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13 June 1997 Edition

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Walking past history

By Mary Nelis

It was a week of comings and goings in Derry, as the City prepared to commemorate the 1400th anniversary of Colum Cille, who founded a monastic settlement among the oak forest in 557 and which four centuries later gave the city its name, Doire Colum Cille. The Gaelic settlement of Doire lasted for almost a thousand years until the plantation in 1603 when the newly arrived colonists changed the name by English Royal Charter to Londonderry.

President Mary Robinson came to visit the ancient city whose names today continue to identify the political and religious roots of its citizens. Her visit was arranged around the Churches of different denominations who bore the name of the Saint. It was a short walk from St Columba's Church, Long Tower, whose foundation stone denotes the Ancient Irish civilisation which flourished long after Colum Cille died, to the protestant St Columb's Cathedral, where the inscription above the door reads: ``If stones could speak then England's praise would sound for those who built this great Cathedral from the ground''.

As she walked the short distance between these churches President Robinson passed through the heavily fortified Bishop's Gate checkpoint with the state of the art designer watchtower, described by the RUC at the time of its erection as ``blending in with the natural stone of the historic buildings around it''. The numerous cameras, both hidden and exposed, would have recorded the short pilgrimage of the President. The microphones would have picked up her conversation with the many dignatories who accompanied her. Like the people of the Bogside, her every word, gesture and movement would have been monitored and recorded by the watching eyes and ears of those who still sound England's praise via modern technology and satellite communications systems.

Within the shadow of Derry Walls, built by the planters to protect the garrison city of Londonderry, the President may have noticed that the cannons used in defence of the city during the siege in 1609 were still in good shape and like the guns in the hands of the British soldiers, still defending the English garrison from their watchtower, were pointing towards the Bogside and a community asserting their right to live at peace in Free Derry.

As President Robinson was coming to the city, a booklet intended to promote its history recorded in the award winning Tower Museum, was going.

Derry City Council withdrew all 10,000 copies of the booklet because its front cover showed various images of the exhibits, including Saint Colum Cille, the Traitor Lundy, and a masked man with a gun.

The Councilors who objected to the booklet were concerned that it might send the wrong message to visitors and school children. The same councillors have had no difficulty with the image and the message conveyed to visitors of men with guns in the uniform of the British Army, who have paraded the streets daily since 1969. The controversy surrounding the Tower Museum book ensured its place in the future history of the city. In the Guildhall, another book, the subject of equal if somewhat different controversy in the past, went on display for the first time in 800 years.

The Cathach, meaning the Battler, is the famous illuminated manuscript of the Psalms, traditionally ascribed to the hand of Colum Cille and dating back to the 6th Century. This was the book which produced the first and famous ruling on copyright by King Diarmait, ``To every cow her calf, to every book its copy.''

Fourteen hundred years have passed since that famous ruling. Fourteen hundred years during which time the native Irish, their religion, culture, language even their civilisation, were all but wiped out. Like Colum Cille they were exiled by war, famine and English law to the four corners of the earth.

The Irish diaspora, the fifth province, still cling to the notion of an Ireland free from the invader, an Ireland where religious, political and cultural diversity can be celebrated by all its people as part of the rich heritage of the past.

It will happen, when the English decide to go from their last colony.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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