Derry, "the oak grove", is for ever associated with St. Columba, who was born at Gartan in Country Donegal in 521, and who went to Iona in 563. There he and his twelve companions began the conversion of Scotland. He founded a monastery in Derry in 546, as well as the church which became known as the Dubh Regles, or Black Church. There were numerous monastic foundations over the centuries, including an Augustinian friary which was on the site now occupied by St. Augustine's Church. In 1164, the Teampill Mor, or Great Church was founded. This was destroyed in 1568, and was later replaced with the present cathedral.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I sent Sir Henry Docwra to Ireland to garrison the north-west. Docwra chose Derry for his headquarters, and proceeded to rebuild the city. In 1613, King James I by Charter, formed the new County of Londonderry. The Honourable, the Irish Society was founded to promote religion and industry. The London Guilds came over and established themselves and their various trading companies around the county. The walls of Derry were built and completed by 1618.
By 1628, the remains of the old cathedral and its neighbour, St.Augustines were incapable of accommodating the congregation. St Columb's Cathedral, within the walls of Derry, was begun in 1628. It's completion in 1633 is marked by an inscription from the foundation stone, which can be seen in the porch, and which reads,
"If stones could speak then London's
prayse should sound,
who built this church and cittie
from the ground"
The foundation stone of the original cathedral, the Teampail Mor, is built into, and can be seen in the foundation stone of the present building. The stone is signed, "Vaughan aed". Sir John Vaughan was the Governor of the city at the time of the building of the cathedral.
The Cathedral was central to the events of the great Siege of Derry which lasted for 105 days in 1689. The besieged citizens held out against the forces of King James II, until they were relieved by the arrival of three ships carrying provisions. The Apprentice Boys' mound in the Cathedral graveyard commemorates these momentous events.
The cathedral grounds are entered through two magnificent gates on London Street. These were presented by the Irish Society in 1933 on the occasion of the tercentenary of the Cathedral. They have been restored recently to their former glory.
Derry Cathedral was built in what was known as Planters' Gothic style. It consists of a tower and spire, a nave, aisles and chancels. There are turrets on the north and south aisle walls, and a chapter house in the south-west corner. There are battlements all along the exterior aisle and nave walls and chancel.
The original spire was replaced by Bishop Hervey in 1776 with one which was too big for the tower. The tower and spire had to be demolished in 1802. They were replaced with the present tower and spire in 1822.
The tower is four storeys high, contains windows in the upper storeys. There are battlements and finials on the top.
Inside, the nave, the Georgian galleries round the aisles were removed, the oak pews were installed, and the Bishop's throne and the western screens were provided during extensive renovations between 1855 and 1862.
In 1887, during the incumbency of Dean Smyly, the chancel was built, and the organ was installed. There have been numerous renovations in recent times, including the complete restoration of the roof, the spire, and the turrets on the exterior nave walls.
The Cathedral is entered by the great west doors in the base of the tower,
or by a door in the north side of the tower.
There is a spacious porch with an elegant staircase leading to the gallery. There is a mortar shell in the porch which was fired at the besieged defenders of Derry in 1689 containing terms of surrender which were not accepted.
In the tower, there is both a bell dated 1614, and the oldest peal of eight bells in Ireland which date from 1614 to 1671. They were recast in 1929, when five new bells were added.
Passing through the interior entrance oak doors, which commemorate Sir William Miller, five times Mayor of Derry, one enters the vestibule. To the left is the baptistery, which commemorates the hymn writer, Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), whose husband was Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, later Primate.
The font is dated 1747. The stained glass window in the west wall commemorates Dorothea, wife of the Very Rev. Richard King, Dean of Derry, 1921-1946.
The window in the north commemorates Mrs Alexander, and depicts some of her hymns.
The tiling in the baptistry was presented by the Right Rev. Joseph Irvine Peacock, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe from 1916 to 1945. There is a lectern with the navel crest of Sea Eagle, and a lovely tile and mosaic monument which has inscribed upon it, a prayer for the cathedral by Mrs Alexander.
There is a monument to the Rev. Robert Higinbotham, Curate of Templemore from 1850.
He is also commemorated by the font in the north-west corner of the nave, the cover for which was presented by the branches of the Girls' Friendly Society of Derry and Raphoe in 1887.
To the right of the vestibule, there is a room which was formally the choir robing room, it is now used as an office. It contains a stained glass window which commemorates the Siege of Derry. The window in the vestibule to the left of the office entrance shows Jesus as a child. It was the gift of Mrs M. Macgee. At the entrance to the Chapter House, there is a window which depicts the life of Christ.
The two-storey nave has seven bays and a fine hammer-beam ceiling of 1823. The celestory windows each have three lights and lattice panes. The corbels at the base of the roof support pillars, represent heads of former bishops and deans.
The pew end carvings are all different- no two alike. They were carved by father and son named Alford.
The nave is flanked by north and south aisles. The chancel, with the choir stalls on each side, leads into the sanctuary.
The marble floor in the chancel was laid during renovations in 1925. The carpet depicts coats of arms of the Irish Society, of the See of Derry, and of the Cathedral. On the east wall there are six mosaics, three on each side of the high altar, marble panels below. These mosaics depict the four Evangelists with St. Patrick and St. Columba.
Behind the high altar, there is a fine reredos, the central section of which depicts the Lamb of God. It was presented in 1887 by clergy who had been ordained in the Cathedral. The solid silver altar cross, (not on display when I visited) was the gift of Sir Basil McFarlane, 1966. There are four prayer desks in the sanctuary.
There is a yellow flag on each side of the east window in the sanctuary. The original flags were captured from the French army during the siege. On the still of a large window behind the chapel in the south aisle is a large plaque which states that in 1839, the ladies of Derry renewed the banners which had been restored during the centenary of the siege in 1789. The staves are original. The
other flags in the chancel are the King's Colours of the 8th and 10th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. There is also an Ensign which was presented by the Royal Air Force, and there are Canadian and U.S. Ensigns, which were presented to commemorate their naval presence in Londonderry. There are also flags of other regiments, including the Londonderry Regiment.
The pulpit is situated just outside the chancel. It is made of Caen stone and Cork marble, and dates from 1887.
St Columb's Cathedral is lit be some excellent stained glass windows. There are six windows of four lights in the south aisle. Starting from the west, the first of these depicts our Lord in the Garden of Gethesemne. It commemorates Henry McClay, LL.D., who died in 1884.