St Columb’s Cathedral’s long-awaited and eagerly-anticipated Festival of Cloaks was officially opened on Friday evening, June 14th 2024, by the Bishop of Meath and Kildare, Most Rev Pat Storey, at a ceremony attended by the Lord Lieutenant for the County Borough of Londonderry, Mr Ian Crowe MBE.

The Dean of Derry, Very Rev Raymond Stewart, told those present that he believed nothing like the festival had ever been held in Northern Ireland before. Speaking, he said, as a son of the Diocese of Kildare, he was delighted that the legacy of St Brigid in spreading the Gospel all across Ireland was now being recognised.

Opening the festival, Bishop Storey said it was a delight to be back in Derry-Londonderry and back in St Columb’s Cathedral. The Bishop shared something of the history of St Brigid – the patroness saint of Ireland.

“What’s a cloak for?”, Bishop Storey asked. “A cloak is to protect, to keep warm and to cover. And the legend around Saint Brigid is that there’s room for everyone under Brigid’s cloak. No one is beyond the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“Like Brigid, we’re alert to every opportunity for every single person on the planet. Brigid was known in particular for outreach in giving to the poor; for praying for healing and for caring for the planet. But most of all she made the most of her history and heritage of Christian faith. Brigid was centered on Christian faith. That is what she was for. That is what she felt her vocation was. So she acted and spoke only to share Good News.

“That legacy still exists in my cathedral – in St Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare – in this cathedral, and in the South we even get a bank holiday now in the name of St Brigid, which is almost the best thing of all. So, tonight, if you can be anything, be a Brigid. It is with great delight that I officially open the Festival of Cloaks.”

The Bishop of Derry, Most Rev Dr Donal McKeown, said the wonderful range of 78 cloaks on display reflected the “marvellous diversity” in our community and on this island. “I hope this will enable us to cherish our diversity, to see that as a richness and not as something that divides or threatens us. I hope it enables us to be proud of our past – recognising the rubble that’s there and seeing it as an opportunity to build a foundation for our wonderful young people who deserve better than earlier generations ever obtained or received.

“This is a very imaginative approach,” Bishop McKeown said, “to sharing a range of creativity but I hope it will enable all of us to look at the past and find a shared past – in its multiplicity of identities a shared past – because once we have a shared past, our spiritual intelligence through the grace of God will enable us to look forward to a shared future.”

As Bishop Andrew Forster moved forward to address those present, he was surprised by an unexpected rendition of ‘Happy birthday’, followed by a round of applause. Visibly taken aback, the Bishop pointed out that he wasn’t alone in having something to celebrate: Malcolm and Irene Hewitt, who were seated near the back of the church, were celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary – which prompted another round of applause, this time for the happy couple.

Bishop Andrew praised the organisers of the festival which he said would enhance the experience of visitors to the city throughout the summer.

The Bishop said there were frequent mentions of ‘robes’ in the Bible but he said Jesus talked about a ‘cloak’ in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel, when he said if someone wants your tunic, give them your cloak. “One of the most important parts of the teaching of Jesus is to open our hearts to the generosity of God – the generosity of God in the giving of Himself and of ourselves to others, because those verses talk about that.

“There’s a physical generosity – somebody wants your tunic, give them your tunic as well, they’re going to need your cloak – but there’s a generosity of spirit, isn’t there? There’s a generosity of spirit that looks on someone who is perhaps in need and wants to go the extra mile to help. There’s a generosity of spirit that says to those who are struggling that we want to help. There’s a generosity of spirit that sees the other as part of the family of God and part of our responsibility. So, the cloak that Jesus talks about sharing, speaks into our hearts about having a generosity of spirit and a generosity of heart.

“In this city that we all love, and across this city, let’s work and pray for a generosity of spirit, that the cloak is freely given, that we have a generosity of heart to those who struggle, to those from whom we differ, that we have that generosity of spirit that says ‘Yes’ to the generosity of God in our lives and we share the cloak as Jesus tells us to do.

“I want to wish great success on this wonderful display right throughout the summer.”

Music for the service was provided by Tracey McRory who performed on the harp and the violin; soprano, Susan Wilson, accompanied by Ben McGonigle; and the Cathedral Girls’ Choir, directed by Nicky Morton,

The Festival of Cloaks will continue at St Columb’s Cathedral until the 31st of August, and will be open from Monday to Saturday from 10am until 4pm.