History of the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe

The Irish Church originated in the mission to Ireland of St. Patrick (c389 – c466).  Ireland quickly gained a reputation as ‘the land of saints and scholars’.  Chief amongst these was St. Columba, who was born in Gartan, Co. Donegal in 521.  Columba founded a monastery in Derry and erected his first church in 546.  Columba’s monastery at Raphoe was restored by St.Eunan (ob. c704), who became Bishop of Raphoe.

The Irish Church was at first based in the monasteries where the bishops lived, and were subject to the abbot.  As political power became more centralised in the 11th and 12th centuries, bishops began to gain jurisdiction over particular areas.  St. Eugene had founded the diocese of Ardstraw about 540.  This survived until about 1150 when Bishop Maurice O’Coffey transferred the see to his native Rath Luairg, Maghera.  Maghera in turn survived until about 1280.

The modern diocesan system originated in the reforming Synods of Rathbreasil in 1111 and Kells in 1152.  The territory of the Diocese of Derry in 1250 was very much as it is today, including Inishowen and parts of east Donegal.  Raphoe Diocese occupied most of the rest of Co. Donegal.

Columba’s church was replaced in Derry in 1164 by the Temple Mor or Great Church.  This was in turn replaced by the present Cathedral of St. Columb which was completed in 1633.  The Plantation of Ulster, the establishment of the London Guilds in Derry in 1613, and the Great Siege of Derry in 1689 have all been momentous events in the history of the Diocese.

At the Royal Visitation in 1622 many of the churches in Derry and Raphoe were found to be ruinous.  Further destruction occurred in the wake of the 1641 rebellion.  In the 18th century the Board of First Fruits gave grants for the repair of churches and many were built during this period.  The Ecclesiastical Commissioners in the 19th century oversaw the construction and repair of many more churches in the Dioceses which date from this time.

A notable Bishop of Derry was the Hon. Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop 1768 – 1803, the Earl Bishop, a philanthropist, church builder and traveller.  Another famous person from the Diocese of Derry was the hymn writer Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818 – 1895), wife of Bishop William Alexander.

In 1834 the Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe were united.  In 1978 the parishes in Inishowen were transferred to Raphoe Diocese.  Today there are a total of 121 churches – sixty-seven in Derry and fifty-four in Raphoe.

Acknowledgement to Canon David Crooks, Raphoe Diocese