June 9 - the Feast of Saint Columba

Credit: Museum of Free Derry
The celebrations of Saint Columba in Derry City represent one of my favorite examples of what Eric Hobsawm and Terence Ranger named "an invented tradition."  In 1897,  the Catholic residents of Derry began a tradition of honoring their patron saint publicly in the streets of the city, as well as in its Catholic chapels.

Here is an excerpt from my manuscript about the process, and reasons, for doing so.

The celebrations of the thirteen hundredth anniversary of the death of St. Columba scheduled to be held in Gartan, Donegal, provided the catalyst for Long Tower's Father Willie Doherty to expand his vision of Derry as a city inspired by Columba and to invite the city’s Catholic population to join together to show religious reverence and pride for their cultural heritage. Father Willie served as a conduit, providing the stimulus and organization that enabled local Catholics to express publicly a broader Irish community identity in a way that was respectable, even pious. Invented traditions rarely thrive on the strength of one person; they only take root in ground that supports and sustains them.  For Derry, though Father Willie proposed the idea, celebrating Columba was a way to celebrate themselves.

Born in Gartan and, according to folklore, the descendant of a high king of Ulster, Columba is one of the most important Irish saints.  It is believed that he founded a monastery in Derry, the Dubh Regles, or ‘Black Church.’  He left Derry and Ireland to establish a monastery at Iona, where the famous Book of Kells was produced in 800, possibly for the two-hundredth anniversary of the saint’s death. In an effort to contextualize the events of the 13th centenary, Derry Journal reporter Thomas O’Kane explained Columba’s wider significance:

"Far and near, wherever the Irish race had a home, and their Celtic eloquence found a platform, in the cities of America, as well as in the hills of old Tyrconnell by his native Gartan, learned tongues spoke of and saintly pastors dwelt on the life and career of Ireland’s great saint, patriot and poet."
 Columba had great affection for Derry.  Poems attributed to the saint have him grieving the place after he had left it, asking God to protect it, lamenting his distance from his ‘little oak grove.’  If Columba loved Derry, then Father Willie wanted to prove that Derry loved Columba even more. According to Father Willie, the saint’s dying words at the altar at Iona invoked the city by the Foyle, saying, “Raise my hands that I may bless you all, higher still that I may bless my beloved oak groves and those that dwell therein.”  The celebrations of the thirteenth centenary were a complex affair, not extravagant but ample and effusive nonetheless.   Father Willie oversaw restorations of a holy well and attributed it to Columba; he had the well opened for the first time since the 1860s, when the City Corporation had it closed “for sanitary reasons and for the convenience of traffic.” 

Most importantly, the priest established the 9th of June as a local religious holiday and introduced the oak leaf as a symbol worn in honor of Columba, just as followers of St. Patrick wore shamrocks.  Local Catholics responded with enthusiasm to the prospect of celebrating St. Columba.  In local Catholic churches for days beforehand, parishioners prepared for the first observations of the holy day; their decorations of the interior of the churches and the altars looked, to one reporter, “like a gem from the fretwork of heaven.” 

The first celebration took place the same year that Catholics sat in the Londonderry Corporation. On the evening of June 9, 1897, Derry’s Bogside overflowed with people, faces illuminated by the glow of hundreds of small lamps strung up along the streets. They packed the chapel day and night.  Masses were celebrated every hour and reporters noted that over 5,000 people received Communion at the Long Tower alone. Streets around the church and the holy well were so full of people that traffic came to a halt for hours on end as Catholics waited patiently to receive a cup of holy water from the well and to say a last prayer at the old kneeling stone. Above them, letters illuminated with the help of gas-jets spelled out, “Blessed Columba, Pray For Us.”

Father Willie was instrumental in securing what was believed to be the only remaining relic of Columba’s Dubh Regles, circa the sixth century, a kneeling stone that the Catholics of Derry had long associated with their patron saint.  From the late eighteenth century until the mid-1800s, the stone had lain horizontally beside the well.  Its two basins, traditionally attributed to the places the saint had knelt in prayer, served as fonts for the holy water that emerged from the well. In the 1850s, when the well was closed, the stone was repositioned to stand upright; it lost its practical use but remained symbolically important to the community.  However, it jutted out of a path that gradually gave way to a busy thoroughfare as the nineteenth century progressed. Despite its inconvenience, the city left it alone in respect for “the people’s feelings.” Fr. Willie saw the celebration of St. Columba’s thirteenth centenary as a good opportunity to transport the kneeling stone to the church grounds, where it became part of an outdoor Calvary scene.  There, he believed, “it would prove safe from all possible vandalism and likely to prove more commemorative of its illustrious owner.”

Close to midnight on the first June 9th celebrations, neighborhood residents gathered to witness the removal of the holy relic.  Around the stone, residents had hung a canopy decorated with lights, flowers and evergreens.  Tiny crosses surrounded it, and when the canopy was illuminated, “it seemed indeed a votive altar to Catholicity and Saint Columba in the public streets of Derry.” For several days beforehand, men of the community had kept vigil, never allowing the tiny lights surrounding the canopy to extinguish.

Thousands knelt in the street and said the Rosary in the Irish language, only drifting towards home as the evening grew late.  It was after midnight when workmen carefully extricated the stone and carried it in silent procession, led by Father Willie, to the Long Tower Church, itself built on the site of what was thought to be St. Columba’s Derry monastery.  Gathering everyone into the chapel in the stillness of the night, Father Willie invoked the revered saint:

Now that the midnight hour has sounded, thirteen hundred years ago, at this hour, that night, Columba lay dying on the altar steps of Iona.   ‘Raise my hand,’ he feebly cried, ‘that I may bless you all; higher still that I may bless my beloved Oak Grove and those that dwell therein.’ Let us now, before we part, turn to the altar and ask Our Lord to let Columba repeat that same blessing tonight.  May every anniversary feast of his be kept in this church as today’s has been. 

The Journal reporter Patrick Brennan was struck by the enthusiasm the 13th centenary inspired.  He wrote, "Within the last few days there have been many evidences of the vitality of Catholicity and unaffected piety in Derry, and in the religious services which were attended so numerously and participated in so fervently there was an admirable exposition of practical faith."

 The Sentinel was not impressed by the observations of the thirteenth centennial and incensed by the stone removal.  In an article, the paper opined that Catholic Derry had imbued the saint with “character and attributes to which it is doubtful he would have wished to lay claim.”  The removal of the kneeling stone was seen a “lawless plot” even though it was connected with “ridiculous superstitions and nonsensical survivals” like believing that blessed water had curative properties.  The notion that a piece of public property could be “smuggled away without a whisper of warning” did not auger well for the city.  At any rate, the paper took exception to a Catholic public gathering where “audible prayer and physical force were blended” in the wee small hours. And thus, in its protests, a hint of anxiety emerged about the combination of Catholicity and strength.

    In the years following 1897, the celebrations of Columba grew. Local people took more responsibility for the event and its religious observance became integrated into the city’s Catholic calendar. The following year, local reporter William O’Kane observed that the event was, “more earnest and intense than even last year’s.”  Chroniclers of the event were struck by local involvement, and by the seriousness with which Derry people had participated. 

The Journal made special mention of “the poorer people,” calling the events of 1898 a tribute to their devotion. By 1898, quite separate from Father Willie’s supervision, local Catholics initiated a tradition of building and erecting tall arches that towered over the small terraced houses of the Bogside to mark their saint’s holy day. (Figure) Echoing the triumphal arches within the walls that commemorated the Siege of Derry, these gateways that spanned roads all over the neighborhood rose out of the streets of Catholic Derry.  Made with flowers, paper, cloth, papier-mâché and cuttings from trees and bushes, the arches’ designs centered around shamrocks, quotations and images of saints and angels.  Flags and crosses hung from their corners, imitating the impressive gates into the walled city upon the hill.  People painted oak leaves on their windows.

In 1898, these arches added to a scene that inspired the Journal to proclaim, “Catholic eyes have looked upon nothing at all approximating it in majestic impressiveness since pre-Reformation days in the Derry of Columbkille.”  In 1910, the paper reflected that the celebrations of 1897 would forever be a day “written and embellished in letters of gold in the hearts and minds of Derry citizens,” for they had done just honor to “the holiest spot in holy Ireland.”  In the same piece, the paper reflected some of the turmoil of the day, suggesting that constant, irrevocable change seemed to be the order of things.  This infatuation with change made people lose their interest in commitments they once held.  But when it came to the celebrations of Columba in Derry City, there had been “no flagging, no waning, but an ever growing passion of deep and true devotion.”

The invented traditions surrounding Columban celebrations did not replace politics but they did bring religious and cultural identity together in real ways.  In the same year, Derry sent groups to Dublin to take part in the ’98 centenary observances of the United Irishmen’s Uprising.  Derry men walked under the banner of Wolfe Tone, who was captured in Buncrana, famous for calling the union of Great Britain and Ireland “the scourge of the Irish nation.”  In the early years of the twentieth century, the Éire Og (Young Ireland) movement was formed in Derry by Bishop O’Doherty, P.S. O’Flannagain, Eamon MacDermott and others.  The organization was a classic Gaelic Revival stronghold and its members, 400 strong, played Irish hurling matches, hosted ceilis, learned the Irish language and practiced military drills.