Northern Lights: Bishop Frederick Hervey

Garbhan Downey salutes the art-loving eccentric who helped shape 18th Century Derry

Derry’s historic links to London have been heavily promoted in its bid to become UK City of Culture, albeit in an upbeat and uncritical fashion.

There’s strong logic in this policy, given that London will ultimately decide the winner. And business is business.

But, unsurprisingly, not everyone in northwest of Ireland sees this approach as a good thing - or indeed an honest reflection of the relationship between the colonialist and the colonised.

There have certainly been long-standing difficulties, hinging around national and religious identity. And to ignore them is pointless since they are intrinsic to our rich and diverse city heritage.

Indeed, it is precisely because Derry tackled its own challenges so successfully that the city is now held up as the international prototype for resolving cultural disputes – and our civic leaders are in demand as mediators across the globe. Our chief export is Cultural Tolerance 101.

Derry’s submission for CoC 2013 can thus only be strengthened by healthy debate, like the one we’ve recently been having. And, ultimately, the completed bid (to be submitted on May 28) will be all-inclusive, because Derry is a city that insists on full inclusion.

It is important, too, that there will now be regular opportunities to consider and celebrate our diversity within the City of Culture programme itself. One event, suggested by the city’s main publishing house, Guildhall Press, would involve a conference to discuss the influence of one of the city’s greatest cultural libertarians – Bishop Frederick Hervey.

Guildhall have drafted plans for a Winter School in 2013, honouring Hervey’s contribution to Derry, to Ireland and, indeed, to 18th Century Europe.

Hervey (1730-1803) is one of the more controversial figures in Derry’s history. He was an Englishman who only ever employed Irish people; a Church of Ireland bishop who supported full religious tolerance (to such an extent that George III referred to him as 'that wicked prelate'); and a landowner who opposed tithing.

He was a leader of the Irish volunteer movement, which almost led to his arrest by the British for fomenting rebellion on the island. And, conversely, he was later jailed in Milan for reporting French troop movements back to the British cabinet. He was also an architect, a polyglot, a builder, an art-lover and a playwright besides.

Initially appointed Bishop of Cloyne at the behest of his eldest brother who was an aide to George III, Hervey was transferred to Derry – by far Ireland’s richest diocese – in 1767. The city, even then, had a track record of attracting cultural luminaries. The philosopher George Berkeley (who went on to found Yale University and after whom Berkeley in California is named) had been Dean of Derry in the 1720s, and Jonathan Swift had himself applied for the position a few years earlier but had been turned down.

Hervey’s legacy to the northwest, in physical terms, is apparent to this day. He spent hugely on Derry – much of it his own money. He built the first bridge across the Foyle, planted a magnificent forest at Ballykelly, restored St Columb’s Cathedral, built or renovated hosts of other churches, and constructed Downhill Manor and the Mussenden Temple. He developed agriculture and coalmining in the county, and established a new road network outside the walled city. His industry was such that locals nicknamed him the 'Edifying Bishop'.

An aficionado of fine art, his gallery at Downhill contained works by Raphael, Titian and Rembrandt. And the Vatican gave him special permission to make moulds of their statues.

Hervey was not, however, burdened remotely with his religion – and was variously described as a deist, a sceptic, an atheist or an agnostic. He happily dined with both the Pope and Voltaire - and lobbied consistently, in Ireland and beyond, on behalf of Catholic rights.

He was also quite a licentious character, who enjoyed a drink and adored women. His liaison with his married cousin Frideswide Mussenden provoked a huge scandal at the time (she was 21, he 52). And it was for her he developed the exceptional Roman folly which still stands at Downhill to this day, and appears in just about every tourist infomercial for Northern Ireland.

The main apartment of the Mussenden Temple housed Hervey's library, but interestingly there was a vault underneath which he gave to Catholics in the neighbourhood to celebrate Mass.

A well-known prankster, legend had it that Hervey had a very unusual method of interviewing potential curates for the Derry diocese. He would invite a panel of them to dinner at his city palace (now the Masonic Hall), feed them full of drink, then order them to strip naked and run a one-mile lap of the walls. The first man home got the job. (Charity campaigners looking for a new challenge, you heard it here first – The Naked Mile.)

Another story from his excellent biography, The Mitred Earl by Brian Fothergill, tells of how he snared a lady house-guest he suspected of having a dalliance with a fellow visitor at Downhill. Hervey waited until it was dark before spilling some flour outside the lady’s bedroom – then the following morning traced her guilty footsteps to their source.

Hervey left Derry in 1791 though remained as a much-loved absentee bishop until his death in Italy in July 1803. He died in a stable, as the Catholic villager whose cottage he collapsed outside was too superstitious to allow a heretic cleric inside. Likewise, Italian sailors refused to transport his corpse home, so the British Minister at Naples was obliged to pack him in a case marked ‘Antique Statue’ and smuggle him onto the ship.

Hervey was buried with his ancestors at Ickworth in Suffolk, and an obelisk to his memory was erected there. As Fothergill comments in the last line of his biography: 'Many must regret that it does not stand in Derry...'

Happily, however, there is still ample opportunity to commemorate Hervey’s massive cultural legacy to the northwest. What better place to start than in Derry’s bid for City of Culture 2013?