Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Saint Columba's Churches

Below is an 1890 paper dealing with the churches associated with Saint Colum Cille (Columba) in his homeland. It begins with a critical look at what earlier scholars had to say on the subject. The Anglican Bishop, William Reeves, produced a richly-annotated edition of the Vita Sancti Columbae in 1857 and listed thirty-seven churches as having been founded by Saint Columba. The work of the 17th-century Franciscan hagiologist, Friar John Colgan, had contributed to this list, some of which the ever-sceptical Father John Lanigan, writing in the 1820s, took issue with. In a sense it does not seem to matter whether Saint Columba personally founded places like Kells and Raphoe, for they are viewed as part of the Columban family of churches. The 1988 work of Professor Máire Herbert, Iona, Kells and Derry: the history and hagiography of the monastic familia of Columba, provides a fascinating account of the relationships and changing fortunes of the Columban churches in Iona and in Ireland. Her scholarship is thus more up-to-date than this paper of a century earlier, but within this 1890 work the author has gathered together an enjoyable collection of the lore associated with some of these churches. If this is an area of interest then you may also enjoy another nineteenth-century paper on 'The Columbian Monasteries and Rule' here.


I SHALL not treat of the life and miracles of St. Columba, his sanctity and visions, but rather of the churches which he founded in Ireland; those attributed to him, and which bear his name. Dr. Reeves, in his valuable work, Adamnan's Columba, gives a list of thirty-seven churches, which claim the saint as their founder. We must receive with caution Dr. Lanigan's opinion regarding these churches. He totally rejects the authority of Colgan, and disregards the claim of Raphoe, Kells, Swords, and Tory Island, as having St. Columba for their founder. We should be slow to reject the authority of the learned Franciscan, whose zealous labours have done so much to make us familiar with the lives of the Irish saints. If we respect tradition, and the wonderful veneration still held in Tory Island for St. Columba, and in other places rejected by Lanigan, we must certainly give credence to the old lives of the saint, and the authority of O'Donnell, in the facts stated of Columba's connection with these places. Lanigan, no doubt, reasonably disregards the two Skreens as having the saint for founder; for we find in our Annals that Skreen in Meath long preserved a relic of the saint; hence the name was changed from Aichill to Scrinium S. Columba.

Again, we must remember that the Columban monks were founders of churches, some of which date immediately after the time of Columba, and it is natural to suppose that these churches were called after the saint, and dedicated to him. Derry and Durrow were the most important foundations of Columba. " The age of Christ A.D. 535, the church of Doire Calgaich (Derry) was founded by Columbkille, the place having been granted by his own tribe, i.e., the race of Conall Gulban, son of Nial." The Annals of Ulster give the date as 545, and Dr. Reeves accepts it as the true date. Doire or Daire signifies an oak wood, and it is called by Adamnan Roboretum Calgachi. Calgach was a man's name, common among the ancient Irish, and signifies "fierce warrior." Doire Calgach was the old pagan name used for ages before the time of St. Columba, and it was so called until the tenth or eleventh century, when the name was changed to Derry Columbkille. The oaks of Derry were famous trees; a great storm occurred there in 1178, which prostrated one hundred and twenty of them. In Trias Thaum.  Derry is described "Doire Chalguich priscis, nunc vulgo Doire Cholumchille et latine Doria nunc sedes Episcopalis et civitas nobilis in Tirconnalia region e Ultoniae." Derry was a favourite spot with the saint :

"The reason why I love Derry is,
For its quietness, for its purity;
Crowded full of heaven's angels
Is every leaf of the oaks of Derry."

The original church was called Black Church, as we find stated in the ancient lines of Tighernach:
"Three years without light was Columb in his Black Church. 
He passed to angels from his body,
After seven years and seventy."

Again, we find in an old document of the fourteenth century, the church called Cella Nigra, and it is probable that it was so called to distinguish it from the more modern church erected in 1164.

Durrow was the best known of Columba's churches. The Annals of Clonmacnoise state that "Hugh MacBrenayn, king of the country of Teffia that granted Dorowe to St. Columbkille, A.D. 588." The Four Masters dates it 585. Dairmach (Durrow) is situated in the north of the King's County, close to the boundary of Westmeath. Durrow, at the period of its foundation comprised part of the territory of Teffia, and the chieftain Brendan, who bestowed it upon St. Columba, was ancestor of the O'Carharney clan, whose name was afterwards changed to Fox.

 Adamnan describes Durrow thus:- " Vir Beatus in medi terranea Hiberniae parte Monasterium quod Scotice dicitur Darmaig divino fundavit nutu."

Venerable Bede tells us, " Fecerat (Columbae) priusquam Britanniam veniret monasterium nobile in Hibernia quod acopia Roborum Dearmach lingua Scotorum hoc est campus Roborum cognominatur."

A sculptured cross, called St. Columbkille's Cross, stands in the churchyard, and near it is the saint's Well. The most interesting relic of the Abbey is the beautiful Evangeliarum, known as The Book of Durrow, a MS. now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Mr. Gilbert, the eminent historian, describes The Book of Durrow, in his Facsimiles National MSS. of Ireland:

“The Book of Durrow is an ornamental copy of the Four Gospels, in Vulgate version, written across the page, mainly in single columns, and preceded by the Epistle of St. Jerome to Pope Damasus, explanation of Hebrew names, Eusebian canons and synoptical tables. . . This volume [continues Mr. Gilbert] acquired its name from having belonged to the monastery founded by St. Columba, about A.D. 553, at Durrow, or Darmaig, the Plain of the Oaks, in the central district of Ireland. A now partly obliterated entry in Latin prays ' remembrance of the scribe Columba, who wrote this Evangel in the space of twelve days.'"

In The Martyrology of Donegal it is stated that the book of Columbkille, called The Book of Durrow, a copy of the New Testament, in Irish, was at Durrow (circ. A.D. 1620) in the district of the Mageoghegans, with gems and silver on its cover.

In The Annals of Clonmacnoise, Mageoghegan states that The Book of Durrow, like other MSS. written by the saint, was impervious to water.

The Book of Durrow was presented to Trinity College, by Henry Jones, who became Protestant bishop of Meath, 1661.

The Martyrology of Donegal gives the feast of a St. Cormac of Burrow for June 21st:" Corbmac Ua Liathian, Abbot of Durrow (he was an. anchorite), successor to Columbkill; he was of the race Oilioll Olum." O'Curry, in his Lectures on Ancient Irish History, alludes to the crozier of Durrow, a fragment of which has been preserved. It is believed that the crozier belonged to St. Columba, and was presented by him to Cormac, " his dear friend and successor."

The Canons Regular of St. Augustine, in the twelfth century, founded a monastery at Durrow, under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin and St. Columba. There are no traces of St. Columba's Church at Kells. It is not till about 806 that our Annals relate anything of a monastic foundation in that town. However, the saint's name is associated with Kells; for it is mentioned that it was granted to him by Diarmait, to make amendment for injuries which he had done to him; and his son, Aidh Slaine, was a consenting party.

We find Kells called a "fort of Diarmada, son of Kerbaill; and Columbkille marked out the city in extent as it now is, and blessed it all, and said it would become the most illustrious he should have in the land." The most interesting relic of St. Columba at Kells is the old stone house bearing his name, which he is said to have used as an oratory. This house is nineteen feet long, by fifteen broad, and is twenty five feet from the level of the floor to the highest part of the arched ceiling. A subterraneous passage is said to have existed, which led from it to the church. Our Annals inform us that St. Columba's Church at Kells was destroyed in the year 807.

Tory Island is situate off the north coast of Donegal, in the barony of Kilmacrenan, and diocese of Raphoe. It was formerly called Torach, from the Torrs, or pinnacles of rock, for which it is famous. A strange legend is still vividly preserved of St. Columba's journey to Tory Island, and of the monks who accompanied him. The legend runs as follows: "The servant of Christ proceeded into the part of the country commonly designated Tuatha, 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 magnificent church, he proceeded towards it, accompanied by several other holy men. On reaching, however, Belach-an-Adhraidh, 'the Way of Adoration' a high hill that lay in his course, whence Tory is obscurely visible in the distance there arose dissension amongst the 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 all 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 consecrator, and acquire authority over Tory. Each threw his staff; but that of Columbkille, at the moment of issuing from his hand, assumed the form of a dart or missile, and reached the island by supernatural agency. The saint called before him Baedan, Toparch of the island, who refused to permit its consecration, or the erection of any building. Columba demanded then as much land as his cloak would cover. To this proposal the Toparch assented. Columba's cloak stretched over the entire island. The Toparch was so enraged at this miraculous occurrence, that he let loose a ferocious dog to attack the saint, but by the power of the Sign of the Cross, the dog was destroyed. The saint met with no further opposition; he consecrated Tory, and built a magnificent church, over which he placed St. Ernan as first Abbot.

Dr. Reeves observes that there are many traces of antiquity in Tory Island. The most remarkable is the round tower, fifty-one feet high, which was the nucleus of an old monastic establishment. It is worthy of notice that almost in every place where St. Columba founded a church, there you are sure to find a round tower, or the remains of one.

Drumcliff (Drium cliabh) lies in the barony of Carbery, County Sligo. St. Mothoria is said to have been the first Abbot placed there, by the founder St. Columba. There still remains a portion of a round tower. The date of foundation as given by Lewis is 590. In the tenth century there ruled over this monastery St. Torannan, who afterwards was regarded as the special patron of Drumcliff.

Kilmacrenan bore the ancient name Doire-Ethne, and is a parish in Donegal connected with the labours of St. Columba. In the immediate neighbourhood in his birthplace, Gartan, which likewise claims a church founded by the saint. Temple Douglas is where he was baptized. The old Church of Kilmacrenan stood a little north of the village of the same name, and beside it are the remains of a small Franciscan monastery. The hereditary wardens of this Church were the O'Firghels (now Freel) whose privilege it was to inaugurate the chiefs of the O'Donnells at the rock of Doon, in this parish.

A strange legend is preserved about Temple Douglas, namely, that it was here, the saint first learnt how to walk. The remains of an old church still exist. Raphoe is mentioned by O'Donnell as having a church founded by St. Columba ; but St. Adamnan is the patron of the place. The round tower of Raphoe is mentioned by Sir James Ware as "built on a hill in which the bishops of Raphoe formerly kept their studies ;" but when he wrote, the tower did not exist.

Glencolumbkill, in the barony of Banagh, Donegal, has connected with it one of those wonderful legends so frequently to be met with in the life of our saint. This place was formerly called Seangleann. When St. Columba was proceeding hither, he took up his abode in this wild district, and by the direction of an angel he rid the place of its foul inhabitants. He engaged in a violent struggle with the demons, and succeeded in driving them into the sea with the help of his Dubh-duaibseach, or little bell. At Drumcolumb, in the diocese of Elphin, Co. Sligo, St. Columba placed his disciple, St. Finbarr, in charge of the church, and gave him a bell called Glassan, and a cross.

Swords, in the Co. Dublin, claims St. Columba as the founder of the original church in that place: A.D. 512, is the date given, Sord was the old name for it, and afterwards Sord- Cholum-chille.

Colgan states that St. Finan, the Leper, was placed over this church by St. Columba. The memory of the latter has always been held in special veneration by the people. To St. Finan, our saint presented a copy of the Gospels. The round tower surmounted by a cross marks the site of the ancient church.

It would be beyond the limit of this paper to enumerate the various other churches in Dr. Reeves' list, or to relate the antiquities connected with them; it will suffice to mention Moore, in Kildare; Clonmore, in Louth; Lambay, in Dublin; Mornington, in Meath, as among the number of St. Columba's churches.

How wonderful was the zeal and energy of the saint, when we take into account his labours in Scotland and the churches he founded there!

Columba, though absent from Ireland, was always there in spirit; his poem discloses that intense love he had for the land of his birth:

" Beloved are Durrow, and Derry;
Beloved is Raphoe in purity;
Beloved Drumhorne of rich fruits;
Beloved are Swords and Kells."

Again, filled with enthusiasm for his fellow-countrymen, he tells us:

"Melodious her clerics,
Melodious her birds,
Gentle her youths,
Wise her seniors;
Illustrious her men, noble to behold;
Illustrious her women, for fond espousal."


Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XI, (1890), 821-827.

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  1. Am enjoying all this info on Columcille, and have visited places in Donegal associated with him. Then in July 2010 I headed off to see Iona and other islands in the Hebrides. Despite the long car journey of 2,400 miles, it was worth it all. Mull itself, where we stayed some nights, was also most interesting, as were the islands of Skye, Harris and Lewis.

  2. Great stuff, Seán. I went to Iona a few times myself and you have a real sense of pilgrimage thanks to the arduous nature of the journey. I remember that on my first visit in the 1980s the weather was dreadful and the ferry from Fionnphort couldn't get in fully to the jetty on Iona. I was told 'when I say go, jump' and a crew member gave me a push to help me on my way. I was in water up to my waist when a big Scotsman reached in, fished me out of the drink and deposited me and my rucksack unceremoniously on the pier. All part of the great Iona experience! Envy you the rest of your trip. The Donegal sites are great too. Thanks for your continued support, I've done a lot of research over the last year on Saint Columcille and will be publishing more items soon.