Composing The Return of Colmcille

Graeme Stewart on learning about the history of Derry~Londonderry, involving local musicians and bringing out the lutes  

Though I live in Belfast and otherwise work for BBC Northern Ireland, I'm currently based in Derry~Londonderry in my capacity as composer for The Return of Colmcille, finishing off recording sessions and mixing/mastering tracks. It's all go at the minute.

The production is the largest in the UK City of Culture 2013 programme. I suppose the whole journey began for me in January 2013, when I arrived in Derry~Londonderry for a meeting with producers John Wassell, Liz Pugh and Kathy Hayes, who had already begun putting the team in place for the show just before Christmas.

At that stage, the initial concept for the production was all there – the main outline of the story, the general feel for the show. Of course, writer Frank Cottrell Boyce being on board meant that drama and colour were not going to be in short supply. But the next meeting was a real eye-opener for me in terms of the scale of what we were expecting to achieve.

I met Frank and the team and we went across a windy Peace Bridge to Ebrington and the Culture Company offices to meet with Francis Morgan, the man behind 'Nessie', the enormous model of the Lough Ness Monster, which plays a central role on the final day of the production, on Sunday, June 8. I saw Francis' beautiful drawings and I knew – this was going to be massive.

I understood at that point that the soundtrack would require an exciting, vibrant and eclectic mix, ideally featuring some of Derry's best musicians. Frank's vision involves humour, but also an understanding of the history of the city. He wanted the people of Derry~Londonderry to tell their own personal stories, and also to give younger people a chance to delve into their history in an animated and practical way.

Graeme Stewart


Even in the last three months of working on the production, I have discovered so many connections that Derry~Londonderry has to the rest of the world, and the important role it has played over hundreds of years.

To be honest, if I tried to include every musical reference, we'd be here all day! So the challenge has been to let drama, dance and music all work together to tell the story. The fact that we are essentially combining history and legend in this production lends itself to being able to create a unique event for the city.

There's been a real feeling of wanting the people of Derry~Londonderry to be involved – dancers, musicians, singers, choirs, actors all coming together. The production company, Walk the Plank, have also been fantastic. Those guys know how to put on a show. Their vision and energy is limitless.

Musically speaking, there will be a whole variety of tracks and sounds, and I've had a great time working with some very talented people here already.

There will be a large choral element in the music, especially in our show on Saturday night (June 7), but there will also be a lot of pop music, different arrangements, traditional musicians, a swing band, choral performances – even medieval musicians. The show is divided up into different sections, all of which tell a different part of the story, and all need a different tone of music to set the scene. 

The part of the production I'm most looking forward to? On the June 7, in the evening, we will have an event at the quayside in the city when a small boat, a curragh, will arrive from Iona with a gift from the island. This gift will then be taken to Guildhall Square, where it will be guarded overnight by four monks.Then, the next day, the gift will be opened to reveal what's inside the box, but I can't really give that away just yet. You'll have to come and see for yourself.

What will follow are stages across the city telling stories of the past, before a colourful pageant and procession in the evening, around 9pm, which will make its way towards the Foyle for 'The Showdown' between Colmcille and Nessie.

I have enjoyed the experience of working on The Return of Colmcille immensely, and would encourage anyone who can make it to come to the city on Saturday, June 8 to witness a truly unique event. It will definitely be one for the history books!

The Return of Colmcille is in Derry~Londonderry on June 7 – 7. View the programme of events.

The Return of Colmcille