A flight of doves will be released and the bells of St Columb’s and St Eugene’s will peal in unison as the newly developed St Columba Heritage Centre in the refurbished ‘Wee Nuns’ School’ in the Long Tower opens on the feast day of Londonderry’s patron saint this Monday (June 9).
The new centre - which will tell the story of our patron saint - will subsequently open its doors to the general public next Thursday (June 12).
The new St Columba Heritage Centre (Aras Cholmcille Centre) will provide Londonderry and its visitors a superb facility for learning about and understanding the history and heritage of Columb/Columba/Colmcille who is known by all three versions of his name.
Grainne Mc Cafferty, Chairperson of Aras Cholmcille, said: “This is a beautiful addition to the city both in the restoration of the building itself and in the opportunity to provide for the city a place where the story of its origins and its founding father can be told for generations to come.
“I am delighted to see the transformation of the building and the exhibition will be a source of inspiration, education and enjoyment to local people and visitors alike.”
Environment Minister Mark Durkan, whose Department contributed £280,000 to the project, said: ”The transformation of the former Wee Nuns’ School from a building in very poor structural condition, to the high quality heritage centre we see today has been the result of many years of determined effort by the Aras Cholmcille Trust. I salute them for that.
“They have realized a vision of saving an important building at risk. In turn, they have created a new attraction within the city which will add to tourism, pride and the economy.What DOE is about is creating a better environment and stronger economy and this restoration reflects that vision.”
Paul Mullan, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland said: “This is an important project and is yet another contribution to the on-going redevelopment of Derry/Londonderry.
“I am sure it will be treasured both by local people and visitors from far and wide. The Centre has been completed thanks to a £744,500 grant award from the Heritage Lottery Fund and will provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the history and heritage of the saint who has been associated with the city for around 1,500 years.”
Áine Kearney, Director of Product Development, said: “The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is delighted to support this great restoration project through its Tourism Development Scheme.
“It fits perfectly with the Walled City of Derry and St Patrick/Christian Heritage signature projects and complements the ongoing investment in the city’s tourism infrastructure.
“I am confident that uncovering the story of St Columba will encourage visitors to explore, discover and embark on a memorable journey of Derry~Londonderry’s rich cultural heritage.”
Mayor Brenda Stevenson said: “Derry City Council is delighted to support and promote any new tourism initiative that celebrates the city’s unique heritage and connections with Colmcille.
“This is a fantastic addition to the city’s tourism offering and a great way to showcase the city’s cultural traditions and history to the world. Congratulations to everyone involved in this project, it’s a great achievement.”
Mary Blake, Tourism Development Derry City Council, said: “Aras Colmcille, was identified as one of the key projects in the NITB’s Built Heritage Programme for the opportunity it presented to communicate the rich story of Colmcille - Saint, Scholar, Poet and Peace Maker - to visitors and locals alike.
“We have such a rich Christian Heritage to explore in the region with 72 Columban heritage sites across Derry, Donegal and Scotland. This is a fantastic new addition to our visitor offer.”
Ilex’s Director of Ebrington, Caoimhín Corrigan said: “With the benefit of our investment from the UK City of Culture Capital Infrastructure Fund, Ilex is delighted to be able to support the Aras Colmcille Trust.
“This project will encourage people from the city and tourists alike to visit the St. Columba Heritage Centre, ensuring a lasting legacy for the city’s patron saint and the City of Culture year.”
The building will have two floors of exhibition space dedicated to telling the story of Columba.
The exhibition will take the visitor from the time that Londonderry was seen as an island, through the legends and stories about Colmcille from earliest times.
These stories, poems and legends date from as early as around 600 AD and the exhibition will illustrate Columb’s story through the work of a number of writers over the centuries since then.
A number of these stories have been prepared for children in large format books and they will also be able to listen to some of these stories in both English and Irish, recorded by a number of local speakers.
The most famous story connected with Colmcille, of how the judgment was given against him about his copying of books will feature.
This story tells of how Colmcille copied a book without the permission of the owner.
The High King declared in his judgement: ‘To Every Cow its calf: To every book its copy’ and Colmcille was judged to be in the wrong. This judgement is believed to be the basis on which copyright law is based today.
The upper floor will concentrate on a display of the illuminated manuscripts associated with Columba and his successors. The Book of Kells will form part of that display and the Centre is fortunate to have the gift of a facsimile Book of Kells from the Diocese of Derry.
Alongside the Book of Kells there will be opportunities to view illuminated extracts from other books produced in Columban monasteries such as the Book of Lindisfarne and the book of Durrow.
Throughout the Centre there will be a number of opportunities to view various sections of history, legacy and heritage on a number of screens provided on each floor. The original stepped gallery area on the second floor has been retained and restored.
It will become a lecture and AV area. The lower ground floor has been transformed into a multi purpose area with catering facilities and leads to the garden area at the rear of the school.
The restoration has been made possible by the contribution of a number of funders and the Aras Cholmcille Trust is indebted to them for their support. These are the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Derry City Council and the Diocese of Derry. The building has been restored to a very high standard by the work of HMD Architects and Woodvale Construction Company.