Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Kells, Saint Colum Cille and the Prophecy of Bec Mac Dé

October 12 is the commemoration of Saint Bec Mac Dé, an Irish saint, who like Saint Colum Cille, was renowned for his gift of prophecy. Last year we looked at the part played by both prophecy and by Saint Colum Cille at the time of the death of Saint Bec, the post can be read here. Now we look at another prophetic encounter between the two in which Bec comes down on the side of the Church regarding the County Meath site of Kells. It is a commonplace of hagiography to depict a saint being treated disrespectfully by a ruler, only for the king to get his comeuppance. Modern scholars see these episodes as the hagiographer's way of alluding to what were in reality rather more complex encounters between secular and spiritual authorities. Needless to say, when it comes to the claims of Colum Cille and those of King Diarmaid over this place, there can be only one winner...

98. After that Columcille went to the place that is called Kells today, that was the stead of the King of Erin in that time, to wit, Diarmaid mac Cerbaill. And Columcille was kept without the door of the palace in front of that place. Then did Columcille betake him to making prophecies touching that stead, and he said it would not be for long that the household therewithin should hold it. And there chanced to come upon him Bec mac De, the which was druid to Diarmaid mac Cerbaill, and a good prophet. Columcille said to him : "Bec mac De, make a prophecy touching this place. How shall it be? Shall it be kings or clerics that shall dwell therein?" ''Of a sooth it shall be clerics," saith Bec, ''henceforward; and thou shalt be head of those clerics, and never again! shall it be the place of a king." The King was not there at that time. He came thither after, and he gave the whole place to Columcille as compensation, because he had been kept outside, and Aed Slaine son of Diarmaid consented thereto.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Colum Cille: 'A Prince by Descent, A Priest by Choice and a Saint by Grace'

We conclude the Octave of the Feast of Saint Colum Cille with this tribute from Henry P. Swan's collection of Donegal folklore:
Saint Colmcille or Columba, has been called the greatest of the Sons of Ireland. Donegal, his native county, honours him and is honoured by him.
A prince by descent, a priest by choice and a saint by grace, he continued the work commenced by Saint Patrick - for only some sixty years divided his birth from Saint Patrick's death.
Describing his personal characteristics, Neil M. Gunn  wrote of him: "Altogether he was a remarkable man. Tall, well-featured with long hair falling to each shoulder from the temples, he had a commanding presence, and was, in fact, full of restless energy, passionate and impetuous. He had that quality of voice which does not appear to be raised when speaking to those at hand, yet can be heard clearly at a distance. A statesman, an organiser, he was almost continuously on the move over land and sea, daring any peril, unsparing of himself, teaching, converting,  founding, succeeding."

H. P. Swan, Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, (Belfast, 1965), 75-76.

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Thursday, 16 June 2016

Saint Colum Cille's Blessing of Assaroe

Yesterday we saw how the curse of Colum Cille impacted upon the fishermen of Mulroy Bay, today, by contrast, we see the effect of his blessing on the fish stocks at County Donegal's Assaroe Falls. Assaroe, Eas-Aedha-Ruaidh, the Waterfall of Red Hugh, owed its name to a local king who came to a watery end while attempting to cross by one of the fords. Victorian traveller William Allingham (1824-1889), gave a vivid description of the fishermen and their boats at work on the Falls and of the rich bounty to be gained:
The total take may probably be averaged at 500 salmon a day, during the latter half of the season (which closes in August); but as many as 2,000 have been taken in a day, and above 400 in a single haul.

In the Life of Colum Cille by sixteenth-century Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell, these aquatic riches owed their origin to the blessing of our saint:

134. Then Columcille fared onward to Assaroe. And him seemed it great damage to all in general and to his own dear kinsman in especial to the which he bare great love, to wit, the clan of Conall Gulban, that there should not be abundance [of fish] in the waterfall [of Assaroe] and the whole Erne. And he saw there could be none such abundance except the fish be free to go and come across the waterfall from the river to the great sea. And it was by reason of all this that Columcille blessed the waterfall. And he bound the stones and the rocks of the northern side to abase them that the fish might pass, as we have said afore. And these dumb things did obeissance to Columcille and did abase them, as is manifest to those that visit the waterfall [of Assaroe] today, for the south side is high and rugged, and the north side thereof is low. And by reason of that blessing of Columcille's it is the best river for fish in Erin today. And every feast day of Columcille from then till now, his successor hath the fishing of Assaroe in remembrance of that great miracle.

Sadly, the river found itself the subject of a mid-twentieth century hydro-electric scheme but a campaign has been launched to restore the historic salmon leap, so far without success. Read more on that here. Perhaps it too needs Saint Colum Cille's blessing?
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Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Saint Colum Cille and the Mulroy Fishermen

One thing that I have learnt since I started researching the holy men of Ireland is that it really does not do to cross the saints or fail to be anything other than completely open with them. In the story below, taken from Henry P. Swan's Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, we see what happens to the fishermen of Mulroy bay when they begrudge Saint Colum Cille a share of their catch:

A Legend of Mulroy Bay

While fish abound in the waters of Lough Swilly on the right hand and Sheephaven on the left, they are exceedingly scarce in Mulroy Bay. This is the story explaining it.

It happened on his travels through Donegal that Saint Columcille came to Mulroy. Now the fishermen saw him coming and as they had only caught two salmon they grudged a gift to the saint. So one of them said "Hide the fish. We have none to spare if he does be asking us."

When Columcille came to them, he blessed them and their work and asked, "Did you catch any?" The replied that they hadn't but the saint knew that it was a lie, so he said to them, "if you didn't catch anything may you catch now; and if you did catch, may you never catch again."

From that day to this, scarcely a trout or salmon has been caught in the waters of Mulroy Bay.

H. P. Swan, Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, (Belfast, 1965), 157-158.

Today, however, Mulroy Bay is a centre for aquaculture, particularly salmon farming!

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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Colm Cille agus Na Mic Ó gCorra

Another story of Saint Colum Cille with a Tory connection - the curious tale of the Mic Ó gCorra. Here we see the saint turning those who opposed him to stone. There are some photographs of the rocks, which seem to be known a whole lot less colourfully in English as the Stag Rocks, here.  Linking natural physical features in the landscape with tales of the saints is found all over Ireland. This particular story was collected as part of a project on the devil in Donegal tradition and published in Béaloideas, the Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, at the end of the 1980s. A summary in English was included by the authors. It looks like the Mic Ó gCorra live on for another generation in the children's book by Donegal author Proinsias Mac a'Bhaird (see cover on the left):

20. Na Mic Ó gCorra

Bhí triúr deartháireacha orthu seo a dhíbir Colm Cille san am sin a dtugadh siad na Mic Ó gCorra orthu agus rinn sé trí chreag daofasan agus tá siad le feiceáil ansin ina seasmah go dtí an lá inniu. Deirtear go rabh oiread feirge orthusan le Colm Cille agus go dtógann siad a gcuid seoltaí uair achan bhliain le pilleadh ar Thoraigh le muintir Cholm Cille a bhruith agus a dhódh ach comh luath agus a títhear iad, caithfidh siad a gcuid seoltaí a ísliú arís agus tá siad ansin ó am  Cholm Cille. Tá muid uilig ag dréim nach bhfaghann siad bogadh choíche nó dá mbaineadh siad Toraigh amach bhéarfadh siad drochbhail air agus ar a bhfuil fágtha ann.

20. The Mic Ó gCorra
Colmcille turns three brothers called the Mic Ó gCorra into three rocks. They are said to hoist sails once a year to return to Tory and kill all its inhabitants, but as soon as they are seen they must lower them again and turn to stone once more.

S. Ó hEochaidh agus L. Ó Laoire,  'An Diabhal i Seanchas Thír Chonaill',  Béaloideas Iml. 57 (1989), 37, 86.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Colum Cille Banishes Rats from Tory

Yesterday we were told in the account of Saint Colum Cille's winning of Tory Island that he decreed that no dog should be brought there. Dogs are not the only animals he banished and below is an an account of the reputation the island developed as being free from rats. It doesn't seem to have had a monopoly though, as the island of Inishmurray claimed the same status:

Rats banished from Tory

When Columcille arrived on Tory, he met with some opposition in his efforts to convert the people. The first man to stand by him was a dark man, and to him he gave the name of Dugan.

Then the saint banished all the rats from Tory and conferred the same miraculous power on Dugan. To this day, in spite of the many ships that have been wrecked on the island through the centuries, there are no rats on Tory.

It is said that a sceptical atheist from Derry once brought a box of rats to the island, but they all dropped dead a few minutes after landing. Inishmurray was also freed of rats by the saint, according to an old story.

People often journeyed many miles from different parts of the mainland to these two islands to obtain some clay. This they used to get rid of rats when they were bothered with them in their own home.

H. P Swan, Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal (Belfast, 1965), 155.

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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Saint Colum Cille Wins Tory Island

Yesterday we looked at an account derived from oral tradition preserved in the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission on how Saint Colum Cille came to bring Christianity to Tory Island. Below is another account derived from the Life of the saint written in the sixteenth century by Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell. The essentials of the story remain the same in that Saint Colum Cille wins the territory by imitating the miracle of saint Brigid's cloak, but here he has some opposition from other holy men:

E.Getty, U.J.A. Vol. 1 (1853)

It is generally understood that Saint Columba, influenced, most probably, by a desire of securing a safe and calm retreat in his own part of Ireland, first introduced Christianity into this remote island of the ocean.  Colgan, in the Trias Thaumaturga, introduces what he denominates " the fifth life of the holy Columba, briefly extracted from the one that Magnus O'Donnell, chief of Tirconnell, wrote out from the original volume in Irish : — translated into Latin and divided into three books."  From this work it may be interesting to extract the account of the dedication of this island. "This servant of Christ," says the legend,  departed thence, [Gartan,] into the part of the country commonly designated Tuatha, (the territories,) in the northern plain on the sea coast of Tirconnell. Being there admonished by an angel of the Lord to cross into Tory, an island in the open sea of those parts, stretching northward from the mainland; and, having consecrated it, to erect a magnificient church; he proceeded towards it accompanied by several other holy men. On reaching, however, Belach-an-adhraidh, "the way of adoration, — a high precipitous hill that lay in his course, whence Tory is ob- scurely visible in the distance,— there arose dissension amongst these holy men, with respect to the individual who. should consecrate the island, and thereby acquire a right to it for the future: — each renouncing, from humility and a love of poverty, the office of consecrator and right of territory. After discussing the question in its several bearings, they all assented to the opinion of Columba, that such a difference was best settled by lot; and they determined on his recommendation to throw their staves in the direction of the island, with the understanding that he, whose staff reached it nearest, should perform the office of consecration, and acquire authority over Tory. Each throw his staff, but that of Columbkille, at the moment of issuing from his hand, assumed the form of a dart or missile, and was born to the island by supernatural agency. The saint immediately called before him Alidus, the son of Baedain, toparch of the island, who refused to permit its consecration, or the erection of any building. He then requested him, at least, to grant as much land as his outspread cloak would cover. Alidus readily assented, conceiving the loss very trivial; hut he had soon reason to change his opinion, for the saint's cloak, when spread upon the ground, dilated and stretched so mueh; by its divine energy, as to include, within its border, the entire island. Alidus was roused to frenzy by this circumstance, and incited or hunted upon the holy man a savage, ferocious dog, unchained for the purpose, which the latter immediately destroyed by making the sign of the cross. The religious feelings of Alidus were awakened by this second miracle, — he threw himself at the saint's feet  asked pardon, and resigned to him the entire island. No further opposition being made, the blessed father consecrated Tory, and built a magnificent church, which he placed under the control of Ernanus, one of his disciples, surnamed, from this circumstance, Torracensis. Amongst other things, the saint commanded that no dog should ever again be introduced into the island.

E. Getty, The Island of Tory; Its History and Antiquities, Part III. Ecclesiastical Period, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume I (1853), 149-150. 

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