Derry’s living museum of history and culture

The Reverend Dean Morton pictured at the organ at St Columb's Cathedral. (0610SL01)
The Reverend Dean Morton pictured at the organ at St Columb's Cathedral. (0610SL01)

St Columb’s Cathedral has played a central role in the history of Derry over the last four centuries years and remains a key cultural hub for the city and region. During a tour of the cathedral with Dean of Derry, Dr William Morton, IAN CULLEN explored some of the fascinating stories and characters associated with the Church of Ireland headquarters for Derry and Raphoe since its formation 1633.

As much a living museum as a place of worship, St Columb’s Cathedral plays a central role in the history and culture of modern Derry.

Aside from the striking architecture, encapsulating stained glass and painstakingly hand-carved pew-ends, the early 17th century building is home to a wealth of intriguing artefacts from pivotal eras in the city’s past. From the original keys and locks from the famous city gates, to some of the country’s oldest silverware, the Cathedral truly is a treasure trove for any historian. Hundreds of years of accurate hatch, match and dispatch records for the Church of Ireland bretheran are also housed there, along with vestry books listing householders in Derry since 1740 and even a first edition of the King James bible - one of only 50 still extant worldwide .

Then of course there’s the characters associated with what is one of the city’s oldest standing buildings. From the recently launched exhibition on world famous hymn writer, Cecil Frances Alexander, to tales of the man behind the first ever Foyle bridge, the eccentric Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey, visitors can explore a wealth of information on Derry’s household names of days gone by.

Visitors may even have the good fortune (as I and a few other lucky visitors did last week) to be treated to a private audience with the Dean of Derry, Rev Dr William Morton, playing the ‘Derry Air’ on the Cathedral’s visually impressive and auditorially entrancing organ. “Listen as goes from a whisper to a roaring lion,” the dean quipped as he pulled out the stops to make our visit all the more memorable.

For the reasons listed above and many more, over 100,000 people visited the cathedral last year - a number which is expected to be far exceeded in the run up to and during the UK City of Culture Celebrations in 2013. Dean Morton is planning - with the help of volunteers and the dedicated cathedral staff Ian Bartlett, Billy Begley and Daphne Gallick - to ensure that St Columb’s enjoys the key role it deserves at the centre of the cultural celebrations when the time comes. “We have a lot of great ideas and projects in mind for the City of Culture year, at the moment we’re looking at what direction to go and we’re speaking to people in the right places such as the Culture Company and so on.” Plans include a special commission of a piece of music from a world famous composer to be performed by the St Columb’s choirs, hosting an ensemble of the Ulster Orchestra, holding an art exhibition and even a receiving visit from the Songs of Praise crew.

It’s obvious to the visitor within seconds of entering the building that the setting would be perfect for any such event. With the choir music echoing around the nave and into the porch, the visitor can feel at once in awe and at ease. Dean Morton put it aptly: “It’s absolutely overwhelming, the history the place.” The first items that stir the visitor’s fascination are the original foundation stone laid upon the completion of the building 1633 and a mortar shell dating from the Siege of Derry (1689), both of which enjoy pride of place in the porch. Even older attractions are housed in the cathedral’s museum in Chapter House. A silver gilt chalice and paten, known as ‘The promise chalice and paten’ - the third oldest pieces of hallmarked silverware in Ireland - take centre stage. The precious items were sent over with Londoners, Alderman Smithes and Matthias Springham, by The Honourable The Irish Society (the body tasked with building and protecting the city) in 1613 following the King James I Charter which officially formed ‘County Londonderry’. The items bear the coats of arms of Smithes and Springham and the inscription: ‘To the Church of God in the city of Derry, the gift of the Londoners’. Dean Morton said of the silverware: “These were the first gifts for the church they proposed to build here and are amongst our most precious possessions.” He added that the items remain in regular use for “special occasions such as weddings and other ceremonies”. The same display cabinet also houses two silver tankards, dating fom 1665, which caused quite a stir when the Antiques Roadshow visited Derry. “They left the cathedral wrapped in kitchen paper but got a police escort back to the cathedral after they were valued at £250,000,” Dean Morton explained.

Other stiking artefacts displayed in Chapter House include two pistols belonging to one of the most famous Bishops of Derry, Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol, (Bishop from 1768-1803), a siege cannonball, the four original keys and locks for the city’s gates and a small chair supposedly made from the wood of a pear tree which Siege traitor Robert Lundy used to escape the city’s walls.

In the bell tower, the oldest peal of bells in Ireland is to be found - the earliest of the bells predates the cathedral and is incribed with the year 1614.

Much of the role played by the cathedral in Derry’s - both past and present - has been ecumenical in nature, testament to the fact that the COI building welcomes people from all creeds and walks of life, said the dean. “This place has been involved in reaching out across the city and well beyond to people of all denominations and all world religions as long as the cathedral has existed. It’s no new thing just because the Troubles have been going on for 40 years.”

He recalled a visit in 1998 from Mary O’Rourke, a former minister in the Fianna Fail Government in the Republic, who was accompanied by a delegation led by then SDLP leader and Stormont Finance Minister Mark Durkan. “I told her my tale of woe about the organ being damaged in 1994. Some very misguided people, who entered the cathedral by taking one of the lights out of a stain glassed window, had got into the organ case and wrecked the pipage causing tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. We went down a very circuatous, meandering road of terrible dissatisfaction in order to fix the organ - we couldn’t get money from anybody not even from the Arts Council. We said in passing to the minister that many of our tours came from the Republic and, to cut a long story short, as a result of that meeting we got IR£100,000 to go towards the £554,000 required to fix up the organ. It was a major vote of confidence, recognising the whole artistic and cultural side of things and also recognise the degree to which we are central - through the Two Cathedrals Festival and other things - to the promotion of peace and reconciliation.”

The ethos of ecumenism, promoting peace, and fostering reconciliation remains the driving force of St Columb’s Cathedral and all are welcome to taste culture and history within its walls. In June of this year, the Cathedral was re-opened to much applause following a £3.6m restoration project. Tourism Minister and DUP MLA Arlene Foster said the building “has a great story to tell” while then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness stated that it was an “honour and priviledge” to be there.

After just a few minutes inside the glorious structure, I shared those sentiments.