The Harbour Museum sits beside the River Foyle. This area was known in the 16th century as Port na Long - Port of the Ships (or ‘ship quay’). It is likely that this was the start of a medieval pilgrimage route which led up Magazine Street towards the Columban monastery up the hill now the site of St Augustine’s Church.
Manus O’Donnell’s 1532 Life of Colum Cille tells the fictional story of how the Pope granted that a pilgrimage route could be founded at one of Colmcille’s monasteries and that it would have the same status as a pilgrimage to Rome. According to O’Donnell,
"...although he himself was in Scotland, the place that Colum Cille gave that honour to was Derry; and the place where he ordained that the pilgrimage should be made was from the altar at the ship quay at the east end of the settlement to the ‘Righthand-wise Turn’ at the west end."
Manus O'Donnell p114
O’Donnell was probably promoting this route as way of encouraging pilgrims to visit the area. The O’Donnell family, probably with the support of the Franciscan monks at Kilmacrenan in Donegal, were promoting a similar pilgrimage route at Gartan, the site of Colmcille’s birth. The Franciscans were involved with many pilgrimage places such as Assisi and Rome in Italy, and the Holy Land.
The saint is linked with medieval pilgrimage routes in a number of areas including Gleann Cholm Cille and Gartan. Many medieval sources tell how Irish, Scottish and Norse royalty made pilgrimages to Iona or sites more local to their territory.
The museum houses a boat constructed in 1963 as part of the 1400th anniversary of Colmcille’s departure. Thirteen Church of Ireland clergy and laymen left Derry - representing Colmcille and his 12 disciples - and headed across to Iona. The journey took 8 days, with the crew stopping each night to camp.
Is it not clear why Colmcille chose to leave Ireland. There are a number of theories but it is hard to prove any of them. One idea is that Colmcille left his home country as self-imposed penance for the lives lost at the Battle of Cul Dreimne which took place around 560 - he felt responsible for the battle and wanted to atone for the deaths. Or else he was banished for his role in the loss of life. Another probably more reliable suggestion is that he simply wanted to find a place for religious contemplation away from Ireland.
In Gleann Cholm Cille legend says that for the two years before his departure from Derry the saint lived in the glen doing penance.
Colmcille’s departure - and life - has long been linked with the emotional pain of leaving home and emigration. The 12th century Life of Colum Cille written in Derry argues that the saint was effectively the patron saint of exiles and emigrants. In the last two centuries, thousands of emigrants have left Ireland from Derry.
In the 19th century, emigrants would spend the night before they left at the stone on which Colmcille’s mother is said to have given birth to him - Leac na Cumhadh - near Gartan Lough just over 30 miles west of Derry.
If you are driving to Gartan to explore another part of the Slí Cholmcille, take a short detour off the N13 from Derry to Letterkenny to visit the Grianan of Aileach. This is a huge hilltop circular stone fort constructed in the early Christian period although there is evidence that the site had been in use long before then.
The structure is 23 metres in diameter with walls 5 metres high. It was restored in the 19th century and visitors can climb to the top of the walls for the spectacular views over Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle and over Counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone.
The fort was used by the great royal dynasty known as the Uí Neill probably between the 9th and 12th centuries.