Monastic Derry

Learn about Derry as one of the earliest sites of Christianity in Ireland

The date of 546 is often given as the founding year of Derry’s first monastic church, but it is now generally recognised that this was determined inaccurately by later medieval chroniclers and cannot be relied upon.

Colmcille is traditionally said to have been the founder of the monastery but genuinely early records suggest the monastery was established by Fiachra mac Ciárain mac Ainmerech mac Sétna. The church in Derry was probably not founded until about 590, but what is clear is that the church or monastery of Derry was established by the leading local dynasty, the Cénel Conaill, of which Colmcille and Fiachra were important members. This family played a decisive role in the development of the settlement there for the next five centuries at least.

The story of the foundation of the monastery by Colmcille were probably developed as dynastic propaganda in later times when the Cénel Conaill came under pressure from their neighbours, the powerful dynasty known as the Cénel nEógain. Whatever about their historicity, these legends give a fascinating insight into the beliefs and politics of the time.

The legends tell us that Colmcille ( who was born in Donegal c.521 and died on Iona in 597) was a student at the monastery of Glasnevin, now a suburb of Dublin. A terrible plague broke out and the students were sent back to their homelands to protect them from contagion.

Colmcille went north, was ordained a priest on the way, and eventually arrived in Derry where the local king, Aed mac Ainmerech, offered him land on which to build his monastery. (In fact, Aed was a generation later than Colm Cille and if he was involved in the foundation of the monastery, it would have been established much later. This suggestion of a later date for the founding of the monastery would also fit with some of the other better-established facts.

We can be certain that the monastery of Derry was founded before the early 7th century and that it was connected , by family and other ties, to the great confederation of churches in various parts of Ireland and Britain which was linked to Colmcille’s main establishment on Iona. There are patchy historical records for the first few centuries of its existence, which seem to demonstrate that during this period Derry was a relatively quiet backwater.

There are reports of two, or at most three, raiding expeditions by bands of Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries, but the settlement does not appear to have been too badly damaged on any of these occasions. It seems that it was not until the early 10th century that Derry began to acquire a greater status (probably along with greater wealth) and to play a more active role in the wider Columban monastic world.