Amazing Grace Festival Comes to Buncrana From April 4

City of Culture celebrate John Newton's enduring hymn with a series of events in Buncrana  

We all know ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn that became a protest song, an anthem for justice and civil rights. It was sung when Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, when the Berlin Wall fell, and when the twin towers were attacked on 9/11.

It is performed at funerals and weddings, in football stadiums and regularly in church. It has been recorded by more than 3,000 artists and ensembles, most famously the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Guards, whose single reached No. 1 in the UK charts in 1972 and collected 14 gold discs worldwide. But how many of us know about its links to the North of Ireland?

The Amazing Grace Festival, scheduled in Derry~Londonderry’s City of Culture 2013 programme from April 4 – 10, celebrates 240 years since the hymn was written, and will reveal how ‘Amazing Grace’ was inspired by events in Donegal and Derry.

Born in London in 1725, John Newton was taken to sea by his father, a commander on a merchant ship, when he was just 11 years old. As a young man he sailed on the ships that transported slaves from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean.

In March 1748, as he journeyed back from Sierra Leone to Liverpool on the cargo ship, the Greyhound, a violent storm threatened to sink the vessel. At its height, Newton took his turn at the helm and called out to God for His mercy. Although the ship was badly holed, its sails torn to shreds, the crew sighted land at Tory island off the Donegal coast. On April 8, the Greyhound entered Lough Swilly, dropping anchor at Buncrana.

Newton wrote: 'When we came into this port, our very last victuals were boiling in the pot and before we had been there two hours, the wind, which seemed to have been providentially restrained, began to blow with great violence: if we had continued at sea that night in our shattered enfeebled condition, we must, in all human appearance, have gone to the bottom… About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayer.'

The landing at Buncrana was indeed fortuitous, for a nearby flax mill provided new sails and local carpenters were on hand to repair the ship. While it was being refitted, Newton proceeded to Londonderry where he lodged at 'an exceedingly good house' and soon regained his strength. He went hunting with the mayor, William Lecky, and attended prayers twice a day at St Columb’s Cathedral.

Prior to the trials and tribulations of that epic journey, Newton had by his own confession been a wretched, blaspheming infidel. Now, in Londonderry he was a 'serious professor' as he prepared to take communion at church. On that occasion, and with the greatest solemnity, he pledged himself  'to be the Lord’s for ever and only His'.

When Newton was finally ordained as a Church of England clergyman, he served the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire. Here he was in the habit of writing hymns to illustrate his sermons. The biblical text for New Year’s day 1773, was 1 Chronicles 16 v 16, 17, and the main theme of his sermon was gratitude. The accompanying hymn carried a wholly personal message relating back to the storm that changed his life.

'How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far
And Grace will lead me home.'

Ruth Garvey Williams, one of the organisers of the Amazing Grace Festival, lives in Inishowen, where she edits the Irish Christian magazine VOX. She explains that the initiative came from the local community, from Buncrana Town Council and the Inishowen Tourist board, who are keen to promote the area as Amazing Grace Country.

In 2007, they arranged a pre-screening in Buncrana’s cinema of the feature film Amazing Grace, the story of John Newton’s involvement with William Wilberforce in Britain’s anti-slavery movement. 'It was the first ever showing in the Republic of Ireland. Our little town treated it like a premiere. We even had a red carpet for the event and Moya Brennan sang the hymn,' Williams recalls.

Since then, they have created a dedicated website, erected signage for tourists and planned the first ever Amazing Grace Festival. The opening event on April 4 will be a lecture at The Exchange in Castle Avenue, Buncrana, by writer and historian, Marylynn Rouse, who will make the same presentation at St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry-Londonderry on April 10.

Among the other attractions will be an open air concert on April 8, the day Newton landed in Buncrana, a performance by the Belfast Community Gospel Choir, an evening of music and stories of faith entitled ‘The Hour I First Believed’, and a family fun day featuring 18th century toys, including spinning tops and kites.

Rouse, who is the acknowledged expert on Newton’s life and work, admits it was Newton’s hymns that first attracted her. Although he wrote some 300, the most popular are ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’, ‘Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken’ and, of course, ‘Amazing Grace’.

'At first I thought it was too commercial, but now that I know so much about Newton, ‘Amazing Grace’ gets more meaningful every time I hear it,' adds Rouse.

Rouse discovered the text for the hymn in Lambeth Palace and is at pains to point out that the original final verse differs from the one that is most commonly used today. 'In the alternative version, the whole rhythm is completely changed and the words are much less personal than those Newton wrote.'

Having visited his attic study in Olney, Rouse appreciates how Newton could well have been looking out on snow as he penned it in that winter of 1772/73.

'The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God who called me here below
Will be forever mine.'

The tune we now associate with the hymn was introduced in America by William Walker in 1835. The church hymnal defines it as an American folk tune, but it may also have been inspired by a negro spiritual from Virginia or South Carolina or a Scottish folk ballad from Kentucky or Tennessee.

In 1780, Newton moved to London where he became rector of St. Mary’s church in Woolwich. Here he met William Wilberforce and became his mentor during the long battle to introduce anti slavery legislation. It was to take 20 years, but shortly before Newton’s death in 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed in Parliament outlawing the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

Though at the end of his life Newtown was almost blind and showing signs of dementia, his faith remained steadfast to the last as he declared, 'My memory is almost gone but two things I know, I am a great sinner and Jesus Christ is a great saviour.'

Visit the Amazing Grace Festival website for more information.