Brian Lacey lifts the lid on city’s absorbing medieval past

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A Dublin-based historian with strong connections to Derry has penned the first comprehensive study of the medieval city.

Brian Lacey, a former head of Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service, is the man behind ‘Medieval and Monastic Derry: Sixth Century to 1600”, which has just been published by Four Courts Press.

In his new book, Lacey - a former lecturer at Magee College - traces the legend that Derry originated as a monastery founded by St Columba/Colum Cille.

This story, he concludes, was almost certainly a later “rationalisation and simplification” of a complex reality arising from Derry’s capture from the Cenél nÉnnai kingdom in the late sixth century by the saint’s people, the powerful Cenél Conaill.

Lacey reveals that, by the ninth century, Derry was in the hands of the latter’s conquering enemies – Cenél nEógain of Inishowen.

They, he writes, further developed the “Columban legend” for propaganda purposes.

Lacey - now based in Dublin - reveals that, in the 12th century, under the dynamic Mac Lochlainn kings, the enlarged settlement at Derry became a centre of significant political and cultural influence and the headquarters of the Columban churches in Ireland.

Later – with the defeat of the Mac Lochlainns – Derry, too, declined.

It would enjoy a brief revival in later medieval times under the O’Donnells, who also harnessed the Columban legend.

The settlement was captured by the English in 1600, however, bringing about the end of its Gaelic identity.

Lacey, who has been writing about medieval Derry since the 1980s, revisits some of his past research for this new book, revising and augmenting it, examining previously little-used sources and emphasising Derry’s changing fortunes in the contexts of contemporary secular politics.

When he started to study the history of Derry in the mid-1970s, he was inevitably drawn to the Long Tower Church - at that time believed to have been constructed on the very location of Colum Cille’s first and best loved foundation.

“However, over subsequent years, I gradually came to realise that the six century monastic church had almost certainly been located at a different site - St Augustine’s chapel-of-ease - and that it was extremely unlikely that it had been founded by Colum Cille.”