The manager of the new St Columba Heritage Centre in Londonderry, which opens its doors to the general public for the first time tomorrow, (Thursday, June 12) says he believes our patron can safely command the ‘overarching loyalty’ of all the different traditions living in the city.
Andrew Maguire says: “Both sides need to realise how important he is. We fight over the name of the city but there’s no disputing the name St Columba.”
He jokes: “My argument is that we should change the name of Derry to St Columba.”
The Rosemount native’s remarks are particularly apposite this week after pupils from the Fountain, Long Tower, Nazareth House and Éadain Mhóir Primary Schools on Monday joined Bishops Ken Good and Donal McKeown for the St Columb’s Day launch of the newly renovated heritage centre in the ‘Wee Nuns’ School’ in the Long Tower.
Poignantly, the pupils were in attendance for the planting of three oak trees and the release of a flight of doves as the bells of St Columb’s and St Eugene’s pealed together.
“We want to use this as a platform to build further cross-community links, you know,” explains Mr Maguire. “The best term - a political science term I learned at university, is of an ‘overarching loyalty’ - that’s what St Columba is, a loyalty that arches over all divides, it’s almost like a bridge. That’s how I see it.”
He adds: “We are working on a cross-community basis, so one of the big cultural capital aspects that we have as far as Colmcille goes is that he is a shared figure.
“He doesn’t belong to anybody, he belongs to everybody. That’s something we’re looking to capitalise on. So it’s tourism, education, cross-community.”
The new opening is another positive development for this historic part of the city, extending from within the Walls, along their western and southern perspectives and down into the Fountain, Bishop Street, Bogside and Brandywell areas.
Locals and tourists alike now have a wealth of historical and cultural attractions to visit in the area including St Columb’s Cathedral, the Verbal Arts Centre, the Apprentice Boys’ Memorial Hall, First Derry Presbyterian Church and the Blue Coat School Visitor Centre - in addition to the magnificent Walls themselves.
Grainne McCafferty, Chair of the new St Columba Heritage Centre (Áras Cholmcille), commented: “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.”
Mr Maguire brings a slightly different perspective to the role in that - although he hails from Argyle Street originally and now resides in the Claudy area - he spent his formative years in the West Riding town of Keighley and as such is able to see Londonderry with an outsider’s eyes.
A historian who spent years researching the Irish diaspora across the north of England, he tells the paper that he feels a strong affinity with St Columba having spent many years in exile across the Irish Sea.
“My speciality is the Irish in Britain,” he explains. “In many senses, Colmcille is the forefather of the Irish in Britain, you know, building on the Irish connections in Scotland, you have Dál Riata [the ancient Gaelic kingdom that spanned from modern North Antrim to the Inner Hebrides, including Iona] on the western seaboard of Scotland.
“Most people don’t realise that Colmcille brought Christianity to Scotland, to the Pictish area of Scotland. The big thing for me is that he’s kind of the grandfather of the Irish diaspora and the fact that he comes from this part of the world just isn’t tapped into.”
Part of the centre’s mission will be to appeal to that wider diaspora of Irish people who Mr Maguire believes will be fascinated by the story of St Columba.
“His legacy transcends the whole globe. In fact, there are schools in North America called St Columba. They are in Yorkshire, my home patch. It’s global.
“From a marketing perspective, I’ve sat and thought about how to market the centre. And in many senses the marketing has already been done. It was done in the sixth century and it’s continued through generations. So the platform, the network, are already there. We just need to tap into it.
“It’s about tapping into Derry’s ancient monastic, cultural heritage and fit that into the wider tourist economy. It’s about adding to it. We’re not taking anything away.”
Another important aspect of the centre will be education. The renovated building has two floors of exhibition space dedicated plus a lecture facility.
The exhibition takes the visitor on a journey of discovery taking in all the legends and stories about Colmcille from earliest times. It also tells the story of the ‘Wee Nuns’ School’ itself.
“It’s exciting. I can’t wait to get the school kids in,” he says. “We have the first level exhibition space where visitors and school kids come in. I think, what the audio visual guys have done and the Trustees have done is design a lay out, that hits different audiences. You might get someone who comes in here who is quite well-versed in Colmcille but they’re still stimulated.”
Included amongst the interactive displays and story boards are a series of artefacts - old penal crosses, exercise books and registers from the school and ancient ‘Celtic’ stone heads. The space will also feature a facsimile of the Book of Kells.
“School children can come in and engage with it. People that you might class as educational tourists that have half an idea but want to learn more. So, it ticks all the boxes and it’s interactive,” says Mr Maguire.
Gemma Wild is the new educational officer for the centre. From September she’ll be embarking on an educational outreach programme in local schools and community centres.
“I’ll be developing an education programme for primary and post-primary with the schools and also outreach into the schools, working with community groups and voluntary groups, making them aware of the centre, the heritage, the significance of Colmcille in Derry and just getting the word out there to people and making the centre a hub for people to come and utilise,” she says.
Mr Maguire stresses that the Trustees are very keen that the new centre is used by the local community.
“It’s about reaching out to the community. Our immediate community is the Fountain, the Brandywell and Bogside and Bishop Street, depending on what they want to use it for, it’s open,” he tells the paper.