125 years since Father Willie Doherty arrived at Long Tower Church

The Long Tower Church today.
The Long Tower Church today.

Father William Doherty is a priest who will never be forgotten in Derry, and 
this year marks the 125th anniversary of his arrival at Long Tower Church

He was a man, a priest, whose work was to leave an indelible mark on the city of Derry. If you haven’t heard the name Father William Doherty, ask your grandparents or your great grandparents.

Father Willie Doherty.

Father Willie Doherty.

Tuesday of this week (April 14) marked the 125th anniversary of the arrival of Father Willie Doherty to the Long Tower Church.

His name would be remembered long after he was moved to a new parish in Buncrana, indeed long after his death in 1931, and he is still remembered today by generations who never even knew the man but were told about him by their parents and grandparents. Fr Willie, as he was affectionately known, was born in 1861 in a house called Cherry Cottage, which still stands today, in the village of Castlederg. He was the son of John Doherty and Mary Ann McGrath and had at least two other sisters, Susan and Sarah.

His mother was the manageress of an underclothing factory and his father a shirt agent.

Father Willie was ordained a priest on June 20, 1886 at Maynooth College. After a four year placement as C.C. at Langfield he was moved to St Columba’s Church, Long Tower, Derry.

The Long Tower in 1910.

The Long Tower in 1910.

This move was to define his life for the next 27 years. He would remain in Derry from 1890 until 1917, when he would make his last move to Buncrana until his death on 25th January 1931.

The report of his death printed in the Derry Journal described him as follows: “Fr Willie made a massive impression on the Long Tower Parish. During his first seven years as curate there, he took on the responsibility of organising a great commemoration in the city for the 1300th anniversary of the death of St. Columba on the island of Iona.”

Up to the year 1890 as one writer put it “if the name of Columba was familiar, the life and personality of the saint of the Long Tower were as unfamiliar to the great mass of the people whose privilege it was to worship on the spot where he was known to pray.”

Fr. Doherty set himself to change all that. With the enthusiasm and singleness of purpose of the pioneers of the great devotions of the past he began in a way all of his own to tell the people of the glorious memories and holy traditions of the Long Tower and to preach devotion to the patriot saint, who over thirteen centuries before had laid its foundation and consecrated it to God.

The side altar at the Long Tower Church donated by Father Willie's mother.

The side altar at the Long Tower Church donated by Father Willie's mother.

“To make fuller and closer the people’s acquaintance with the life and character of Columba, to arouse a lively religious interest in the sacred associations of the Long Tower, to increase devotion to the Dove of the Tabernacle by spreading devotion to the Dove of the Church” - such was Fr. Doherty’s mission.

And to him it was a mission of love. Columba was the Saint of the Eucharist, and it was Fr. Doherty’s wish that Derry’s offering to God in Columba’s name and honour should through the hands of Mary Immaculate be Eucharistic also.

The realisation of that desire was not long in coming - the success of that mission was speedy and spontaneous.

Evidence for that was the Thirteenth Centenary Celebrations which will live forever in the memories of those who participated. Those celebrations witnessed in the Long Tower were like scenes plucked from the glorious chapters of its early Christian splendours. The many masses, the thousands who received daily Communion, the arched and decorated streets with the altars, the illuminated houses, the magnificent public religious procession, the first that Derry had seen since the Penal Days. The exposition, the open air Gaelic Rosary, and the solemn removal at the midnight hour of the 9th of June of St Columba’s Stone from the Wells to the Church. It was a splendid culmination of Father Doherty’s unwearying labours and unsurpassed gifts of organisation and leadership.

Father Willie's birthplace in Castlederg.

Father Willie's birthplace in Castlederg.

This tireless priest regarded it as but the beginning. Without any flagging of time or effort he set about the erection of the beautiful Calvary, in which the stone is now enshrined, and this with warm approval and cooperation of his then Bishop , John Keys O’Doherty.

One of his most distressing duties in the early 20th Century was when he tended to a prisoner in Derry Jail on Bishop Street who was then on Death Row and was eventually hanged.

This event is recorded in his diary of that time.

He followed that up by demolishing the old Long Tower and raising up on its ruins what Cardinal Logue described as “one of the most beautiful churches in Ireland.”

Fr.Willie tells us in a piece he wrote in the Derry Journal of the 5th June 1908 of his finds during a dig which was carried out whilst the demolition of the old Long Tower Church and the raising of the new one were taking place. He describes finding a skeleton and a grave of what he described as an important person, that location he had marked with a marble plaque and declared it to be the location of St. Columba’s Dubh Regles.

The fact that he did mark it leaves us the hope that one day someone else will further excavate that spot and with modern technology might find more information on what our most loved cleric discovered.

The Journal report of the death of Father Willie Doherty.

The Journal report of the death of Father Willie Doherty.

Father Doherty’s labours did not end there. During the winter months of each year he, through limelight lectures, made his people familiar with the history of the church, the lives of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints, and the great Shrines of the Catholic World.

At the same time he took an active interest in education, of which he was a noted exponent, and, in addition to his remarkable work for the children themselves, was responsible for the magnificent new Long Tower Boys’ School up the hill from the church in the grounds of what used to be the Albert Market.

He also had a great love for the poor and infirm and was responsible for the new wing added to the Nazareth House in Bishop St.

In 1917 with the death of Fr. Hugh McMenamin, Fr. Doherty was appointed Parish Priest of Buncrana and here he continued his mission of over a quarter of a century in Derry. He recognised as did his predecessor the need for better and larger school accommodation but the First World War prevented him giving effect to his desires. The moment this obstacle was removed he threw himself into the work of providing places of education and to this end gave Buncrana eight of the finest schools in Ireland, in fact there were those who stated that the Buncrana parish was the best schooled parish in the new Free State.

No sooner had he completed the schools when he set about providing what was indeed, an admitted necessity, the erection of a church in the town, since their only church was several miles outside the town. With the willing support of the local population and his bishop he undertook the erection of what is today St. Mary’s Oratory, a gem of church art and architecture.

As the years passed and the work increased it all took a toll on his health. It is said that he never got over the death of his two sisters who died withing six months of each other.

Finally on the 21st January 1931 he succumbed to the inevitable. He was buried in Cockhill Graveyard just outside the front door of the church.

Here, people in Derry, especially those with a connection to Long Tower, will most likely have heard stories from their grandparents or parents about this most memorable of clergymen. My own mother knew Fr. Willie and spoke very highly of the man.

May he rest in peace.

The gravestone of Father Willie Doherty in Cockhill Buncrana.

The gravestone of Father Willie Doherty in Cockhill Buncrana.