The Lake of Shadows | A Vapour that Appeareth
“Shield and portion”
The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835: “Buncrana lies near five miles up shore from Dunree Fort. This shore is altogether exposed and does not afford an eligible site for either pier or quay; but, off the mouth of the Crannagh River or under Buncrana Castle, there is safe anchorage for vessels of any burthen and boats can enter the river with but little floodwater, and here they bring nearly all the fish caught in Lough Swilly for sale.”
In the field of tourism branding, hymnal inspiration must rank among the more original, if not the unique. It certainly was a good excuse to transform a concrete viewing platform into an artwork. Local artist Andrew Garvey-Williams designed a mosaic floor which incorporates images of the hymnwriter John Newton’s ship The Greyhound, the words “Amazing Grace” copied from his handwriting and broken chains symbolising the end of the transatlantic slave trade.
“As long as life endures”
Sailing from Africa to England via Newfoundland was a long and dangerous voyage. For weeks during the spring of 1748, John’s ship was caught in a violent storm in the Atlantic Ocean. One sailor was instantly swept overboard. In his own words, “The sea had torn away the upper timbers… and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes. It was astonishing, and almost miraculous, that any of us survived. We expended most of our clothing and bedding to stop the leaks.”
When all hope was lost, “We saw the Island of Tory and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This was the 8th day of April. When we came into this part, our very last victuals were boiling in the pot and before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered condition, we would have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayers.” He had realised God’s grace could save even a “wretch” like him.
“A life of joy and peace”
John stepped ashore in Buncrana a changed man. The viewing platform marks the spot. His crew received a warm welcome from the villagers, and local carpenters set about repairing the battered ship. While the ship was being repaired, he visited Londonderry, attending prayers at St Columb’s Cathedral twice a day. On returning to England, he was appointed captain of a slave ship. But as his faith grew, he jumped ship to join the clergy in Liverpool in 1764. It was while he was Curate at Olney Parish Church that he wrote Amazing Grace to illustrate his 1773 New Year’s Day sermon. John was promoted to Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London. He preached at this Nicholas Hawksmoor designed church in Bank for the last 27 years of his life. During this period, he mentored the politician William Wilberforce and together their combined efforts battling slavery were successful.
The slave trade was abolished in the spring of 1807. John died the same year, four days before Christmas. He had written almost 300 hymns such as the real belter Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, but historically Amazing Grace wasn’t among the most popular. It really only gained status during the 19th century Christian revival which swept across both sides of the Atlantic. His words were attached to several traditional tunes until 1835 when the composer William Walker married the hymn to the tune New Britain.
“Dissolve like snow”
The hymn has an enduring quality, an eternal appeal. Amazing Grace has been recorded over 5,000 times including a moving rendition given by Aretha Franklin to the Obamas. It has also inspired contemporary songs such as Phil Wickham’s “This is Amazing Grace”. John Newton’s legacy lives on forever in lyrics and now in a tourist attraction in this most fascinating far flung part of the universe. Growing at a rate of knots, Buncrana is now Donegal’s second largest town and the largest in Inishowen. It is just 20 miles away from Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point.
“Bright shining as the sun”