Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Saint Columba at Boyle

Below is a nineteenth-century paper dealing with the monastic foundation at Boyle, County Roscommon, which has been traditionally ascribed to Saint Colum Cille.  As the writer guides us through the locality he will introduce us to various saints as well as to the eighteenth-century Irish harper/composer Turlough O'Carolan. I was unable to easily reproduce the footnotes to the text, but the original can be read at the Internet Archive.


IN the very ancient life of St. Patrick known as the "Tripartite," we are told that when he visited Moylurg, in crossing a ford on the River Boyle (Buill) his chariot was upset, and he himself was thrown into the waters. The ford was for that reason called Ath Carbuid, the Ford of the Chariot, and lies near the waterfall of Eas-Mic-Neirc, now Assylin. The Saint blessed the upper or western part of the river, foretelling that " a Son of Life should come there in after years who should like fruitful water at his place." The ancient annotator informs us that St. Patrick here referred to Colum Cille, son of Fedhlimidh, at Ess-mic-N'Eirc. This prophecy was fulfilled when St. Columcille founded his monastery at Eas-mic-N'Eirc, before he left Ireland for Iona in 563, in fulfilment of the penance imposed on him by his Confessor, the monk Molaise, famed for his knowledge of Holy Scripture, whose name is known and fondly cherished, and whose ruined monastery is still visible on the island of Innislimuny, on the coast of Sligo, belonging to the parish of Ahamlish, diocese of Elphin.

St. Adamnan, the cousin and successor of Columcille as Abbot of Iona, in his delightful and edifying biography of the Saint, refers more than once to his presence at Boyle. Thus he gives us a "Prophecy of the holy man regarding the Poet Cronanus." "At another time," writes Adamnan, "as the Saint was sitting with the brothers near Lough Ce (Key), at the mouth of the river called in Latin Bos (Bo), an Irish poet came to them, and when he retired, after a short interview, the brothers said to the Saint - 'Why have you not asked the poet Cronanus before he went away to sing us a song with accompaniment.' The Saint replied, ' Why, my dear children, utter such idle words? How could I ask that poor man to sing a canticle of joy, who has now met with an untimely end at the hands of his enemies?' The Saint had just said these words, and instantly a man cried out from beyond the river: 'That poet who left you in safety a few minutes ago is now dead, having been killed by his enemies.' Then all that were present wondered very much, and looked at one another in amazement."

This anecdote reminds us that St. Columba, like many other great saints, as St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Paulinus of Nola, the friend of the poet Ausonius, was a poet. Indeed, St. Patrick had foretold this when his hands fell on the head of the ancestor of the Cinel Conell, and he said:

"A youth (i.e., Colum Cille) shall be born of his tribe,
Who will be a Sage, a Prophet, and a Poet."

He was also through life the friend and protector of poets and bards, whose influence was so powerful in ancient Erinn, and who, as we also learn from Adamnan's narrative, were to be met with on the public roads, as well as in the palace of the prince. These bards were clearly great travellers. They seem to have gone their circuits with the regularity of our Judges. Thus we read in the Annals of the Four Masters, that "Melaghlan, son of Loughlin O'Mulconry, died while on his bardic circuit through Munster." It is a singular and curious coincidence to find the last and not the least of the Irish Bards, leading the same troubadour life, going the same bardic circuit, and wandering along those same roads round Boyle, nearly a thousand years after the death of the unfortunate minstrel Cronanus. Provided with a horse, a harp, and boy, by the MacDermot of Alderford, in the Barony of Boyle, Torlogh O'Carolan made his circuit through the counties of Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, Mayo, and Galway, becoming the honoured guest of the oldest families, celebrating their praises in those beautiful pieces of music which still live in popular tradition, some of which have been wedded to the immortal melodies of Moore. It may be remarked, in passing, that it was in the town of Boyle, of a night, Carolan composed his unrivalled piece, the "Receipt for Drinking," over a bowl of that favourite Uisquebaugh, to which he is said to have been unduly attached, and sang and played it the following day in the house of his friend and frequent host, Mr. Stafford, of Portobello, near Elphin. At Alderford he played his last piece, the well-known " Farewell to Music." When he felt his death-sickness coming on him he betook himself to that hospitable mansion. He was received then as always, with true Irish warmth and welcome, by Mrs. MacDermot, still in the health and spirits of youth, though bearing the burden of four score years. Like another "Latest Minstrel," his trembling hands wandered feebly at first over the strings of his harp, till at length the fervour of other days was enkindled,

" The old man raised his face and smiled,
And lighted up his faded eye
With all a poet's ecstacy,"

and he played the Farewell to his long-loved art in a strain of tenderness and feeling that drew tears from the eyes of those who heard him. He was borne immediately to a bed from which he never rose ; he was carefully tended by his best benefactress, Mrs. MacDermot, and was interred in Kilronan, in the vault of the MacDermot Roe.

Montalembert refers to the incident which we have quoted from Adamnan. He says of Columba "Himself a great traveller, he received the travelling bards in the different communities where he lived; among others in that which he had built upon an island of the lake which the Boyle traverses before it throws itself into the Shannon. He confided to them the care of arranging the monastic and provincial annals, which were to be afterwards deposited in the charter-chest of the community ; but above all he made them sing for his own pleasure and that of his monks ; and the latter reproached him energetically if he permitted one of those wandering poets to depart without having asked to hear some of his chaunts accompanied by his harp. The monk Columba was a poet. After Ossian, and his glorious compeer of the Vosges, he opens the series of two hundred Irish poets, whose memories and names, in default of their works, have remained dear to Ireland."

We are led to admire, too, the gentleness, the familiarity with his monks, the tender regard for the feelings of others, of this great man, sprung from the royal race of Niall, the nephew or near cousin of seven monarchs, himself possible heir to the throne, and even then the founder of a crowd of monasteries. "Weep with the unhappy," was one of his own maxims quoted by Montalembert. This practice of the great Saint, in causing poets to sing for himself and his monks, reminds us also of the constant and serene joy of those monks of old, so often represented as sad and gloomy ascetics. As St. Chrysostom says so beautifully, "They had no sadness : They waged war with the devil as if they were playing (as if dancing)"; or, as a poet of our own day, Lord Houghton, expresses the same idea:

"They went about their greatest deeds
Like noble boys at play."

Among the qualities of sainted abbots and holy monks, we find it related that they were gay, joyous, amusing, loving to laugh, "jucundus, facetus." "See," wrote that great monk, St. Anselm, "with what lightness the burden of monastic life is borne, by Christians of each sex, of every age and condition, who fill the whole earth with their songs of joy."

St. Adamnan, almost the contemporary of St. Columba, again tells us, that " At another time also, when the Saint was stopping some days near Lough Cei (Key), he prevented his companions from going to fish as they desired, saying : 'No fish will be found in the river to-day or to-morrow : I will send you on the third day, and you will find two largeriver salmon taken in the net.' And so after two short days, casting their nets, they hauled in two of the most extraordinary size, which they found in the river Bo."

From these incidents recorded in that biography which is regarded as one of the most ancient and authentic relics of Christian history, St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columcille, it appears that Boyle, and particularly the neighbourhood of Lough Ce were favourite resorts of Columba. We have visited the spot where the Saint conversed with the poet Cronan, the place, as Adamnan tells us, where the Boyle river enters the western extremity of the lake, when the groves were vocal with the song of blackbird and thrush, and the clear note of the cuckoo, heard through glade and dell, woke the echoes of the hills around. The scene is one of sweet and quiet loveliness. Not grand or wild, but extremely beautiful and picturesque, is the view from the margin of the crystal lake glowing in the evening sun, the emerald hills around, and wooded islands on its bosom flinging their shadows over the sunlit waters. To such scenes of sweet repose and sylvan beauty memory often bore the illustrious exile in after years, from that "sad and sullen '' island of the wild Hebrides, which bears his name, in which he became "an exile for Chirst." To that loved and lovely lake, those sweet and secret cells on Inchmacnerin and at Eas-mic-n 'Eire, on the green and fertile banks of the swift-flowing Boyle, he goes back in spirit, when he weeps that " He can no longer sail on the lakes and rivers of his native land, nor hear the songs of the swans of Comgall, nor the wind sigh among the oaks, nor the song of the blackbird and cuckoo." The memory of those scenes of tranquil beauty must have mingled in his mind, with his dear monastery at Burrow, and his beloved oak-woods of Derry, when the sainted exile of Iona penned those poetic messages by returning travellers to his unforgotten Erinn, which are still extant, in his native Gaedhlic.

Lanigan, who is very sceptical with regard to many of the foundations ascribed to St. Columba, expresses no doubt as to the establishment by him of the monastery of Eas Mic n 'Eire. O'Donnell in his life of the Saint tells us that he dedicated the place to God, and placed Dachonna over it as superior. Colgan, who gives the life of St. Dachonna at the 8th of March, says that he was more generally called Mochonna, but that his real name was Chonna. In the Irish Calendar of the O'Clerys, at the 8th of March, he is styled Mochonna Mac Eire, Abbot of Easmic-n 'Eire, in the county of Roscommon. In the Feilire Aenguis of the same day, the place is distinctly called Easmic- n 'Eire, i.e., the Cataract of the Son of Eire, namely Dachonna. The author of a Life of St. Columba, quoted by Colgan, also calls him Dachonna, and says that St. Columba erected a monastery at Eas mic n 'Eire, and gave him the care of it. Colgan further informs us that he was of the family of the chieftain of the place, whose name was Ere, and that he was renowned for his virtues and miracles, "Sanctitatis laude, et miraculorum gloria ipsum claruisse." We may here admire the admirable dispensation of Divine Providence, in thus drawing from the family of Ere, who offered the most stubborn opposition to the grace of the Gospel and the preaching of St. Patrick, the patron Saint of their territory. Maelmaire O'Gorman, who compiled his Martyrology, "when Rudhraidh (or Roderick) O'Conor was monarch of Erinn," mentions two Saint Chonnas, one at Boyle, at Eas mic-n 'Eire, the other at Eas-Roe, on the north bank of the Erin. The latter was son of the provincial King of Ulster, and followed St. Columba into exile, becoming one of his most ardent and devoted disciples.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that St. Columba founded a monastery at Easmic n 'Eire on the banks of the Boyle river, over which he placed St. Dachonna as Abbot ; but the actual site of this foundation has been mistaken by many writers of great authority, through want of actual and familiar acquaintance with the localities round Boyle. Thus the learned Colgan, and after him the acute and accurate Lanigan, say it was the same monastery, which many centuries later, fell into the possession of the Cistercian Order, and became so famous under the name of the Abbey of Boyle: "Eas mac Neirc, Monasterium ad ripam Buellii fluvii in Conacia. Hodie vocatur Monasterium Buellense, estque ordinis Cisterciencis." Dr. Charles O'Conor, grandson of the celebrated Charles O'Conor, of Bellinagare, writes "The ancient monastery of Boyle was founded by St. Columba, and called Eas-mac-n 'Eire, a name which it derived from its pleasant situation, near a cataract about a mile from where the river Boyle discharges itself into Loch Cei. The Cistercian Monastery of Boyle was founded, not exactly on the site of the ancient monastery, but not far from it, in the year 1161." Ware thought that this place might have been the same as Inchmacnerin, an island in Lough Key. D'Alton, in his History of the Barony of Boyle, tells us that " St. Columba erected a noble monastery, where the ruins of Drum still mark holy ground, and near the fall of water whence it took the name of Eas-mac-Neirc." Montalembert, following the authority of Colgan, makes the site of the Columbian House the same with that of the Cistercian Abbey. "On the banks of a cascade," he writes, "formed by the Boyle, as it throws itself into the lake (Lough Key), rises another monastery founded by Columba, and which became in 1161, a celebrated Cistercian Abbey, the Abbey of Boyle." But it may be clearly shown that Eas-mic n 'Eire is not the Great or Cistercian Abbey of Boyle, which during its early history is styled in our Annals Mainister Atha da laarg, i.e., Vadum duarum Furcarum, Ford of two Forks, though afterwards, more generally, the Abbey of Boyle, Mainister na buille. The ancient name of Drum, referred to by D'Alton as the site of the monastery of Eas-mac Neirc, was Drumconnell, and the place was founded by St. Council or Connell, brother of St. Attracta of Killaraght. The notion of Ware cannot be admitted, as Eas-mic n 'Eire is never spoken of as an island, but is said by all the old writers to be near the river Buill (Boyle).

But there was on Inchmacnerin a House also founded by St. Columba. This island, now called Church Island, is near the western shore of Lough Key, and north of Trinity Island, and contains upwards of four acres. Many records of it, under its ancient name, Inchmacnerin, occur in the Annals of Boyle, and the Annals of Lough Key are held by many to have been compiled there. The tradition of the place has it, that the ruined church, which still remains, was founded by St. Columcille, about the same time that he founded Eas-mic n'Eire. We find in the Calendar of the O'Clerys, at 22nd Sept., "Barfion Me Emm, son of Ernin, of Inis MacErnin, in Lough Ce, in Connaught." It is clear from O'Donnell's Life, that St. Columba founded a house on one of the islands of Lough Ce, sometime about the year 550, for he speaks of the Saint as staying on an island in Lough Key, in Connacht. "From this notice," says Curry, "as well as from several other references that could be adduced, it is certain that Saint Columba founded a monastery on an island in Lough Ce," which was anciently called Inchmacnerin, now Church Island. The ruins of the Columbian monastery are yet to be seen on the island. They consist of lofty and extensive walls, amidst an intricate mass of rocks, trees, dwarf ash, and thorns, closely bound together by tendrils. But it is at least equally certain that this house was not the monastery of Eas-mic n 'Eire.

O'Donnell, in his Life of Columkille, clearly points out the site of Eas-mic-n 'Eire : "Inde ultra Senanum versus occidentem progressus, pervenit (Columba) ad eum locum, cui praeterlabentis Buellii fluminis Vicina Catharacta nomen fecit Eas-mic-Eirc, eumque Deo sacravit." This, beyond all doubt, is the place now called Assylin, situated on the north bank of the river Boyle, about a mile west of the town.

It is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, at the year 748, that "Fursa, of Eas-mic-n-Eirc died. (Eas-micn-Eirc on the Buill, at this day Eas-Ui-Fhloinn.)" From this entry we see, that Eas-Ui-Fhloin, which has been anglicised into the present form Assylin, is identical with Eas-mic-n 'Eire. In the year 1209, we meet the record "Flaherty O'Flynn, Coarb of Dachonna of Eas-mic-n 'Eire, died." In the Irish Calendar of the O'Clerys, as we have seen, the Saint is styled Machonna Mac Eire, Abbot of Eas-mic-n 'Eire, in the county of Roscommon ; and in the Feilire Aenguis, the place is distinctly called Eas-mic-n 'Eire, namely Dachonna, from whom it was afterwards called Eas Dachonna, the patron saint of the locality, Mac N'Ere being the saint's patronymic name, i.e., the son or descendent of Ere. In the year 1222, we read of the death of Maelissa O'Flynn, Prior of Eas-mac n 'Eire." At the year 1207, we are told that " Cathal Carragh, son of Dermot, took a great prey from O'Flynn of the Cataract "(Ua Fhloin Eassa). In Macgeoghegan's translation of the Annals of Clonmacnoise, ann. 1315, we are told that "Rorye O'Conor caused to be assembled from all parts his forces, and with them encamped at Ballymore O'Flynn, and made little respect of the reverence due to the churches of Kill-Athracta and Easse-da-chonna." The Annals of the Four Masters relate that "Dermot More, son of Dermot O'Conor, was slain at Eas Da Conna, on the river Boyle." In an Inquisition of the reign of James I. the place which was called Ballymore O'Flynn in 1316, is called Ballymore Assylin, showing that Ballymore was church land belonging to this monastery.

It is clear, then, that the ancient Eas-mic n 'Eirc, the site of the monastery founded by St. Columba, is identical with the present Assylin, which is nothing more than a modern anglicised form of Eas-ui-Floinn, the name which the place acquired in later ages, from the family of O'Flynn, whose name we find so often mentioned in the Annals, in connection with it, and who were the hereditary Eranaghs or Wardens of the Church, and the Comharbas, or lay-incumbents of St. Dachonna. It is situated opposite the cataract, about six furlongs west of the town of Boyle. It is at least a mile from Ath-da-laarg, the site of the Cistercian Abbey, and two miles from Drumconnell, the site of St. Council's church, both of which are on the opposite side of the town. It is about a mile from the estuary from which the river issues out of Lough Gara. Here, close beside the river where it makes a sweep to the left, and immediately after widens into a little lake, and where its banks swell into gentle knolls, covered with deepest emerald, stand the ruins of the ancient monastery of Assylynn. Opposite to the ruins, the river rushes over the rocks with considerable velocity, and at one place still forms a small cascade,

" With one short rapid, where the crisping white
Plays ever back upon the sloping wave
And takes both ear and eye."

This cascade, which gave the place the names of Eas-mic n 'Eire, Eas Da Chonna, and Eas Ui-Floinn or Assylynn, O'Flynn's Cataract, its present name, was in ancient times much larger, and has been nearly removed by the wearing down of the rocks, as will be seen on examining the place. The waterfall was under the present railway bridge, whose very capacious single arch here spans the Boyle river. The foundations of the old church, and a great portion of one side of the walls still remain. The walls are massive, built of large hewn stone, two and a half feet in thickness. In parts, they rise in detached masses, to a height of twenty feet. The choir measures sixteen yards by eight, and the aisle twenty-five by eight. All the casings of windows and doors have been carried away. A burial ground,which has recently been largely increased, enclosed with walls, ornamented with trees and walks, surrounds the ivy-covered walls of the ruined church of St. Dachonnamac-n 'Eire. From the crest of the hill, on the slope of which the monastery stood, extensive prospects open across the river and towards the plains of Boyle, the town itself standing in the valley, with the river winding towards it, surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. Even to-day it is a sweet spot, wearing an aspect of indescribable calm, a meet retreat for holiness, a fitting site for the cell of seclusion, solitude, and prayer. As we walked by the murmuring cascade, when the evening sun was sinking to its rest, the shadow of the great saint, next to Patrick in the reverence and love of Irish hearts, for us made the ground holy. Memories of him, of Saint Dachonna and their holy brotherhood, clung to those old walls, within which many a world-weary soul

"Had passed into the silent life of prayer,
Praise, fast, and alms."

Reflecting on the labours of those ancient monks, and particularly on the glorious works of the Apostle of Caledonia, we could enter into the feeling which moved the Protestant Johnson to exclaim: " I never read of a hermit, but in imagination I kiss his feet; never of a monastery, but I fall on my knees and kiss the pavement." It was not without a pang of pain we learned, that before the building of the present Protestant church in 1770, Assylin had been the Protestant place of worship. Was it not enough to have driven out the old monks from their loved cells, and to have seized upon their lands, which the self-styled Church of Ireland, in part, still holds! Was it necessary to desecrate the ancient sanctuary hallowed by so many cherished memories, by the novel rites of modern religionists, celebrated in a tongue, whose first low Germanic element had not yet been heard in the forests of Britain, when Columba first consecrated it to God in the Catholic language of Rome? The words of one of the poems of the Poet-Saint, spoken of another of his Irish Sanctuaries, occurred to us:

" My dear little cell and dwelling,
Oh God, in the heavens above !
Let him who profanes it be cursed."

The retreats of piety and learning founded by Columba, Dachonna, and their successors, at Eas-mac n 'Eire and Inch mac Nerin, have been destroyed. The lands bequeathed by Christian charity, cultivated and made fruitful by the toil and sweat of many generations of unwearied monks, have been torn from their rightful owners. Their sanctuaries have been profaned, even their ruins have been almost obliterated -

" Vix reliquias, vix nomina servans."

but the names and memories of those sainted and heroic men have not faded from the hearts of the people. The enduring effects of the labours of those great Irish Saints remain indelibly impressed on the faith, the manners, the customs of the Irish nation. They remain in the purity of their homes, in their salutations, every one of which is a prayer or a blessing, in their changeless adherence to the old faith of Patrick, Bridgid, and Columkille, in their deep reverence and love for their priests and for all who wear the venerated habit of monk or nun. To-day, after nearly 1300 years, there is no cabin in Ireland in which the saintly memory of Columcille is not preserved, enshrined in faithful hearts, his name loved, and his prayers invoked.

In our own time, a writer of world-wide fame, the eloquent Montalembert, has added fresh lustre to the fame, and fresh glory to the name of Columba, to the history of whose life and labours he has devoted nearly the whole of the third volume of one of the greatest works of the nineteenth century, "The Monks of the West, from St. Benedict to St. Bernard."

J. J. K.

Irish Ecclesiastical Record 3rd series Vol 1 (1880) , 391-401

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