A new tourist trail revealing the life and legends of Derry’s patron saint has just been unveiled.
Sli Cholmcille - the St Columba Trail - takes a fresh look at the life and traditions of St Columba, also known as St Colmcille.
The trail, which draws together the fascinating story of St Colmcille’s life and legacy, stretches from Gleann Cholm Cille in south west Donegal to the Western Isles of Scotland.
There are nine interlinked routes, including three in Donegal, one in Derry City, and another between Coleraine and Limavady.
Slí Cholmcille is the result of connections made over a number of years and of input from many parties.
The project has been developed by Colmcille (www.colmcille.net), an initiative named after the saint.
It was set up to promote links between Irish and Scottish Gaelic in 1997, a year which saw commemorations of the 1400th anniversary of the death of the Colmcille or St Columba.
It is now a partnership between Foras na Gaeilge, which promotes the Irish Language in the island of Ireland, and Bòrd na Gàidhlig which promotes Scottish Gaelic in Scotland and internationally.
The Slí starts off in Gleann Cholm Cille, the Irish-speaking area of South West Donegal which has a strong traditional link with Colmcille. The glen is named after him and the saint is still commemorated during the annual “turas” or pilgrimage which takes place here.
In Gleann Cholm Cille, the Slí Cholmcille follows the route of the Turas Cholmcille. The turas - translated as the journey - is part of a strong Christian pilgrimage tradition in Ireland. The turas links a number of ancient stones some of which date back to 3000BC. The standing stones which form the core of the turas probably date from 500-700AD.
Local tradition says that Colmcille lived here for two years before he left Ireland to found his monastery in Iona.
Next stop on the journey is Tory Island off the coast of Donegal, the most remote of Ireland’s inhabited islands.
The island has a long history of human inhabitation and has archaeology dating back to the Iron Age. There are also Christian remains dating back to early medieval times.
Tory Island is also home to the mythical Balor of the Mighty Blows - a one-eyed king. The eye was so evil that it had to be kept covered. A prophecy told that Balor would be killed by his grandson so he locked his only daughter Eithne in a big stone tower - Tor Mór. But Eithne still managed to produce a son - Lúgh - who fulfilled the prophecy by killing his grandfather.
Lúgh is taken as a symbol of goodness and light fighting against the evil Balor. He was known in many parts of Celtic Europe as a powerful god. It seems likely that, in Christian times, some of the attributes of Lugh were transferred to the character of Colmcille.
From Tory, it’s on to Gartan where, according to tradition, Colmcille was born, brought up and educated.
The links between Gartan and Colmcille mostly come from Manus O’Donnell’s ‘Life of Colum Cille’ which was completed in 1532, almost 1,000 years after the saint’s death.
There was a medieval pilgrimage route which linked several places in the Gartan area that had a connection with the early life of Colmcille. Many of the Slí Cholmcille stops in this area were part of that pilgrimage.
Next stop on the Slí is Derry City, where Colmcille is said to have set sail from to found his new monastery in Iona in 563.
According to legend, Colmcille founded a monastery in Derry in 545, 17 years before he left to set up the monastery in Iona. It was said to be his first and most beloved monastic foundation.
Lying to the east of Derry city is an area of rolling green hills, long sandy beaches and the Sperrins Mountains.
There are strong links between this area and the life and legends of Colmcille, as recorded first by Adomnán, Abbot of Iona 679-704.
Adomnán wrote the Life of St Columba - the earliest full surviving account of the saint’s life. Adomnán mentions the names of very few places in Ireland which were visited by Colmcille but he mentions three in this area.
Adomnán writes that Colmcille returned to Ireland for the Convention of Drum Ceat, which took place outside modern day Limavady probably in the 570s. During this visit, the saint was in Camus, south of Coleraine where he predicted the Battle of Dún Ceithirn. He also visited Coleraine, where he was met by the local bishop and accepted gifts from the people of the district.
The Sli then departs for Scotland where you can follow the story of Colmcille’s journey from his first landing place at the bottom of Kintyre, up to Dunadd the fortress of the local ruler, Conall mac Comgall. Colmcille is said to have visited Comgall before heading to the island of Iona which was at the heart of the familia of churches and religious settlements scattered across the west of Scotland founded by Colmcille and his successors.
The Scottish trail continues to Tarbat Ness where Colmcille visited around 565 - only two years after he arrived in Scotland - to forge stronger political relationships with the ruling Picts and to get a guarantee that his monks would be protected as they travelled.
The final leg on the Slí heads to the Outer Hebrides where you can travel from the wild cliffs of north Lewis to the white shell beaches of the Isle of Barra. The remains of early Christian worship and belief lie scattered along the coastlines of these islands.
For more information on Slí Cholmcille, check out its official website at http://www.colmcille.org/slicholmcille