Áras Cholmcille and opened as a Columban heritage centre in 2013.

The centre, including artefacts and a restaurant, closed through lack of use.

However, new life has now been breathed into the facility thanks to the hard work of a small band of around 16 volunteers.

The building lies close to the original Long Tower which is in the grounds of nearby Lumen Christi college. It is in the area where Columba established his Derry monastery, which was also the site of the Teampall Mór or great church.

Visitors to the centre are taken through an interactive history of Derry. There are also many fascinating artefacts representing Derry’s ecclesiastical history, including an 18th century Koran as well as facsimile copies of many early Christian books, including the world-famous Book of Kells.

In the short term there are plans for temporary exhibitions, according to volunteer, Ivor Doherty.

"We’re planning to stage an exhibition in the restaurant on Derry’s dockers, with pictures and artefacts and there are plans to exhibit paintings by local artists," Mr Doherty said.

Plans are also at an advanced stage to mark next year’s anniversary of the violence which occurred around Long Tower during the Irish War of Independence in 1920. There was intense fighting between the IRA and loyalists in the nearby Fountain. In one week along, 20 people were killed.

"We've the names and addresses of all those who were killed so we're hoping to tell their stories," Mr Doherty said.

Áras Cholmcille is perfectly placed to become the centre of events marking the 1,500th anniversary of Columba’s birth. Derry’s neighbouring diocese of Raphoe in County Donegal is working closely with the heritage centre to put together a number of events.

"One of the big things is that we're working on a Camino-type walk linking the various parts of Columba’s heritage. It's at an early stage but we're already talking to the Raphoe diocese about that," Mr Doherty said.

In the short term, the volunteers are busy preparing for next month's `Culture Night' on September 20.

"We haven't had the number of visitors we would like but if the comments on our visitors’ book are anything to go by all of those who do visit are impressed by what we have and our plan is to build on that," Mr Doherty said.

Áras Cholmcille is open daily from 10am to 4pm.

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