History - Who We Are

The Diocese of Derry serves the catholic congregation of 51 parishes across almost all of County Derry, parts of County Tyrone and County Donegal, and a very small area across the River Bann in County Antrim. The Catholic population of the diocese is about 250,000.

Diocese of Derry

Our Story - by Fr John R Walsh

The beginnings of Christianity

Saint Patrick brought Christianity to the peoples who lived in the extreme north-west of Ireland in the fifth century.Patrick gives us no information that can link him with any specific place within what is now the diocese of Derry or, indeed, within Ireland. All Patrick tells us about his mission field is that he directed his steps to "the most remote places, beyond which no man dwells".

The earliest surviving written identification of Patrick with places in Ireland is to be found in Bishop Tírechán's Brief Account.This document was penned some two centuries after the Saint's mission. When dealing with the area now known as the diocese of Derry, Tírechán has his hero found the church of Donaghmore in the Finn Valley. He has the saint proceed to Glentogher in Inishowen and thence into the Faughan Valley where he is said to have established seven churches. The Brief Account then has Patrick visit Ardstraw and consecrate Mac Erca as bishop there before founding the church of Tamlaghtard at Magilligan. From Tamlaghtard Patrick is said to have gone to work in the territory immediately west of the Lower Bann before crossing the river to evangelise the area around Coleraine.

The beginnings of Christianity

Saints and Scholars

Having won over the local king Patrick seems often to have placed a bishop over the tuath or small kingdom. But Patrick's imposition of a diocesan structure on his mission territory was foreign to his converts. In the sixth century the church became monastic in character. Great monasteries with networks of daughter houses under them mirrored the secular world where over-kings dominated groups of tuatha. Gradually the Irish church became monastic with abbots rather than bishops as the chief churchmen. In the north-west of Ireland the main monastic founders in the sixth century were: Saint Eugene of Ardstraw, now the principal patron of the diocese of Derry, Saint Columba of Derry, Saint Lurach of Maghera, Saint Comgall of Bangor and Camus-juxta-Bann and Saint Canice of Drumachose. The monasteries were centres of learning.

Some Treasures

A number of medieval treasures associated with people and places in the present diocese are considered parts of the artistic heritage of Ireland. Chief among these are: the psalter known as the Cathach, the oldest surviving Irish manuscript, now in the Royal Irish Academy, and the shrine, now in the National Museum of Ireland, made in the eleventh century to enclose it; the famous book-reliquary, associated with the parish of Clonmany, known as the Miosach of Columba; the Crosses at Fahan, Carndonagh, Carrowmore, Cloncha and Cooley, all on Inishowen;Saint Mura's Bell, now in the Wallace Collection in London; Saint Patrick's Bell and the shrine which housed it, both in the National Museum; handbells linked to the parishes of Culdaff, Drumragh, Termonamongan, Badoney Lower, Donagh, Cappagh, and Clooney; the Fahan Christmatory, a tiny bronze vase for holy oil, dating from around 1100 and now in the National Museum of Ireland; the Mortuary House at Banagher; and the Maghera Lintel.

Some Treasures

Decline and Renewal

When the initial fervour of the young Irish Church waned there followed a period of decline caused among other things by the Viking incursions. Many abuses crept in and moral standards dropped. After this came a period of reform. This included the creation of a basic diocesan organisation in Ireland. The synod of Kells (1152) determined the boundaries of the diocese of Derry. That structure, with a few minor adjustments, has held good up until the present. The centre of the diocese was at Maghera in 1152. A century later in 1254 the episcopal seat was moved to Derry. The great monastic church there, the Teampall Mór, became the cathedral.

The formation of a diocesan territory was followed by the creation of parishes. The names of nineteen of our medieval parishes include ecclesiastical elements. Four of them – Badoney, Donagh, Donaghmore and Donagheady – contain the term donagh coming from the Irish word for "church" and referring to a church that was founded at some time from the mid-fifth century until the close of the sixth century. Four parishes have names with the term cill, "a church", included. These are Kilcronaghan, Killelagh, Killowen and Kilrea. The word tamhlacht, meaning "burial ground" (used in a time of plague)", is to be found in the names of three parishes – Tamlaghtard, Tamlaghtfinlagan and Tamlaghtocrilly. Diseart,"hermitage", is an element in the names of the parishes of Desertegney, Desertoghill and Desertmartin. The word téarmonn, "land belonging to the church", is to be found in Termoneeny. And teampall ("a church") aireagal ("an oratory") and urnaí ("a place of prayer") are to be found in the names of Templemore, Errigal and Urney respectively. The names of the other medieval parishes are secular in origin.

The twelfth-century reform introduced new monastic orders into the diocese. A Cistercian monastery was established at Macosquin. Later a house of Cistercian nuns was set up at Galliagh. Monasteries were founded by the Canons Regular at Derry and Dungiven. The Dominicans opened priories in Coleraine in 1244 and thirty years later in Derry. Later again the Third Order Regular Franciscans had houses in west Tyrone. Medieval religious houses were popular centres of devotion and education.

A suffering Church

The Protestant Reformation began in Ireland in the 1530s. Most people in Ireland chose to remain Catholic but the state promoted Protestantism along with its policy of conquest in Ireland. The monasteries and religious houses were dissolved and their property was taken over by local magnates. In 1601 the bishop of the diocese, Redmond O Gallagher, was slain by the English near Claudy. In 1608 Donough MacCready, pastor of Aghadowey, was executed at Coleraine. At least three of the diocesan clergy died violently in 1642/3. In the 1650s the Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell made an all-out effort to eradicate Catholicism. This was the period of the Mass Rock when Irish Catholics had to worship secretly in desolate spots in the open air. Four Dominican priests associated with the north-west were killed by the Cromwellians. 1681 saw the martyrdom of Oliver Plunket, archbishop of Armagh. He had visited the diocese to administer the sacrament of confirmation to thousands "in the woods and mountains regardless of winds and rain". He had also ordained priests to minister in the diocese of Derry. "Safeguarding the Protestant interest" was the major preoccupation of the followers of the victorious King William III after the Battle of the Boyne (1690). This saw the enactment of a series of cruel measures known as the Popery Laws. Henceforth Catholics would be mere serfs.

A suffering Church

After Emancipation

A series of Acts of Parliament in the last quarter of the eighteenth century partly dismantled the penal laws. In 1829 Catholic Emancipation was granted. An era of remarkable renewal and development now began. Many large and more elaborate churches replaced the simple, mud-walled, thatched chapels of the penal times.Already the Long Tower Church in Derry had been partially completed in 1786. St Eugene's Cathedral, begun just after the Famine in 1851, was dedicated in 1873. This building programme throughout the dioceses continued until the last decade of the twentieth century. In the mid-1800s new teaching orders of religious sisters and brothers (the Christian Brothers, the Loreto Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy) provided free education, especially at second-level, for an overwhelmingly poor Catholic population in towns across the diocese. The extended provision of Catholic secondary schools was again a priority for Church authorities in the 1960s and '70s.To cater for the social life of the people of Derry City St Columb's Hall was built in 1886. There were equivalent facilities in most parishes eventually. In the late nineteenth century religious sisters began providing residential services for the aged, the infirm and the orphaned.

The strength of the Church during much of this era lay in its identification with its people in their struggles for justice and equality. Bishops and priests played prominent roles in these struggles, none more so than Bishop Edward Maginn (d. 1849).

The "Troubles"

The last thirty years of the twentieth century were dominated by the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and the border counties. Between 1969 and 1999, 3633 people died as a result of the conflict. Of these 353 died in the City and County of Derry (most of which forms part of the diocese of Derry); 361 died in County Tyrone (many from the part of that County in the diocese); and 118 died in the Republic (some from the areas of the diocese in County Donegal). During this period Bishop Edward Daly (d. 2016) gave exemplary leadership. The hope and prayer of all Christians must be that violence in Northern Ireland has ended forever.

The "Troubles"

Our Missionaries

Missionary endeavour has been a characteristic of our local Church since early times. Patrick, Columba, Comgall and Canice were all missionaries. Ichbricht, the late seventh-century apostle of Frisia, has been linked to Dungiven. In the middle-ages Blessed Muireadhach Mac Robhartaigh (d.1088) worked in Germany. He is associated with Ballymagroarty. In 1736 Friar Dominic Ó Brolchaín, a native of Granaghan, published a book in Louvain in Belguim on the subject of missionary action. In the twentieth century foreign missionary societies like the Columban and Kiltegan Fathers flourished. Many female and male religious laboured in places as far-flung as Africa, the Orient, Continental Europe, North America, South America, Great Britain, Oceania and the Antipodes. Cardinal John Mc Closkey (d.1885) of New York and Cardinal Peter Mc Keefry (d.1973) of Wellington, New Zealand, both sons of parents who had emigrated from the diocese, are magnificent representatives of the thousands of effective missionaries who have emerged from our local Church.

The Future

The diocese of Derry has had a long history of faith in God and service to neighbour at home and abroad. Our people have shown great fidelity, especially in times of hardship and persecution. There is much for which we should be grateful though not every sentence in our collective story has been uniformly noble.Our forebears, being human, have often failed to put the essentials of Christianity into practice. We take "no pleasure in other people's sins" (ICo 13:6). Our own frailty is too apparent. It is more than enough that we try to "live by the truth and in love" in order to "grow in all ways into Christ" (Ep 4:15).

A living Church needs more than an interesting past. It needs people of faith in this and future generations. The future of the Church in Derry lies in the hands of our young people.

The Future

Reach Out To The Diocese Of Derry Today


Diocesan Offices
St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP

Tel: 028 7126 2302

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