The Derry museum that puts the cherry on top

Mairead Fox, manager, Aras Cholmcille, Long Tower, pictured this week.  DER1915MC043
Mairead Fox, manager, Aras Cholmcille, Long Tower, pictured this week. DER1915MC043

It’s perhaps a little strange to think that a building which dates back to 1813 will be celebrating its first birthday next month.

But that’s the thing with the Aras Cholmcille Heritage Centre, you’re not quite sure what you are going to find.

'The Wee Nuns School'  at Aras Colmcille Heritage Centre. DER1915MC038

'The Wee Nuns School' at Aras Colmcille Heritage Centre. DER1915MC038

The museum celebrates its first birthday on June 9, the feast day of St Columba.

Centre manger Mairead Fox says she has big plans for the centre in the coming year and is hoping to welcome 3,000 visitors this Summer.

“It’s a fantastic place,” she said.

“I remember how I would look over at the old Wee Nuns School when I was on my way to Mass years ago before the restoration.

Some of the artefacts that adorn the walls of Aras Colmcille.  DER1915MC039

Some of the artefacts that adorn the walls of Aras Colmcille. DER1915MC039

“And when you look at it now it’s amazing. A lot people still call it the Wee Nuns and we’ve had a lot of visits from past pupils.

“The history of the Wee Nuns school is there and people are rightly proud of it.”

The Aras museum was opened predominantly as a centre which celebrates the life of the city’s patron - St Columba.

“As well as visitors we have had a lot of school children coming to the centre,” said Mairead.

A Columban Chalice on display at Aras Cholmcille.  DER1915MC032

A Columban Chalice on display at Aras Cholmcille. DER1915MC032

“The museum really lends itself to school visits because it is so interactive. The children like dressing up in the monk outfits and pressing the buttons on the IPADS.

“The listening chair is really popular.

“You can sit on it and hear a story being read in either English or Irish.”

The stories available include the Tale of the Loch Ness Monster, the Prince and the Pauper and the Founding of Derry.

'The Story of Fr. Willie Doherty' told at Aras Colmcille Heritage Centre. DER1915MC037

'The Story of Fr. Willie Doherty' told at Aras Colmcille Heritage Centre. DER1915MC037

Mairead is hoping that using the resources in the grounds of the Long Tower she’ll be able to do grave rubbing classes later this year.

To celebrate June 9 2015, Mairead is planning a day of music and song, complete with marquee.

A pop choir will provide a lot of the entertainment and a play will be performed by children from the neighbouring schools of the Fountain, Nazareth House and Long Tower.

“We even have our own Aras shaped cookie cutter so we’re going for it in a big way,” said Mairead.

“The Aras has become a community space and that is what we want to continue.

“The Cherry Blossom bakery is now open for lunches, tea and coffee and the building is used by several groups in the evening. The cafe is open for christenings and communions and after Mass.”

The actual tour in the Aras Cholmcille is self guided.

And it begins with the dove plaque which points the way to the next part of the Columban Heritage trail in Derry.

“We decided to go self guided because there is so much to see inside,” said Mairead.

“We are currently planning our app which we hope will be available soon.

“As you walk through you can touch the screens to hear the different parts of the story.”

One of the most interesting artefacts in the museum for Mairead is an old roll book from the Wee Nuns with the name ‘Lily Fox’ - the name of her grandfather’s sister.

“I didn’t even know it was here,” she said. “But it was a nice surprise.”

The exhibitions are full of information about Columba, the Wee Nuns and the Long Tower Church.

You might even find out why it got the name of the Long Tower in the first place.

There’s a section on smells where visitors can put their noses into jars to determine which herbs are inside.

And you can even try your hand at some old fashioned writing using charcoal or quills.

Outside the Cherry Blossom bakery is the museum’s garden overlooking Derry’s Bogside. The gardens, Mairead, says will be her next project.

But it’s upstairs that past pupils of the Wee Nuns will feel most nostalgic with the benches stacked in lecture hall style.

The Aras Cholmcille Centre is offering free entry from now until the end of the Summer, come along and have a look around if you haven’t been. You can follow the centre on facebook and twitter