In terms of historic visits Ireland has known its fair share. Barack Obama made quite a stir in his ancestral home of Moneygall. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II giggled her way through the English Market in Cork, JFK kept it low key with a cup of tea in Wexford’s Kennedy homestead while Mr Regan had a pub named after him. Naturally.
The Vikings arrived unannounced, of course, while St Patrick made a rather dramatic return by sailing into Strangford Lough in County Down.
When it comes to arrivals in Ireland, however, few can match that of John Newton.
Who’s John Newton? On Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula, he’s a household name.
Elvis Presley, Andrea Bocelli, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart – the big voices take on the big songs and it doesn’t get any bigger than Amazing Grace. Along with Auld Lang Syne, Happy Birthday and Jingle Bells, this repentant ode to God and the power of change is a song that spans the globe. In it, a wretch seeks mercy – atonement.
John Newton wasn’t only the writer – he was the wretch.
According to any biography of John Newton’s early life, and according to Ruth-Garvey Williams of the Inishowen Amazing Grace initiative, he was a scoundrel:
“At 23, John Newton was a foul-mouthed sailor working in the slave trade. Newton had rejected Christianity and delighted in mocking and criticising people of faith.“
In fact, during his passage back to England from Africa in 1748, Newton was so unpopular with “his crew that the captain blamed him for the violent storm which so nearly claimed their lives”.
And while that storm off Donegal’s coast didn’t take John’s life, it did change it.
Any port in a storm
During the storm that almost took his and his fellow passengers lives, Newton felt utter and complete fear and turned to God for mercy. That mercy came in the shape of Lough Swilly, a mirror of a lake splitting the counties of Donegal and Derry-Londonderry. It was here in Inishowen that the boat was repaired and the crew housed.
Image: Adam Porter
For Ruth Garvey-Williams, Newton’s first thoughts on arriving into Swilly would have been relief. “The tension and fear of the weeks at sea,” she says, “washed away as the crew waded ashore.”
Happily, that sense of Swilly calm is not confined to the mid-18th Century.
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Calm after the storm
“I often feel that same sense of peace and "refuge" when I walk along the banks of the lough and gaze out across the water or listen to the waves gently lapping at the shore,” Ruth tells us. “No matter how busy I've been, a few moments by Lough Swilly are like taking a deep breath!”
But Newton and crew wouldn’t have only been pleased with the surroundings. The care and attention they received at the hands of the locals was something unique. In the intervening years that warmth has not dimmed.
“During this year's Amazing Grace Festival, visitors were blown away by the warmth of the welcome they received in Buncrana. Locals are passionate about the area and go out of their way to show people the rich natural beauty and cultural heritage.”
Image: Adam Porter
Welcome to Inishowen
Whether is was Lough Swilly, Inishowen or his salvation from the storm, Newton was a new man. From this point on he renounced his work in the slave trade, became a friend and political ally of the abolitionist William Wilberforce and of course, penned Amazing Grace.
So the next time you sing Amazing Grace, spare a thought for John Newton and remember that neither he, nor the song, would be here without the calm of Lough Swilly and the Inishowen Peninsula.
Now that’s a sweet sound.