Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Saint Colum Cille and the Gospel Book of Saint Martin of Tours

November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours and at my other site I have been looking at devotion to Saint Martin in the early Irish Church. Saint Colum Cille and his monastery at Iona played their part in the reverence for this great Gaulish saint. Adomnán's Life of Saint Columba, for example, records a reference to Saint Martin in the liturgical practices of Iona, in Book III (12):

'As they were singing the office, they reached the point where the prayer is usually chanted, which mentions the name of St Martin...'

Translator Richard Sharpe in his note on this passage comments:

This allusion to the particular and permanent position of St Martin's name in the liturgy at Iona indicates his very prominent place in the community's devotions. What the prayer was that distinctively mentioned him is not known, but it was apparently used on all major feasts. It would appear to have been a prayer for departed saints, perhaps headed by St Martin....

[R. Sharpe, ed. and trans., Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. London: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 215 and footnote 379, p. 366.]

Saint Columba received another link to Saint Martin of Tours in later traditions when he became associated with a very particular relic of the saint. Saint Columba's other biographer, the sixteenth-century Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell, records:

Then Columcille went on a pilgrimage to Tours of Martin. And he went to the flagstone whereunder Martin was buried. And he lifted the stone from the tomb, and he found the book of the gospels upon the neck of Martin in the tomb. And Martin and that book had been a hundred years in the earth, and God had kept the book that while for the use of Columcille, so that it had been no better its íirst day than in that hour. And by the will of God and of Martin, Columcille took that book with him to Derry, as Martin himself at the time of his death had prophesied that Columcille should bring it.

A. O'Kelleher and G. Schoepperle eds. and trans. Manus O'Donnell, Betha Colaim Chille - Life of Colum Cille, (Illinois, 1918), 

The Annals of Ulster record that this relic was in the possession of the coarb of Saint Colum Cille at Derry in the twelfth century. It is first mentioned at the year 1166 when Derry was under attack, but in 1182 the 'Gospel of Martin' was carried off 'by the Foreigners' i.e. the Anglo-Normans. The translator of the Annals, the Rev. Bartholomew McCarthy, speculates that 'it was most probably borne in battle as a Cathach, or proeliator, to ensure victory to the native forces'.

It has to be said though that Saint Colum Cille is not the only Irish saint with whom this story of a pilgrimage to Tours and the discovery of Saint Martin's Gospel Book is associated. A similar episode features in the Life of Saint Senan, for example. There are also many folk traditions associated with the feast of Saint Martin in Ireland and I hope to be able to examine some of these in a future post.

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