Walking around the recently opened Aras Cholmcille in the atmospheric surroundings of the Wee Nuns School, Andrew Maguire is passionate about every aspect of every exhibition.
As the centre’s new manager, the Rosemount born history expert says he knew the job was ideal for him.
He also maintains that growing up in England after his family left here when he was a toddler, gave him a passion for learning as much as he could about Irish history.
“I was born in Argyle Street but we left when I was two and moved to Keighley in West Yorkshire with my mum. Keighley had a massive Irish population. My class was full of McCormicks and McCloskeys. Everyone there was either first, second, or third generation Irish,” says Andrew.
The 37-year-old says that a strong awareness of his own identity formed the basis for his academic life later on in life, and eventually led him back to the town of his birth.
“Like most people in the seventies and eighties we would have encountered a lot of hostility growing up and as kids we watched everything that was going on over here on tv. You’d regularly see Derry on the news and even people that we would have known but we always had more questions than answers. I suppose as I grew up I started looking for the answers.
“I think that’s really the way it is when you live outside Ireland. You either have a real strong interest in learning about your heritage, or you have no interest at all. I don’t think there’s a middle ground.”
Andrew says he still gets bewildered about people trying to give him an identity stamp.
“In England we got called names for being Irish, and over here, people called you English when they heard the accent. It’s always been pretty simple for me. I was born in Derry and this is my home.”
Andrew returned to Derry in 1997 and spent a lot of time with family and friends at Top of the Hill.
“There’s no better view of the city than you get from up there!” he says,
In 2002, still passionate about history, he began studying for a BA Honours Degree in Irish History at Magee.
“Since then I’ve done a research masters and I’m studying for my PHD at the moment,” says Andrew,
“I’ve always been interested in the psychological impact of migration and the fact that it’s not just a physical move for those who do it but a move which really impacts on identity.”
Given that the St Columba Heritage Centre tells the story of the man widely considered as Derry’s Founding Father, Andrew says he’s now in the dream scenario of combining his job with his passion in life,
“I enjoy history immensely, and I’m really excited by what we have here in the centre. We feel that we can really make the story of St Columba come to life for people of all ages.”
A quick tour around the centre reveals ultra modern tap screen exhibitions alongside ancient relics, a collection of monks habits - and even a copy of the Koran. The centre, although located in the grounds of the Long Tower Church is determined to reach out to both communities and promote the city’s shared history.
“We want to get people through the door. After all, if you want to learn about the history of Derry, do it chronologically. This is the story from the very beginning. The story of St Columba goes across all our divides and it even stretches beyond Ireland so I think the potential for tourism here is huge.
“As well as that we want to welcome school groups and groups of adults from the local community to come and see what we have to offer. We’ve tailored a lot of what we do here towards children and a lot of what goes on here is interactive. They can wear the monks habits, practise calligraphy and learn the history of the city in a way which is fun.
“For adults it’s a chance to reacquaint themselves with the city’s oldest story. For those who aren’t familiar with the context in which the city is set, we feel like the centre is the perfect place to start exploring.”
As well as the history of St Columba, the Aras Cholmcille also houses pieces which date back to the original Wee Nuns school, sure to be of interest to those more familiar with the area.
There are also plans to operate the basement, which looks out onto the Bogside, as a cafe.
“The cafe is fully equipped and pretty much ready to use, so we’d love to see it opening very soon,” says Andrew.
“The centre is here to celebrate an integral part of our history which isn’t something that’s fought over. We’re here and waiting for people to come and see us.”
For more information on the centre and for information of group visits and opening times, contact Andrew or Gemma at the Aras Cholmcille on 02871 368491 or visit at 59-61 Longtower Street