Identifying the departure point of St Columba: Derry’s first emigrant

The stunning statue to St Columba which was recently unveiled at St Brecan's Church in St Columb's Park - the remnants of Derry's oldest standing building.
The stunning statue to St Columba which was recently unveiled at St Brecan's Church in St Columb's Park - the remnants of Derry's oldest standing building.

Regular ‘Journal’ contributor Brian Mitchell examines St Columba and the exact location of his departure from these shores some 1,500 years ago...

The actual location of St Columba’s departure was identified earlier this year by Brian Lambkin, Director of the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, says Mr Mitchell.

“It would appear that Columba began his journey of exile to Iona, upstream from the monastic settlement, to enable him to have one last long look back on Derry as he sailed down the Foyle.”

An account of the life of Colum Cille (or Columba) was completed c. 1532 by Manus O’Donnell, who was to become chief of Tir Conaill (part of what’s now Donegal) between 1537 and 1555. Manus claimed that Colum Cille was his ‘high saint and kinsman in blood’.

According to Manus O’Donnell (as edited by Brian Lacey in The Life of Colum Cille by Manus O’Donnell), Columba, as he prepared to go on pilgrimage to Scotland, loved Derry so much that he had his boat sent up Lough Foyle to the place now called Glais an Indluidh, while he himself went by land to rendezvous with it.

He washed his hands in that stream which gave Glais an Indluidh [‘The Washing Stream’] its name since. He blessed a stone that was beside the stream and went round it right-handwise [clockwise]. Then from the stone he went on board the boat saying that anyone who went around it right-handwise after that, before going on a walking journey or a voyag,e would be safe.

John Bryson’s marvellous book The Streets of Derry (1625-2001), published by local publisher Guildhall Press in 2001, includes on page 86 a photograph, dated c. 1973, of Foyle Hill. At far left of this photograph John refers to the Nuns’ Walk (a boundary of the townland of Termonbacca), lined with trees beside the stream (Glas an Ionnluidh – the Washing Stream), running downhill from below St Peter’s School towards the Foyle.

Where the Nuns’ Walk and its steam (now culverted) meets the Foyle marks the point where Columba departed Derry for Iona, according to 16th century Gaelic chief, Manus O’Donnell.

From 1841 to 1846, John Noah Gosset, professional soldier and amateur artist, painted 34 watercolour drawings of Derry and the Northwest when he was Barrack Master in Derry, Lifford and Omagh. Gosset was an amateur artist but as a soldier he was a trained observer. Comparisons of many of his pictures with contemporary maps and other documents suggest that he accurately reflected the detail of the scenes he was painting.

These paintings are now in the possession of the Heritage and Museum Service of Derry City Council. One of the paintings, ‘A view of the hill of Derry from the west bank of the Foyle just south of the city’, includes, in the foreground where two fishermen stand near two large stones, the outshot of land - Glais an Indluidh - where Columba departed for Iona in 563.

Brian suspects that one of these stones (which are not there today) may have been the stone blessed by Columba and the focus for pilgrims, over the following millennium, about to embark on a long journey and seeking reassurance of reaching their intended destination safely.

Furthermore, Brian identified a 19th century map of the proposed route of the railway to be built along this stretch of the Foyle in the library of the House of Lords and it marks at this spot a structure which looks suspiciously like a small quay extending from the river bank (again there is no trace of this today)!

Gosset’s painting was drawn just before railway construction work at Glais an Indluidh. On 19th April 1847 the first train from the city set out for Strabane down the west bank of the Foyle.

This suggests, before the construction of the Ship Quay (where Guildhall stands today) alongside the new walled city of Londonderry from 1613, that those people departing on a long journey from the Northwest would have left Derry from the place - Glais an Indluidh - where Columba sailed for Iona in 563. Columba was held in such reverence that following his ritual of departure gave them hope of a safe journey.

A city pays tribute

Derry has long since remembered St Columba and, to this day, his influence on the city is still much debated and celebrated. Just last month, over 30,000 gathered along the quaysides for a spectacular pageant, The Return of Colmcille.

A vibrant street parade entertained the masses, featuring many of the cultural delights that the Saint may have missed in the centuries since he left these shores, like The Undertones, the shirt-making industry and the arrival of Dopey Dick in the River Foyle! Then a showdown took place on the river itself, with St Columba battling the Loch Ness Monster once again amid dazzling fireworks and pyrotechnic displays.

Some of the ideas to commemorate St Columba have been slightly wackier - like that of well-known local businessman, Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty. Some years back, Paddy Bogside had the idea to construct a giant statue of St Columba on the river bed for all to see.

Billed as Northern Ireland’s answer to the Statue of Liberty, it was proposed that you could climb up inside the colossal St Columba and peer at the city through his eyes.

One thing is for sure, Derry has always had a soft spot for all things Columba - and long may it stay that way.