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Local History: The influence of Colum Cille on life in Derry

Local historian and genealogist, Brian Mitchell writes about the arrival of Colum Cille in Derry

Local History: The influence of Colum Cille on life in Derry

Colum Cille formed the first monastery on the island of Derry.

Local historian and genealogist, Brian Mitchell, has written a book called 'Derry: A City Invincible'. In the coming weeks, Derry Now will be publishing extracts from the book. In this latest article, Brian writes about the arrival of Colum Cille in Derry.

In 545 AD, according to the Annals of Ulster, the church of Doire Calgach, “the oak wood of Calgach”, was founded by Colum Cille (Columba).
Whether Derry was more than an oak grove before this is a matter of conjecture.
In 71 AD Agricola began his northern campaign to extend Roman control into Scotland. He was met by a confederation of Britons, Picts and Irish, led by Galgacus, who in a great battle defeated the Roman army, and thus prevented their penetration into the Scottish Highlands.
Could Galgacus be an Irish king whose headquarters were on the island of Derry?
There is no doubt that from the 1st century AD a wave of Celts, called Scots, went over from Ireland to Argyll and founded the first Celtic Kingdom of Scotland, Dal Riata.
At first Dal Riata was an extension of a northern Irish kingdom of the same name on the north Antrim coast. With Irish kings claiming lordship over this Scottish kingdom it was only natural they would defend it in times of attack.
Christianity had come to Ireland one hundred years before Colum Cille founded his first monastery in Derry.
When St. Patrick landed in Ireland to convert her to Christianity in 432 AD it was to the royal fort, in each district, he approached.
Having converted the king, the people followed his example.
So in 442 AD St. Patrick arrived at the royal palace of Grianan of Aileach, a stone cashel within three concentric earth enclosures, 800 feet above sea level, on a hill commanding entry into and out of Inishowen, County Donegal.
Here he converted Eoghan (Owen), son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who had been High King of Ireland from 378 to 405 AD. By the time of St. Patrick’s death in 465 the whole of Ireland was Christian.
The early organisation of the Irish church, introduced by Patrick, was diocesan, and each diocese was under the jurisdiction of a bishop.
However, this system proved incapable of adaptation to Ireland’s tribal system. By the 6th century its place was taken by monasteries, each under the control of an abbot, and each acting as the religious centre for the area.
Each clan now had its own church and clergy. Land was allotted to the clergy for their support, and the clergy lived together in communities clustered round a church.
Colum Cille was in a favoured position to benefit from this tribal patronage. Born in 521 at Gartan, County Donegal, Colum Cille was of royal descent, his great-grandfather being Conall Gulbhan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages.
As kingship rested within the family group known as the derbfine (made up of all those males who had a great-grandfather in common), Colum Cille was entitled to be considered for chieftainship of the Cenell Conall, whose territory covered County Donegal west of Lough Swilly.
Ainmere, King of Ireland at the time, was Colum Cille’s cousin, and it was he who gave the island of Derry as a gift to Colum Cille on which to found a church and school.
It was an ideal spot for a monastery, secluded yet convenient. Derry was then entirely surrounded by water. The Foyle divided south of the island, the main stream running on the east side, while a small volume flowed in a shallow river on the western side, rejoining the main stream to the north.
A small self-sufficient monastic community was soon established.
This first monastery at Derry would have been built within a perimeter earthwork which acted as a symbolic boundary between the monastery and the secular world rather than as a defensive structure.
Inside, the principal building was a rectangular wooden church or oratory. The walls were either of wattle and daub, or of sawn oak planks. The roof was high-pitched, and it was either thatched or made of shingles, i.e. slates made of wood.
The church would have been small, perhaps no longer than 15 feet internally. Around the church the monks would have lived in small beehive-shaped huts, made of wattle, which were located higgledy-piggledy amongst the oak forest.
There would have been a variety of other simple buildings – all made of wood or wattle with thatched roofs. In a scriptorium, or writing hut, Colum Cille and his monks would have made copies of psalters and the Bible.
There was a school to prepare boys for the religious life. A library was essential for such a centre of learning in which Latin grammar and classical books would have been kept. The scriptorium, in copying books, preserved early classical and Christian writings for use in the school and library.
The monks and pupils were fed in a common refectory. There would have been a guest house for the pilgrims who visited during major festivals.
There would also have been a royal house where the rulers who patronised Colum Cille could stay when they visited. There were timber crosses, probably set in milling stones, which acted as focuses for prayer and meditation.
A monastery controlled extensive lands and a large tenantry outside its earth enclosure. At the river shore there would have been a boat-house to facilitate the ferrying of visitors across the Foyle. From their coracles, made of animal skins stretched over wickerwork frames, the monks fished for salmon and trout.
The monks’ day was divided into periods of labour and prayer.
The fields near the monastery had to be tilled, with oats and barley to be sown and harvested. The herds of cattle which grazed on the open pastureland had to be watched, as did the pigs and sheep left to browse through the oak groves.
In the wood, wattle for building purposes had to be gathered. The monks, as they went about their work, could be easily distinguished from the tenantry by their tonsure, in which the front of the head was shaven from ear to ear.
Outside the monastic complex farmers lived in circular raths such as the one at Creggan.
These farmsteads were formed by digging a ditch, the earth being thrown up to form a bank which was topped with a wooden palisade. Inside the circular enclosure, usually from 70 to 150 feet across, breached by a causeway which led through a gate, the farmer housed his family and animals.
The enclosure had no real military significance, but it offered sufficient protection against small bands of marauders and wolves. In the small, one-room, circular wooden huts with thatched roofs the farmers’ families lived, cooked and slept. Beds were simply piles of straw. The common form of dress was a short linen tunic worn underneath a long woollen cloak, fastened by a brooch.
During the day the farmer’s cattle and sheep were left to graze on the open pastures, while at night they were safely housed from wild animals and thieves in pens within the rath. Cereals, mainly oats and barley, were grown in small fields, no more than two acres in size, close to the dwelling.
The corn was then ground in small rotary querns (an improvement on the earlier saddle querns) within the farmstead. Food was cooked on an open fire, with a spit being used for roasting and a big cauldron, made of sheet metal, for stewing.
Within a short space of time Colum Cille’s monastic foundation at Derry had become a centre of considerable wealth, learning and population.
The island of Derry now supported a thriving religious and farming community amongst clearings in the oak forest which formerly clothed the whole island.

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