Amazing Grace, astounding connections

An Irishman’s Diary: How Donegal is laying claim to a famous English hymn

 The ‘Amazing Grace’ of Lough Swilly?

The ‘Amazing Grace’ of Lough Swilly?


The Gathering is supposed to be about bringing emigrants back home, for a celebration of all things Irish. But of necessity, this has involved casting the net wide, and with a fine mesh, to make sure nobody was missed. So it’s hardly surprising that, along with the diaspora, the catch should yield a few more exotic species of marine wildlife too.

Thus the inaugural Amazing Grace Festival, to be held next month in Buncrana. The event marks the connections between the great hymn and Donegal. Which connections you may not have heard of before. And they seem, on the face of it, somewhat tenuous.

After all, the hymn’s author – John Newton – was a Londoner: born in Wapping in 1725. He went on to travel widely. But from a religious point of view, he is said to have spent the first half of his life, at least, living mainly in a place called sin.

Later he became a preacher and settled in Olney, Buckinghamshire. And that town in time became synonymous not just with Amazing Grace but with Newton’s other religious music: published in 1779 as the Olney Hymns .

Where Donegal features in the story, apparently, was as the stopping point on his road to Damascus. Not that there was any road involved either. The pivotal event in Newton’s life happened offshore, on a ship called the Greyhound , in 1748.

Returning to England, the vessel got caught in a storm off Ireland’s north-west and was close to sinking. Newton called out – literally – for divine intervention. When the ship survived, he believed his prayer had been answered.

Forever afterwards, he marked that date as his religious epiphany. Landing gratefully on the shores of Lough Swilly, he was like the sinner in the hymn who had once been lost, but now was found.

Mind you, it took him another 25 years – and a lot more sinning – before he actually wrote those words. Even so, that was the key moment, by his own account. So who are the people of Donegal to disagree?

Just as they didn’t throw him back to the sea in 1748, they’re not throwing him back now either. On the contrary, the Newton connection is a valuable piece of jetsam ripe for (the) Gathering. You and I might still know it as Buncrana, but according to the enterprising people in the local tourism office, it is now “Amazing Grace Country”.

There may be a certain historic justice involved here. For one thing, this part of Donegal has had its own musical clothes stolen, at least once. As far as I know, the famous air My Lagan Love takes its name from a stream flowing into Lough Swilly and not -as everyone assumes – from the Belfast river.

But Newton’s life provides ironic justification too. After only two years of schooling, he went to sea aged 11. And while still in his teens, he was highly practised in most of the things for which sailors were known then: including drinking, gambling, and – especially the use of foul language, for which he was said to have a talent unusual even among seamen.

His lawless reputation earned him a press-ganging into the British navy, wherein he was flogged for disobedience and later condemned to servitude among the slave traders of West Africa. In fact, it was from Africa he was escaping at the time of his Irish adventure.

But that his Donegal epiphany was only partial, he himself later confessed. In the short-term, it meant giving up gambling, drink, and bad language. It did not, however, prevent him becoming a successful slave trader in his own right, something that for years he managed to reconcile with a deepening spiritualism.

Only a stroke in 1754 retired him from seafaring. And even then he continued to invest in the slave trade. Not until 1788 – 40 years after washing his soul in the waters of Lough Swilly – did he write a definitive pamphlet on the issue, reviling his former career, and influencing many others in the campaign for abolition.

Most crucially, he was a mentor to William Wilberforce, who pushed that campaign to a successful conclusion. So Newton was more saint than sinner in the end. But if his recruitment by Ireland’s current tourism initiative is a press-ganging, or even temporary enslavement, he could hardly complain.

The Amazing Grace Festival runs April 4th-8th. Details are at