It’s time to properly celebrate St Columba

St Columba at the foot of the cross. Calvary scene, Long Tower Church by Keith Allen  cc-by-sa/2.0 - � Kenneth Allen -
St Columba at the foot of the cross. Calvary scene, Long Tower Church by Keith Allen cc-by-sa/2.0 - � Kenneth Allen -

As Ireland’s most historic city, Derry has witnessed many key events and people over the years that are truly worth celebrating.

One of the most important characters in the story of our city is St Columba. Born in Gartan in Donegal in 521AD, Columba is credited with founding the monastery at Derry to which he gave his name (‘Doire Colm Cille’, or ‘The Oakgrove of the Dove of the Church’).

Two conflicting accounts exist of where precisely that monastery was located – either at the site of the current Long Tower Church, or at St Augustine’s on the city walls. After spending a number of years in Derry, Columba went on to play a major role in the early Christian and political histories of both Scotland and Ireland. He was forced into exile from Ireland in 563AD, but still retained a strong affection for Derry right up until his death 34 years later.

And in the 12th century, the medieval manuscript ‘Vita Columbae’ (The Life of Columbus) was written in Derry Abbey as a chronicle of the saint’s various deeds, miracles and prophecies. Columba’s endurance as an ecclesiastical figure is recognised today not only by the fact he is the patron saint of Derry, but also as one of the three patron saints of Ireland (along with St Patrick and St Bridget).

References to Derry’s founding father abound in the names of buildings, schools, sports and musical clubs locally. And unlike some of the individuals and events in our city’s history, St Columba is a genuinely cross-community figure held in esteem by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Yet awareness of Columba’s Feast Day on the 9th June is very low locally, and little is done to celebrate it.

A small group of churchgoers mark the occasion annually by visiting St Columb’s Well in the Long Tower. And in times past people used to wear oak leaves to honour his feast here, but no longer.

It seems that this city of history has largely lost the habit of celebrating its famous founding father.

It’s therefore high time to again make St Columba’s Day a key date in the local calendar.

There are many ways in which Derry’s connection with Columba could be celebrated locally.

At the most basic level, it would be great to revive the tradition of wearing symbolic oak leaves on his Feast Day (perhaps produced and sold to support local charities).

The June timing of St Columba’s Day also presents an opportunity for more ambitious ways to celebrate our patron. June is usually mild weather-wise and is well-placed between St Patricks Day and Halloween (the two other major annual festivals held locally).

Halloween has shown us how something that began locally as a low-key celebration can go on to become a world-class festival feted globally.

Over 85,000 people took part in this year’s Halloween festival, and publications like the New York Times and USA Today have identified us as one of the best places in the world to visit for the event.

All despite our city having no particularly strong or unique associations with Halloween.

So imagine what we could make of celebrating a saint’s day that is genuinely unique to the history and identity of our town?

Many cities around the world have a long-standing tradition of celebrating their patron saints every year.

The famous ‘Little Italy’ district in Manhatten holds an 11-day celebration each September to honour San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. The celebration includes parades, music and food, and has become a major tourist attraction for the area.

Closer to home the Orkney islands have been using the feast of their patron saint, St Magnus, as the focal point for a major international arts festival for the last 40 years.

Amongst St Columba’s long list of accolades, he is also the patron saint of poets and bookbinders. Perhaps a festival of poetry and literature here every June would be a fitting tribute (to both him and to Seamus Heaney)?

Or perhaps an annual Columban festival could celebrate the long and enduring links between Scotland and the North-west of Ireland - a connection which Columba himself was an early pioneer of?

One of the most popular events during our 2013 City of Culture year was the ‘Return of Colmcille’ - a parade and river pageant that attracted a crowd of 75,000 people.

So alongside any artistic events, it would also be fantastic to see a major Columba Day parade evolve over time – with the whole city, young and old, getting involved.

So how about taking advantage of the fine weather in early Summer to hold an annual ‘Columba Day Carnival’ on the 9th June?

Derry’s very own Mardi Gras to celebrate our local saint - with schools, youth groups, sports teams etc throughout the city encouraged to take part in a celebration of our city’s history and our founding father.

Or how about the idea of immortalising St Columba in physical form? Some years ago the late Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty suggested building a 160ft statue of Columba in the River Foyle, with a viewing platform contained inside.

The idea didn’t gain traction at the time, but it would certainly add something unique to Derry’s visitor offering and see us join an exclusive global club alongside New York’s ‘Statue of Liberty’ and Rio-de- Janiero’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’.

If done well, such an installation could instantly become a ‘must see’ destination for visitors to Ireland.

There are many ways in which Derry could start celebrating the feast day of its famous cross-community founding saint – from oak leaves to festivals, and carnivals to monuments.

Regardless of the format, some form of annual celebration here is surely long overdue.

Columba was the first member of Derry’s global diaspora, and a man who never forgot the oak grove he loved so well.

We’ve conquered Halloween on the world stage, and have shown that we can do celebrations well.

And whilst our St Patrick’s Day event is popular, it will realistically always pale in comparison to the parades in Dublin and Belfast.

St Columba’s Day, therefore, falls at the perfect time of year to hold a major festival and community-led carnival to reconnect our people with their patron saint.

It would create a truly unique occasion and tradition here in Derry.

And it would cement our growing reputation as Ireland’s premier ‘Festival City’ - a place where there is always something interesting and fun happening.

St Columba’s Day on the 9th June 2018 would be the ideal time to start celebrating our city and our history with the sort of passion, pride and creativity that only Derry can do. Let’s seize the opportunity and help make our Founders Day the ‘new’ Halloween locally.

Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant and commentator from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve