Saturday 30 June 2012

The Termon of Durrow II

Our antiquarian cleric concludes his paper on the Termon of Durrow with a further collection of interesting lore about Durrow and Saint Colum Cille. He includes the story of the death of the Norman overlord, Hugh de Lacy, killed in revenge for his lack of respect towards the monastic property of Durrow and its founder, as well as a useful collection of references to Durrow in Adamnan's Life of Columba. I was unable to reproduce the author's extensive footnotes so please refer to the original volume at the Internet Archive to access the full text.



(Continued from page 51.)

[Read MARCH 29, 1898.]

"Annals of the Four Masters" when recording the death of Breanain, Lord of Teffia, tell us that it was he that some time before granted Durrow to God and St. Columbkille ; and it is interesting further to observe that there is a document still extant, which tells us exactly how the Termon of Durrow was enclosed. Bishop Reeves in his "Antiquity of Irish Churches" (p. 46) tells us how amongst the poems ascribed to St. Columba is one which refers to certain mounds and boundary fences erected in the Termon of Durrow by three Pictish abbots: Tiugulb, Erolbb, and Torulb. This MS. is preserved in the Bodleian Library; and Miss Margaret Stokes, some time ago, kindly wrote to me, telling me that through the kindness of the librarian, Mr. Nicholson, she had got a photograph of the MS.; and also obtained a translation of it from her brother, Mr. Whitley Stokes, which she was good enough to send to me, which reads as follows :

Columcille sang -

" I. Tiugulb of the abbot's house, Erolbh and Torulb to whom one comes, three brothers without dispute whose honour or hospitality is best I know."
" II. Three descendants of the conquering Picts; gladness they had at every time ; fortune filled them to the ground in the abbot's house at Durrow."
" III. Holy Colum gave decrees to Laisren no deceitful cause to make dykes (mounds) in Durrow so that there might not be a breach therein."
"IV. They build the bold "mounds (dykes). They see their active workmen thrice fifty (150) conquering champions, with every sober wise man."
" V. From the time that the work ended it is everyone's voice whatever is said : the sober synod went on Sunday into the Abbot's house."
"VI. Thus went the sages, after the mound (dyke) and the dirt (mire) with a shovel and a cutting-spade in each man's hand without avoidance " ?

The Picts inquire of the Abbot –

"VII. What shall we do now for we are not reading with them, and we are without labour and without toil to subdue us under this discipline" ?

The Abbot answers -

" VIII. Cut ye down the brave forest so that it become smooth beams (stakes) ; three trees for every hairy monk proclaim no weakness of effort."-
IX. To put them (the beams or stakes) in a comely row on every side around the monastery so that the congregation may have a protection against danger with the (its) blasts (?)"
"X. "When the monastery was secure they see that is a ; they build mounds at the Glebe. Meseems it is a fervent, manly deed."

Tiugulb’s Share.

"XI Look ye forth at the share of the old man Tiugulb, the prince who collected (? connected) it, from the monastery westward to the bog with just (regular bordering mounds.")
XII. ' With its site of a laborious mill1 on its angle.' He was saying 'tis then the shadow is strong, there has been no grinding, there is none."

Erolb's Share.

XIII. The share of Erolb, i. e. the green field (Tamnach dear bequest; at the end of the lawn of Ethne's son (i.e. St. Columba) was arrayed with mounds, so that it is a help to our order."

Torulb’s Share.

"XIV. The youngest of the valiant children, Torulb, without weakness of effort, chose a land without any sorrow (t. e. the land of Cinnead's daughter). He planted a pillar at its corner.
"XV. The land of Ease and hospitality (gloss, thence westward to Greenan, from Sine to the lawn) is common to them all. . . . There was enough of a storeroom of eating.
"XVI. The vineyard (gloss, to the west of Greenan which Erolb got he put under smoothness of ) not wrong .... as far as the side of Tiugulb's land.
"XVII. Many mounds, many choice causeways, many roads, and many ways they made round Ross Grencha, i.e. Durrow, along with the husbandry of their house."

Mr. Whitley Stokes says the original is here and there corrupt and unintelligible, and he has no copy from another MS. which might enable him to learn the right readings; but, he adds, " as far as I can discover, the gist of those lines is as follows : Three brethren in the abbot's house named Tiugulb, Erolf, and Torolf, descendants of the conquering Picts, and honourable men, were led by fortune to the abbot's house at Rosgrencha. Laisren was then abbot of Durrow, to whom the holy Colum had given certain decrees. Thus, he was to make mounds or dykes without a breach in fact, to make the cashell of the monastery. Accordingly, the MS. goes on to tell us, these three, with 150 workmen, who are described as 'conquering champions,' working under them, each one of the three sober, wise men, probably with his fifty labourers under him, built the bold mound or dyke. When the work is ended the sober synod went on Sunday into the abbot's house as they had left the mound, carrying their muddy shovel and cutting-spade, and they ask the abbot, ' "What shall we do now; we do not read with you, and we require labour and toil for our discipline and our subjection?' Then the abbot answers, ' Cut ye down the brave forest, so that it become smooth beams: three trees for every hairy monk.' And the abbot tells them also to fix up these beams of planks in a comely row all round the monastery, so as to form protection for the congregation in the monastery against danger and blasts of wind. "When this task was finished they began to do the same work for the glebe, which dwelling seems to have stood apart from the other monastic buildings. The narrator then proceeds to tell the share each of these master builders had in the work. First we have Tiugulb's share. Tiugulb, prince and old man was he, who enclosed the ground behind the monastery and the bog. This might mean that he made the dyke or mound on the north side of the monastery. A bog or morass of some kind must have occupied the low ground between the monastery and the high ridge of ground planted with trees, bounding the demesne from the north, and running from east to west. He also seems to say that there was a mill at the angle, which had fallen into disuse. Next follows Erolb's share. He took the green field at the back of the lawn of Columb, the son of Ethne, and enclosed it with mounds, so that it became of great use to the community.Then we have Torulb's share. Torulb, the youngest of the brave men, chose the land of Cinnead's daughter a land without sorrow; and he planted a pillar at its corner. There is an evident allusion to the refectory in the next verse, speaking of a common hall or land between the barn and Sine, where there was enough of a storeroom of eating; and a gloss is added, saying that this place lay to the west towards Greenan. The vineyard also enclosed by Erolb lay west of Greenan, and extended as far as Tiugulb's land. They made, besides, many causeways, roads, paths round Rosgrencha, i. e. Durrow, along with the husbandry of their house."

One of the few narratives of the place, which I have heard is told of Seehawn, or Sine. St. Columba, it is said, was journeying from Durrow on one occasion, followed by a vast concourse of admirers. But when he came as far as Kilclare (the same place as that to which the murderer of Hugh de Lacy fled), he discovered that he had left his book behind him. This fact he mentioned to one of his followers, who passed the intelligence back through the crowd, till it reached the last man, who stood at Seehawn and reached for the book, passing it on from hand to hand until it was given to the saint. This narrative, which shows how large was the saint's following (the concourse of people who followed him covering a mile and a-half), helps to explain St. Columba's love for Durrow and his affection for its inhabitants, expressed in the old ballad which professes to be his address to Cormack : -

"O Cormack, beautiful is thy church,
With its books and learning;
A devout city with a hundred crosses,
Without blemish, without transgression.
A holy dwelling, confirmed by my verse,
The green of Aed, son of Brennan;
The oak plain of far-famed Rosgrencha;
The night upon which her pilgrims collect
The number of her wise a fact widespread
Is unknown to any but the only God."

The enlargement and improvement of Durrow after St. Columba left it, as we have seen above, was energetically pushed forward by Laisran when he was abbot there. The story shows that zeal for work was tempered by thoughtfulness for those under them by the saints in olden times; and I think, from my knowledge of the locality, I may add that this tradition of 1300 years ago is still observed on the place by the present proprietor in his dealings with his dependents. “On one very cold and wintry day" (Adamnan tells us, book i., chap, xxix.) "the saint wept, being afflicted by a great sorrow. His attendant Diormit, asking him about the cause of his sadness, received from him this reply: ' Not without reason, my son, am I sorrowful in this hour at the sight of my monks whom Laisran is distressing during the construction of some great building (round tower?), though they are even now worn out by heavy labour, a thing which greatly displeases me.’ Wonderful to say, at that very moment of time Laisran, dwelling in the monastery of Durrow, is some way compelled, and as if kindled by some inward fire, orders that the monks cease from their labour, and that some refreshment of viands be prepared ; and not only were they to cease from work on that day, but to rest on other days of severe weather. The saint hearing in spirit these consoling words spoken by Laisran to the brethren, ceased to weep, and though himself dwelling in Iona, related them throughout, with wondrous joy, to the brethren who were there at the time; and he blessed Laisran, the comforter of his monks."

Respecting these mounds, then, let me in continuation add all that I have been as yet able to ascertain. I have made some small attempt at excavation on each of them. The first of these is that which is associated with the murder of Hugh de Lacy, immediately to the north of which the old castle of Durrow stood, and which was itself covered with buildings at one time. Some remains of the old walls still may be found on top of it, and when I excavated I found that the mound was raised about 6 feet with small stones and debris from the old buildings which were ruthlessly destroyed, I believe, at the time that the Stepneys were at Durrow. A tradition has been told me of this mound, similar to others which one hears of other moats of the same kind. It is said that a certain native of Durrow travelling abroad was summoned to the bedside of a very aged Dane, to whom he had shown at some time some kindness. The dying man asked him if he knew where Durrow was, and upon his answering that he knew it well, he directed him to go to this moat for him, telling him he would find an entrance on its north side, and directing him to bring him something which he had left inside. The simple kindhearted Irishman went on his mission, came to Durrow, found all as he had been told; and after effecting his entrance to the moat, and braving the wrath of an angry cat and also a watch-dog, on whose head he was directed to throw an apron, he found not only the garment he was told to bring, but much gold and silver as well. Being very much frightened, and lest he should receive injury, he left the treasure untouched, and returned with ail haste to fulfil his promise. But the story goes on to tell how, instead of being much pleased, the old Dane was very wrath. "You did me a service," he said, "and I thought to reward you. I gave you a great opportunity; but since you have not availed yourself of it, you will always remain in need." I give the tradition as it has been told me, for I think it seems a pity that these old traditions should be forgotten. This one in particular shows how widespread and how lasting was the impression made by the inroads of the Northmen, since the time of their incursions is still remembered, and also that connected with their names there is almost invariably linked some tradition of the magic which they practised. It seems especially interesting to hear this tradition, too, about this mound, since we have a written record of the Danes who were employed in making mounds in Durrow.

But from a story which, perhaps, may be deemed too mythical and superstitious to be worthy of the regard of serious-minded people, we may pass to one which is well authenticated, and which, though already well known, it cannot be out of place to repeat while the site of the fell deed is in your view. I venture therefore to tell again the story of the murder of Hugh de Lacy. A contemporary who was a great admirer of his," Giraldus Cambrensis," gives us a graphic history of him; indeed, historians at all times have been much taken up with his life and work; for of all the Norman conquerors of Ireland no one seems to have left a deeper impress of his strong hand and iron rule. His castles, moreover, are still pointed out to us, by which he overawed the whole of the kingdom of Meath and also Kildare. Wherever there was a favourable site and a good post of advantage, there De Lacy seems to have erected a stronghold. His very features and appearance are described to us so vividly that we almost think we see him, as we read of his dark features, flat nose, deep-sunk piercing black eyes, and the horrible scar caused by a wound which disfigured a countenance which, even apart from this, would not have been attractive. His appearance altogether was uncouth : small in height, ill-proportioned in shape, with short neck and hairy body, it would seem as though the gifts and graces which nature had denied to him in his external appearance, she had more than compensated for by reason of the muscular strength of body which fitted him to carry out the feats of daring which his courageous spirit prompted, or enabled him to follow out the wise counsels for the administration of his government that his vigorous intellect devised. We only regret to learn that so many fine qualities of the mind were spoiled by his immorality and covetousness, and that, from the account of him given by Giraldus Cambrensis, we are forced to the conclusion that his moral character, like his physical features, was disfigured by a scar. So powerful had the great Hugh de Lacy become that the King of England (Holinshed tells us) was by no means sorry when he heard of his death. Leland, in his history, however, tells us that his death was avenged, if not by his master, yet by his friend Sir John de Courcy. In conjunction with young Lacy, son to the late lord, he is said to have taken severe vengeance for the murder of his gallant countryman (cf. "Giraldus Cambrensis" and also Hanmer) ; and it is not without significance, in connexion with this piece of history, that we find that the name of the old country of the Foxes, who instigated the murder, and which was then called Munter Thadgan, has been changed, and the barony now bears the name of Kilcoursey.

But the power of DeLacy is shown in another way, for just as after his death there was a contention between Bective and St. Thomas' Abbey, Dublin, as to who should have his body, so that they were not content to let him rest in peace in Durrow, but Bective should claim his head and St. Thomas' Abbey his body; so also with respect to the occasion of his death, there has been some dispute between those who record it as to which place should have the honour ascribed to it of being the site of his murder. Even in this neighbourhood there are some who will tell you that he was slain, not at Durrow itself, but at Shancourt or Rosdeala Castle, which is about a mile away. In 1838 John Daly of Kilbeggan, aged 82, told O'Connor that it was while engaged in making a trench at Shancourt that De Lacy was murdered. In 1898 John Daly of Durrow, about the same age, gave me much the same account. It is evidently to reconcile these two traditions that some say he was engaged making a causeway between Durrow and Shancourt, and that it was while engaged at this work he met his death. However, if De Lacy thought it advisable to have these two strongholds so near one another (i.e. Shancourt and Durrow), it is an evidence that Durrow was an important Celtic stronghold, and an especially advantageous position to make secure; and the event proves that he was not wrong in his judgment, for there the strong Norman Conqueror himself was treacherously slain. Tradition tells us that the murderer dressed himself in mean garments, and took the place of one of De Lacy's workmen when he went to dinner, and in this way got the opportunity he sought for to accomplish the end he had in view. One thing, however, seems clear to me, and that is, that all the authentic accounts agree in making the Castle of Durrow, lying immediately at the monastery of St. Columba, the site of the murder. At any rate this is the account taken from the "Annals of Ulster": " 1186. Hugo de Lacy, the profaner and destroyer of the sanctuaries and churches of Ireland, was killed in revenge of Columbkille while making a castle at Durrow. He was killed by O'Meyey of Teffia." We have the history in a still more interesting form in the " Annals of Lough Ce": "A.D. 1186. Hugo de Lacie went to Durrow to make a castle there, having a countless number of the English with him, for he was king of Meath, Breefny, and Oriel, and it was to him the tribute of Connaught was paid, and he it was who won all Ireland for the English. Meath, from the Shannon to the sea, was full of his castles and English (followers). After the completion of the work by him, he came out to look at the castle, having three English along with him. There came then one youth of the men of Meath up to him, having his battleaxe concealed, named Gilla-gan-inathar O'Meyey, the foster-son of the Fox himself, and he gave him one blow so that he cut off his head, and he fell, both head and body, into the ditch of the castle."

I made excavations at two other places also. On the top of another mound we found stones, which seemed to indicate that the soil at some time had been moved. Then we came on some cinders, and soon afterwards found an entire skeleton of a man. I have been told of one other instance of a rath being opened, and of cinders being found buried with a body. There was not the smallest trace of cremation, and the idea suggested itself to me that perhaps the cinder may have been made emblematic of the life which was extinct, and perhaps also of its being capable of being rekindled. The other place, outside the graveyard itself, which I have made any attempt to excavate was at the mound called Sine or Seehawn. There I found just a trace of mortar, which would show that the tradition of the place, which says the monastery was situate there, was not altogether wrong. In this part of the demesne also the rabbit-holes are oftentimes found to contain numbers of human bones. I do not know that any other object of interest is to be found outside the graveyard, except, indeed, the holy well, which is still resorted to for cures, as the dead tree, covered with rags, which stands beside it, testifies. Patron-day, June 9th, is celebrated at Durrow with due honours. The peasants, too, will tell you how Mr. Stepney long ago closed the well, and forbade anyone to use its waters ; but how the spring would not be repressed, but, as a punishment to the sacrilegious proprietor, burst up through the drawingroom floor. One could wish that our Saint had also some method equally efficacious to repress those ardent aspirants after cheap celebrity, who, in order to put themselves in evidence, must needs scratch their names on and deface the inscription which in modern times has been put over the well. Under the directions of Captain Garvey (the father of Mr. Toler Garvey, the agent) the well was again cared for and covered in, and a suitable inscription placed over it, with lines taken, I believe, from poetry supposed to have been written by St. Columba about his other monastery at Derry. The words are, nevertheless, quite as applicable to Durrow: -

" Here angels shall enjoy my sacred cell,
My sloe, my nut, my apple, and my well."

For one thing the reference to the apple will recall to those familiar with Adamnan's " Life of St. Columba," the pretty story that is told (Book ii., Miracles of Power, chap, ii.), entitled " Of the Sour Fruit of a certain Tree which was turned into Sweetness by the Blessing of the Saint." I think the story bears repetition, so I may be pardoned for again quoting from Adamnan: " There was a certain tree very full of apples near the monastery of Campus Eoboris (i.e. Durrow), in the southern part of it, and when the inhabitants of the place made some complaint about the exceeding bitterness of the fruit, one day in the time of autumn the Saint approached it, and seeing that the tree bore abundant fruit to no purpose, which hurt rather than delighted those who tasted it, raising his holy hand, blessing it, he says, ' In the name of Almighty God, let all thy bitterness, bitter tree, depart from thee, and let thine apples, up to this time most bitter, be turned into the very sweetest’. "Wonderful to say, and no sooner than said, in the same moment all the apples of that tree lost their bitterness, and, according to the word of the saint, were turned to sweetness."

Whether we are inclined to believe this miracle in its literal sense as implicitly as Adamnan seems to have done, or not, we have to acknowledge amongst the good deeds which these monks performed, the knowledge of agriculture that they acquired, by which bad land was so enriched, that to this day it bears testimony to their skill. At the present time the best land in Durrow is round the spot where the monastery stood. It is, I think, with the exception of the land in the vicinity of Tihilly, the only grass-land in the parish which is capable of fattening cattle, and yet, so far as I can judge, the subsoil is much the same as the district all around. The rabbit-holes show the same kind of fox-sand which, in this district, lies close to the surface in all the upland. This same thing was pointed out to me lately by one well qualified to be a judge in agricultural matters, where land was tilled in the neighbourhood of an old monastic building which for centuries had been a luxuriant pasture. He pointed out to me that the land had no natural richness, but owed its fertility to the superior management it had received in the past. Whether, then, St. Columba actually performed a miracle on this apple-tree at Durrow, or not, we know his successors evidently showed their sympathy for those not gifted with miraculous powers in the knowledge of practical agriculture and horticulture they imparted, teaching alike the farmers how to till their land, and gardeners how to graft their apple-trees.

Another characteristic of these saints in old times strikes me as being one which is, I believe, only found amongst the most civilized people and refined natures, i.e. kindness to animals. This Christian duty, which seems to be reviving at the present day, appears to have been understood by them. The most enthusiastic amongst us, in this respect, have scarcely come up to our predecessors who lived in these monastic institutions. Their affection for their animals led them even to depict them on their crosses amongst the most sacred surroundings. Adamnan, relating the story of St. Columba's life, is careful to relate his concern for a crane which came to Iona from Ireland, and needed food and rest; and in his story of the saint's death, we read how the old white horse was inspired by God to perceive that which was hidden even from Columba's own associates. And equal emphasis is laid upon the animal's affection for the saint, and the saint's concern for the old horse who had served him so well.

An account of Durrow, too, would be incomplete, if it did not take notice of the rivalry which existed between Durrow and Clonmacnoise, the foundation of Kieran the carpenter. The "Annals of Clonmacnoise " tell us of a great battle, in 759, between the Family of Durrow and Clonmacnoise, at Argamoyne, In 1070 we are told of another battle with another great monastic institution, for we are told how the people of Teffia came to the Termon land of Killeaghie, and preyed and spoiled it. But our Adamnan once again comes in, and tells us that this spirit of warfare was not the spirit of its founder, and that in the oldest and best days of both places, Christian love and Christian fellowship existed such as should exist between all who claim that sacred title (Adamnan, Book i., chap. iii.).

"At another time the blessed man, while staying some months in the central part of Ireland, founding, by Divine favour, his monastery, which is called in Scotia (Irish) Dair mag (Durrow), thought it well to visit the brethren who were dwelling together in St. Kieran's monastery at Clonmacnoise ; and, on hearing of his arrival, everyone from the fields about the monastery, together with those who were found gathered together within it, following, with all eagerness, their Abbot Alither, set off, with one consent, going outside the enclosure of the monastery to meet St. Columba as an angel of the Lord. And they humbly bowed, with their faces to the earth, as they saw him, and, with all reverence, they kissed him, and raising their voices in hymns and praises, they conduct him through, with all honour, to the church; and tying together a canopy of poles, they had it borne by four men, walking in pairs, around the saint as he walked, lest, mark you, a man of St. Columba's age, should be thronged by the crowding together of such a multitude of the brethren. And in that same hour a certain servant-boy, much cast down in countenance, and meanly clad, and not yet approved by his elders, came behind, hiding himself as much as he could, that he might touch even the fringe of that cloak which the blessed man wore, secretly, and, if possible, without his knowing or perceiving it. But yet this was not hidden from the saint, for that which with his bodily eyes he could not see done behind him, he perceived by spiritual vision, and so he suddenly stops, stretches out his hands behind him, catches the boy by the neck, and drawing him forth, sets him in front of him, while all those who are standing around say, send him away! send him away! why dost thou detain this wretched and troublesome boy ? But the saint, on the other hand, utters these prophetic words from his pure heart: 'Suffer it to be so now, brethren suffer it be so now '; but to the boy, who is trembling all over, he says: ' my son, open thy mouth, and put out thy tongue.' Then the boy, at his bidding, and with much trembling, opened his mouth, and put out his tongue, and the saint, stretching forth his loving hand, reverently blesses it, and thus prophetically speaks, saying: ‘Although this boy may now appear to you one to be despised, and of very low esteem, let no one despise him on that account ; for, from this hour, not only will he not displease, but he will greatly please you, and in good conduct, and the virtues of the soul he will, by degrees, advance from day to day; wisdom also, and prudence shall, from this day, be increased in him more and more, and great is his future career in this your congregation. His tongue also will be endowed by God with wholesome doctrine and eloquence.' "This was Erene, son of Crasene, afterwards famous, and of the greatest note among all the churches of Scotia (Ireland).

Besides those passages quoted above, we find the following interesting references made to Durrow in Adamnan's "Life of St. Coluniba," Book i., cap. 49: "The foreknowledge of the Blessed Man concerning the war which took place after many years in the fortress of Cethrin, and about a certain well near to that place." In this narrative Adamnan incidentally tells us of a "soldier of Christ, Finan by name, who, for many years, led an Anchorite's Life near the monastery of Durrow (Roboreti Monasterium Campi)." In Book II., chap, 39, we are told of Libran of the Reed Ground. In the course of the narrative we are told how Libran faithfully took the monastic vow; and when he was being sent back by the holy man to the monastery, in which he previously, for seven years, served the Lord as a penitent, he received from him, as he bade him farewell, these prophetic words uttered concerning himself: " Thou shalt live a long life, and close the present life in a good old age not, however, in Britain, but in Ireland, will thy resurrection be." Hearing the word, he (Libran) wept bitterly, on bended knees, and the saint seing him much distressed, began to console him, saying: "Arise, and let not thine heart be troubled; thou shalt die in one of mine own monasteries, and with my chosen monks in the kingdom shall thy portion be; with them shall thou awake from the sleep of death to the Resurrection of Life." He then having received from the saint no ordinary consolation, greatly rejoiced, and made well by the benediction of the saint, went on his way in peace which true prophecy of the saint concerning the same man was afterwards fulfilled. For while he served the Lord in obedience in the monastery of the Plain of Lange, though many rolling years after the passing away of St. Columba from the world, the monk being sent, in extreme old age, to Scotia (Ireland) on some monastic service, as soon as he went down from the ship, passed through the Plain of Breg (in Meath), and came to the monastery of Oak Plain (Durrow), and there received as a guest in the guest house; afflicted by some infirmity, on the seventh day of his sickness he departed in peace to the Lord, and was buried among the chosen monks of St. Columba, according to his prophecy to rise to eternal life."

In Book II., chap. 9 tells of the soul of a blacksmith carried off to heaven by angels. This Columb Coilrigin lived in the central portion of Ireland" In Mediterranea Scotiae." In Book I., chap. 3, which I have quoted above, Durrow is thus described: " In Mediterranea Hiberniae parte monasterium quod Scotice dicetur Dair-mag."

I don't think I could conclude with an incident better calculated to leave on your minds a pleasing impression of life in ancient times in Irish monasteries, or a narrative better calculated to give us a lofty idea of the character of him who founded Durrow more than 1300 years ago. I can best comment on it by using the words of the prophecy ascribed to St. Patrick, and said to have been uttered, concerning St. Columba, one hundred years before his birth, that "there should descend of ffergus one who, for sweetness of life and hospitality, would prove a very good man."

JRSAI Vol 29 (1899), 219-232

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Friday 29 June 2012

The Termon of Durrow - I

Below is part one of a paper on the Columban monastic site of Durrow delivered to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1898 by an Anglican clergyman. As is always the case with material of this age, the antiquarian speculations of the author have been superceded by the findings of more recent scholarship, but the paper nevertheless brings together a lot of interesting lore. The author gives a useful summary of the major relics associated with the monastery of Durrow, namely the Book of Durrow and the Durrow Crozier. His account of the tendency to dunk priceless hand-written books in water in the belief that they could not be damaged is a wonderful testimony to faith, although I suspect that modern archaeologists would be relieved that this practice has now died out!



[Read MARCH 29, 1898.]


''IF you really intend to go deeply into the question of Celtic Antiquities'' (said Professor Max Muller),"it is to Ireland you must go" ; and I think I may be justified in saying that even in Ireland we could hardly find a more favourable field for study than the county in which I now reside, since, amongst many others, it presents such fields for inquiry as Clonmacnoise, Rahin, Tihilly, and Durrow.

On a previous occasion I read a Paper on " The Old Churchyards of Durrow Parish," and I then brought before you some of the interesting remains which have so far withstood, to some extent, the ravages wrought by the hand of time, aided and abetted by the trying nature of our climate and the destructive habits of our race.

I have now to show you illustrations of a different kind, which will direct your notice to objects of interest connected with my parish which could hardly be said to come under the title of my former paper; and I give, as addenda, some extracts from ancient documents and notices of the annalists in which I find reference made to this ancient and historic spot.

This will, I think, help to group together the important records of the parish, and show that Durrow continued to be an important centre of learning for many years, and that though the light kindled then by St. Columba may have waxed dim or even flickered for a time, that still the lamp of truth which he kindled has never been altogether quenched, even though it may never have shone so brightly as in its first and most palmy days.

Any account of monastic life in Durrow which did not take notice of its celebrated MSS. would be very incomplete indeed. Concerning one of them I cannot, I think, do better than quote the words of the late Professor Stokes, whose loss I am sure we all feel. Writing about the celebrated epistle of Cummian, written to the Abbot of I Columkille in the year 634, he says:" I call it a marvellous composition because of the vastness of its learning. It quotes, besides the Scriptures and Latin authors, Greek writers like Origen, Cyril, and Pachonius, the head and reformer of Egyptian monasticism, and Daraascius, the last of the celebrated neo-Platonic philosophers of Athens, who lived about the year 600, and who wrote all his works in Greek. Cummian discusses the calendar of the Macedonians, Hebrews, and Copts, giving us the Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian names of months and cycles, and tells us that he had been sent as one of a deputation of learned men a few years before to ascertain the practice of the Church of Rome with regard to Easter." ''This long letter" (said Professor Stokes) "proves to demonstration that in the first half of the seventh century there was a wide range of Greek learning, not ecclesiastical merely, but chronological, astronomical, and philosophical, away at Durrow in the very centre of the Bog of Allen." It will be in the recollection of all who are interested in the subject that Cummian's epistle engages in controversy on the great Pascal question as to the time when Easter should be celebrated. St. Cummian advocated the Roman method, while Segenius and the monks of Hy held to the opposite, as observed by St. Columba. St. Fintan of Taghmon (the founder of Tihilly, now in the parish of Durrow) also held to the Irish method of observing Easter. Perhaps, however, it is only right to mention that all writers do not seem as certain respecting Cummian's identity with Durrow as was Professor Stokes. Reeves, in his " Adamnan" (Lib. i., p. 27), tells us that Cummian, in 636, appeared at a Synod at Campus Lene (or Magh Lena), near the modern Tullamore, when he pleaded for uniformity of practice. Colgan's " Acta SS.," p. 411, says, " Cummian is said to have been Abbot of Durrow." Lanigan thinks the notice of him does not refer to the great monastery of Durrow, but to Disert Chuimin. However, in vol. ii. page 393, he says that "He seems to have been a Columbian monk, and was probably educated in the Columbian monastery of Durrow, which was subject to the superintendence of the Abbot of Hy. At the time of the proceedings now related he had apparently an establishment of his own, which was in all likelihood that of Disert Chuimin, so called from his name, now Kilonin or Kilcummin in the King's County, near Roscrea." A work which is in the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, called " De poenitentiarum mensura," was also, Lanigan thinks, written by him.

I have also obtained a copy of a photograph of a MS. which is in the Bodleian Library, of which I shall speak more presently. But the best known of our MSS. is, of course, the Book of Durrow, which is in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. And, as I look at those illustrations, I think with pride of the literary work which used to be done in my parish in olden times, though it be mingled with regret that we cannot now attempt to emulate the skill and artistic taste of the scribe who wrote it. Perhaps it may interest you to hear that I am sometimes asked by persons whether I have obtained any of the information I have been able to get about Durrow from this celebrated book. It may not therefore be amiss to say, as briefly as I am able, something of what is known about "The Book of Durrow." To begin with Its antiquity is proved beyond doubt both by the character of the book itself and also from the fact that it is recorded that the first book-shrine or comdach we read of, the date of which can be fixed with any historical certainty, was made for this book by the King of Ireland, Flann Sinna, son of Malachy, who reigned between the years 877 and 916. This bookshrine is indeed now lost, but it was seen by Roderick O'Flaherty in 1677, who wrote the following on the flyleaf of the Gospel it was made to enshrine (" Inscriptio Hibernicis literis incisa cruci argenteae in operimento hujus Libri in transversa crucis parte nomen artificis indicat ; et in longitudine tribus lineis a sinestra et totidem dextra et sequitur + oroit acus bendacht Choluimb Chille do Flaund Mac Mailsechnaill do Righerewn la sa ndernadacumdach so ' "(i.e., An inscription in Irish letters cut on a silver cross in the corner of the book or the transverse part of the cross indicates the name of the maker, and on the length three lines from the left, and the like number on the right, as follows: " Columkille's prayer and blessing for Flann, son of Mail Sechnaill for the King of Ireland by whom the case was made "). This Flann, son of Malachi, was King of Ireland, A.D. 879-916. The Most Rev. Dr. Healy, writing of this work, describes it as follows:

"The 'Book of Durrow' is a highly ornate copy of the Four Gospels, according to Jerome's version; it is written across the page in single columns. The MS. also contains the Epistle of St. Jerome to Pope Damasus, an explanation of certain Hebrew names, with the Euseheian Canons and synoptical Gospels."

This description may fitly be supplemented by a quotation from the " National MSS. of Ireland," by John Gilbert, F.S.A.

“The Book of Durrow is," he says, "an ornamental copy of the Four Gospels in the Vulgate version, written across the page mainly in single columns, and preceded by the Epistle of St. Jerome to Pope Damasus, an explanation of Hebrew names, Eusebeian Canons, and synoptical tables. It contains symbolical representations of the Evangelists, and pages of coloured, spiral, interlaced, and tesselated ornamentation. The general number of lines on a page is 25 or 26. Among the capitals, Greek letters are occasionally introduced, and the peculiar red dotted and lineation occur abundantly throughout the book."

Miss Margaret Stokes, commenting on the fact that it was associated with the name of St. Columba, and venerated accordingly as early as the ninth century, yet points out that the fact that it is according to St. Jerome's version would indicate that it was not so old as the sixth century, as at that period a different version was in use. Accordingly, we find that the date ascribed to it in Trinity College Library is the seventh century. Miss Stokes also points out a curious fact connected with the book, i.e. that, in the miniature, at the end of the book, of an ecclesiastic, the Irish tonsure and not the Roman is used. On what was originally the last folio of the book (now folio 15, by error of binding), we find the usual request of the Irish scribe:

"Rogo beatitudinem tuara sce praesbiter Patrici ut quicunque hunc libellum manu tenuerit meminerit Columbae scriptoris qui hoc scripsi [ -] met evangelium per xii dierum spatium gra dni nri."

" I pray thy blessedness, holy Presbyter, Patrick, that whoever shall take this book into his hands may remember the writer Columba, who have myself written this Gospel in the space of twelve days, by the grace of our Lord."

I am indebted further to Miss Margaret Stokes for this remark, that while "the Book of Durrow has fewer varieties of design in it than the Book of Kells, yet that those it does possess belong to the most characteristic and archaic style of Christian art." The MS. was preserved at Durrow until the year 1623, when it was taken possession of by Henry Jones, who had been scout-master to Cromwell's army in Ireland, then Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, and afterwards Bishop of Meath. O'Flaherty saw the Book in 1677. " I have seen," he says, "handwritings of St. Columba in Irish characters, as straight and as fair as any priest, of about 1000 years standing, and Irish letters engraven in the time of Flann, King of Ireland, deceased in A.D. 916." I cannot refrain from repeating again the reference to this Book which is in the "Annals of Clonmacnoise." The writer tells us that St. Columba wrote 300 books with his own hand, and that they were all New Testaments, and also that he left a book to each of his churches in the kingdom -

" which Bookes have a strange property, which is that if they, or any of them, had sunck to the bottom of the Deepest waters, they would not lose one letter, signe, or character of them, wch I have seen partly by myselfe of that book of them which is at Dorow, in the Ks County, for I saw the Ignorant man, who had the same in his Custody, when sickness came on cattle, for their Remedy putt water on the booke, and Suffered it to rest there for awhile ; and saw also cattle returne thereby to their former or pristin state, and the book to receave no loss."

This is a very old tradition, and it seems to owe its origin to an incident recorded in Adarnnan's "Life of St. Columba." In. Book II. two chapters are devoted to this subject. In chapter viii., he tells us of a youth who fell into the River Boyne, and was drowned, his body not being recovered for twenty days, when a leaf of a book, written by St. Columba, was found in his pocket, dry and uninjured, amongst a number of others, which were not only corrupted but putrified; and then he proceeds in chapter ix. to give us the following narrative.

" At another time a book of hymns for the week, written by S. Columba' s own hand, together with the leather satchels in which it was contained, fell from the shoulders of a certain boy, who slipped off a bridge and was drowned in a certain river in the province of Leinster, which little book remaining in the water, from the Nativity of our Lord until the end of Easter Week, and afterwards found on the bank of the river by some women who were walking there, is carried in the same satchel, which was not only wet but putrified, to one Jogenan, a Presbyter, and a Pict by nation, to whom it had previously belonged, and when the same Jogenan opened the satchel, he found his little book incorrupted, and as clean and dry as if it had remained all that time in a case, and had never fallen into water. But we have learned without doubt, from men of experience, that other like things occurred with respect to books written by the hand of S. Columba, which books, be it known, being immersed in water, could in no way be corrupted."

I have to express my gratitude to the Rev. Dr. Abbott, who has kindly allowed me to examine this most interesting MS. connected with the history of Durrow, and which was preserved there for so many centuries; but I would add that he did not give me permission, nor, indeed, did I seek for it, to experiment with it in this way, or bring back the water cure for the diseased cattle of my parish. However, my inspection of the book satisfied my mind as to the veracity of the account given in the " Annals of Clonmacnoise," as I had ocular proof, from numerous water stains, that water evidently had been poured on the book in the way the writer describes. Another fact regarding the book which I thought of interest is the precatory entry in Irish made in it by Connell M'Geoghegan, the translator of the "Annals of Clonmacnoise," in May, 1633, and who probably made the entry at the time the book was in "the ignorant man's" possession, to whom Connell M'Geoghegan refers as quoted above. The date, too (1633), has an interest for me. For the date of Connell M'Geoghegan's visit to Durrow is the same (as its hall-mark indicates) as that of the presentation of the silver chalice, which is still used in Durrow Church. I think, therefore, I may be justified in supposing that this silver chalice was presented at this time to Durrow Church, by the translator of the " Annals of Clonmacnoise," when he visited Durrow, wrote his name in its celebrated book, and had ocular proof of the historic water-cure. The M'Geoghegans were at this time people whom one would expect to make a gift of the kind, for in the "Martyrology of Donegal," completed about 1620, we find a memorandum which not only shows that the Book of Columcille, called the Book of
Durrow, was at Durrow, but adds that Durrow was then in the district of the M'Geoghegans. The name then continued in the district for some time, and a Connell M'Geoghegan attended vestry meetings in Durrow parish, as his signature witnesses, in 1713, 1714, 1719 1721 and 1722.

Then with regard to the illumination of the book itself. One feature which especially interested me and attracted my attention was how largely the zoomorphic element entered into the designs. My mind at once reverted to the strange interlaced dragons on Tihilly Cross which have been so well illustrated for me in a former paper by Mr. Westropp. One cannot help wondering what brought such strange and hideous monsters into a beautifully written sacred document. In each case there is a striking contrast between the beautiful geometrical interlacing, "fret patterns and spirals which we find there, upon which the eye always rests with delight, and these strange uncouth monsters. It is the same, I think, as the feeling one has in some grand cathedral when you turn from examining the tracery of its windows or the symmetry of its arches and doors, and your eye rests on some hideous gargoyle. And yet there is undoubtedly an interest and strange fascination in them. As I write, some of the unconth monsters outside the beautiful churches of Normandy appear before me, and I contrast the Angel Choir in Lincoln Cathedral with "The Devil overlooking Lincoln" and its well-known cross-legged imp. But to return to the Book of Durrow. Another curious illustration is the calf or bull, at the commencement of St. Luke, with a spiral on its leg or hip. I drew a comparison in my mind at once with the High Cross, and thought of the same kind of decoration on the angel's wing. I daresay other parallels will occur to the reader's mind of this archaic design. I have seen the same kind of spirals in the British Museum on gold ornaments found at Enkoni, near Salamis, in Cyprus, and which go back to the Mycenaean Period. There is also an Irish MS. there, written by Maelbrigte Hua Maeludnaig at Armagh, A.D. 1138, in which there is a figure which bears a striking resemblance to the one in the Book of Durrow. It has been noticed by more than one writer that there is not the slightest trace of a floral or foliaceous design in this MS., and Mr. Brun, in his description of the book, seems to make a strong point of this; and also I note that Miss Margaret Stokes (whose opinion is of value) says that there is no sign of any floral forms being used. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one cannot look at the ornamented page used as a frontispiece to the Epistle of St. Jerome, without seeing that leaves are used for decorative purposes amongst the trumpet and interlaced patterns which we find there, even though they do not take a prominent place in the design.


From the Book of Durrow I pass to another interesting relic of Durrow's past celebrity. It, too, has been removed from our care and taken for safe keeping to the Royal Irish Academy's Museum. I refer to the Durrow Crozier. Miss Margaret Stokes, in her "Early Christian Architecture in Ireland," reminds us that the crozier originally had its origin in "the oaken staff of the itinerant bishop, which is still visible through the chinks and openings in which it was afterwards enshrined (chap. iii. "Stone Churches with Cement"). The best example of this which I have come across is the Crozier of Durrow, which exemplifies to perfection what Miss Margaret Stokes here describes, and this is made the more interesting since O'Donnell, in his "Life of St. Columba," informs us that when Scanlann, after the Synod of Drumceatt was liberated, St. Columba gave him his staff to serve as his safe conduct, directing him to proceed to Dermagh and deliver it to Laisranus. Whether it is too great a demand to make from you to ask you to suppose that this is the same staff which we now have in the Museum I must leave yourselves to decide, but no one can see the Crozier of Durrow without at least being convinced that it bears signs of very great antiquity. Indeed, in the Museum we see a notice which tells us that its date is the sixth century. We are also informed that the head is wanting, that the casing and knobs are of bronze, with jewel settings, and that the upper knob is inlaid with gold. It seems, however, a matter for regret that when old relics of this kind were handed over to a Museum the traditions respecting them were not preserved. Some traditional history must have been connected with this crozier, which we would expect to have been handed down in the McGeoghegan family who were its custodians.

An interesting notice in the " Annals of the Four Masters" tells us that Farrell Roe Oge, the son of Farrell Roe, son of Donough, son of Murtagh More McGeoghegan, a captain of great repute and celebrity, was killed and beheaded at Cruagh-abhal (now Croughool, in the parish of Churchtown) by the son of the Baron of Delvin and the grandson of Pierce Dalton. They carried his head to Trim, and from thence to Dublin for exhibition, but it was afterwards brought back and buried along with his body in Durrow Cholum Chille.

Dean Butler, in his book on Trim, mentions that there seems to have been some old ecclesiastical connexion at one time between Durrow and Trim, as a monastic seal of the fourteenth century was found near Mullingar bearing on the obverse side the inscription, " Sigill. M. Abbatis S. Marie de Truim," and on the reverse, " Si. M. Abb. S. Marie de Durmag.," which, he adds, is figured in the Dublin Penny Journal. The seal itself was in the possession of Mr. K. Murray, of Mullingar i 1808. It is ascribed by Petrie to the thirteenth century, and is now I believe, m the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy.


Sir Henry Piers, in his "History of Westmeath," gives at length a full description of what a termon land was:

“In time past" he says "it was provided that whoever founded a church should endow the same with certain possessions for the maintenance of those who were to attend God's service therein, insomuch that a bishop might not consecrate any church before an instrument of such a donation was provided by the founder: . . . Hence it came to pass that every church had allotted to it a certain proportion of land (with servants appertaining thereunto) free from all temporal impositions and exactions." . . . "Neither is it to be doubted," he says, " but that those who founded churches upon their lands, being willing to assign an endowment unto them in places most convenient would, for this purpose, especially make choice of the lands next adjoining to the house they had builded, as Bede (" Hist. Eccles.," lib. 3, chap. 17) particularly recordeth, in his history of Bishop Aiden, that he had no proper possession, "excepta ecclesia sua et adjacentibus agellis." Now erenach and termon lands being free from all charges of temporal lords as also ecclesiastical possessions, were by the fourth constitution of the council held at Cashel, anno 1172, the bishops being the chief lords of them, and the churches being commonly built upon them, the reparation of a great part whereof being continually upon the erenach that belonged to them, there is no question to be made but they were of this nature, and forasmuch as unto these lands certain freedoms were annexed i.e. the privilege of sanctuary the land from thence was called termon or free and protected land, for the word Tearmann is used in the Irish tongue for a sanctuary (whence Termon-feckin, a town belonging to the Archbishop of Armagh hath his denomination as it were the sanctuary of Feckin, and may well be thought to have been borrowed by the Irish (as many other words are) from the Latin terminus by reason that such privileged places were commonly bounded by special marks and bounds."

(To be continued.)

JRSAI, Volume 29 (1899), 44-51.

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Thursday 28 June 2012

Durrow- Monasterium Nobile

Below is a paper by modern Irish archaeologist Peter Harbinson on the monastery of Durrow, which I first posted in 2010 on Under the Oak. The original link no longer seems to be working, so I regret it is not possible to view the illustrations.

Durrow - Monasterium Nobile

The recent acquisition by the State of Durrow Abbey and demesne in County Offaly prompts Peter Harbison to reassess its cultural significance

A year and a half ago, the State made one of its most important heritage acquisitions in buying Durrow Abbey and thirty-one hectares of land that went with it. This is a fine demesne located just west of the N52 between Kilbeggan and Tullamore and on it is one of the most significant, virtually undisturbed, monasteries of ancient Ireland, founded by one of the country’s three national Apostles, St Colmcille (or Columba), who lived from 521 to 597.

Its takes its name from the Irish Dearmach, or ‘plain of oaks’, a tree also associated with another of Colmcille’s foundations where the city of Derry now stands. It is appropriate, therefore, that the modern estate should have been enclosed on three sides by oak trees of which those on the northern boundary of the estate are the most notable remnants. Interspersed with beech there, along a ridge clearly seen in the aerial photograph (Fig 4), they mark out the Eiscir Riada, ancient Ireland’s most important east-west roadway which wiggles its way westwards above the surrounding countryside like a sleeping reptile that St Patrick had failed to banish. It crossed the Shannon at Clonmacnois, a slightly older monastery which Colmcille is known to have visited – though it should be said that we do not have a precise date for the foundation of the monastery at Durrow. But its proximity to this vital traffic artery explains why Colmcille chose the site, which had been given to him by a local king.

Colmcille was one of the most human and charismatic of early Irish saints whose career was described for us in two biographies written more than 850 years apart – one by Adomnán, a late 7th-century abbot of Iona (see the Irish Arts Review Autumn 2004), and the other by his kinsman Manus O’Donnell, whose monograph of 1532 managed to assemble a vast amount of lore that had accumulated around Colmcille down the centuries. From these two sources, we know that Colmcille was born into the kingly O’Donnell family of Donegal and he would doubtless have become ruler of much territory in the north-west of Ireland had not the church claimed his attention at an early stage of his life. He went to learn at the foot of St Finnian, whose foundation at Clonard in County Meath was the nursery par excellence for early Irish monastic founders and who must have inspired Colmcille to go out and make new foundations himself, not just Derry and Durrow, but at other places which bear his name, such as Swords in Fingal – Sórd Cholaim Chille. His name is also revered in that lovely valley of Glencolumbkille in Donegal where the pattern (Patrún) that takes place annually must be one of the oldest and most genuine of its kind in the country. It is held on the saint’s feast-day, 9 June, the same day as the pilgrimage to St Colmcille’s Well in the grounds of Durrow Abbey.

When over forty, Colmcille decided – for whatever reason – to leave his native land and venture as a pilgrim across the sea to the beatific island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides where he made his most famous foundation in 563. There he remained for the rest of his life, when not occasionally returning to Ireland, or crossing to mainland Scotland to preach among the Picts under their king Brude.

Colmcille was not only a charismatic teacher and leader, he was also a diplomat and poet – talents which led to his successful intervention in one of the most momentous cultural disputes in the long history of Ireland – the Convention of Druim Ceat in 575. This was the culmination of a controversy between the high king and the poets of Ireland whom he wanted to banish abroad because they were charging too much for their praise poetry. But Colmcille won the day by hammering out a compromise whereby the king allowed the poets to remain in the country, and the poets agreed to accept smaller fees. At one fell stroke, Colmcille had saved Ireland’s literary heritage.

We also owe Colmcille a great debt in a similar sphere. He was a man who was known to have loved books and, without him and the monasteries he created, we would not have three of the great manuscripts which this country possesses, the Cathach in the Royal Irish Academy (which tradition ascribes to his very own hand) and the two great codices in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin – the Book of Kells and, what is more relevant to our theme here, the Book of Durrow.

The Book of Durrow, which comes in date between the other two, was written some time around or before 700 AD and, although the location of its scriptorium has never been discovered, it has been associated with our Offaly monastery since the days when Flann Sinna, king of Ireland from 877 to 916, made a cumdach or cover for it, which was adorned with a silver cross, as noted in a 17th-century addition to the manuscript. Whether the book was made in Durrow, or on Iona (where Colmcille died about a century before it was created), or even in Northumbria, is a question which has given countless scholars the opportunity to disagree heartily with one another for over a century. Yet it could have remained in Durrow for up to 800 years or more before it was removed around 1689. What we can say for sure, however, is that the book is one of the most important artistic documents of its period anywhere in Europe – and a masterpiece of Celtic craftsmanship.

It is written in a wonderfully clean Irish majuscule script, and represents one of the few surviving stages in the gradual development of ‘insular’ manuscript illumination that culminated a century later in the Book of Kells. It is noteworthy for being one of the earliest known manuscripts to devote a full page solely to ornamentation, as seen brilliantly in folio 3v where a framework of interlacing circular knotwork encloses groups of spirals within spirals which swirl around as in a dance, touching, then retreating from one another and finally regrouping in enchanting choreography. The symbol of the evangelist Matthew (the only human figure in the whole manuscript) is more static in a similar interlaced frame, his poncho-like garment resembling a chess-board, suggesting that the monk who illuminated the page was probably borrowing ideas from the metalworker in the workshop next door. The other evangelist symbols are unusual in giving the calf to Mark and the lion to Luke (rather than the other way round), and the perky eagle of St John looks as if it may have been inspired by some continental metalwork brooch. Equally exotic in a Celtic context are the Germanic animals which bite and intertwine with one another in the full page of ornament preceding the text of St Luke’s Gospel.

But one page which can be selected to illustrate for us the clever symbiosis of ornament and text is the introduction to St Mark’s Gospel (Fig 5). Here we can see the very first word in Latin – INITIUM, or ‘beginning’ – being stepped back in diminuendo as it follows the direction of the script from left to right, and demonstrating a dazzling combination of spirals and interlace woven into the first vertical stroke of the I which could be taken to double for the first downstroke of the following N. This is succeeded by a much smaller I and the final TIUM before the lettering gradually settles down to a more regular and reduced rhythm. What may seem at first like a jumble of irregular spiral twists in the diagonal of the N is, in fact, a tightly-controlled study in asymmetry – one of those lovable characteristics of the ‘Celtic’ artist which marks him out as so different from the conventionally regular art of ancient Rome. One cannot escape the stylised gaze of the birdheads blossoming out into a capital on the top of the right-hand vertical of the letter N, or the feeling that the spirals at the very bottom of the decoration represent an equally stylised animal head seen from the front. This is just the kind of abstraction that we find in prehistoric Celtic metalwork and, in fact, the spirals seen so clearly in the Book of Durrow are wonderful examples of how the Christian monks were able to turn old pagan motifs to their own purposes, and imbue them with new meaning.

It was probably not long after the creation of the book that the most eminent church historian of the English people, the Venerable Bede, described Durrow as a monasterium nobile, a famous monastery, which it had obviously already become when he was writing in the early 8th century. By that time, the church had already integrated well with Irish lay society and the monasteries that had grown up like daisies across the green fields of Ireland had developed into large settlements, made up of wooden buildings which have long since disappeared. The extent of the ancient monastery at Durrow should not be judged by what we take today as its core – the church and churchyard. Aerial photography (such as Fig 4) and geophysical surveys suggest that it extended well out into the field to the south of the avenue, where traces of two circular banks and a ditch have been found. But expansion of the monastery led to laxity, and size to greed for others’ possessions, and it is no surprise, therefore, to find the monastery at war with Clonmacnois in the year 764, when 200 Durrow men died.

But this animosity had obviously calmed down over a century later when both monasteries erected stone high crosses which share a similar iconography on one of their faces, suggesting a certain amount of common planning and craftsmanship. The high cross at Durrow (Figs 1, 2 &6), which has now been moved into the church for protection and eventual display is one of the dozen or so most important scriptural crosses surviving in Ireland. It bears inscriptions so tantalisingly incomplete that it is difficult to identify the names in them, but one may be that of Maelsechlainn, the High King of Ireland (846-862) and father of the Flann Sinna who made the cover for the Book of Durrow. The fact that this potentially regal inscription is on the narrow side of the cross rather than on the main face may mean that Maelsechlainn is being commemorated after his death, rather than proclaiming himself as king of Ireland – and presumably benefactor of the cross – as he did on another cross not far away at Castlebernard near Kinnitty. The west face of the cross – which is the one so like that on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois – has scenes of Christ’s Passion on the shaft, and a touching Crucifixion scene above it (Fig 1). The head of the other face (Fig 2) has a version of the Last Judgment, beneath which, on the shaft, we find Christ flanked by apostles and, contrastingly, the Sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis. Further Old Testament scenes are found on the south side just around the corner – Adam and Eve and their offspring Cain and Abel, as well as a proud King David. On the north side we have, not the Holy Family, but almost certainly John the Baptist with his parents. The head of a smaller (and probably marginally earlier) cross is now in the National Museum in Dublin. Durrow also has a small but significant collection of grave-slabs (Fig 7), including one that is among the largest of its kind (Fig 3), and which was discovered by Liam de Paor just over fifty years ago lying flat in the ground just to the east of the high cross. Its inscription, like those on the high cross, is fragmentary, so that it is impossible to relate it to any known historical personage.

The second millennium saw a down-turn in the monastery’s luck; its church was broken into in 1019, and its books – fortunately, not our book –were burned in 1095. In the following century things got better before they got worse again. The life of the old monastery must have been flagging after half a millennium of existence, and it was given a new and reformed lease of life by the arrival of the Arrouaisian (or Augustinian) Canons who opened a house close to the old monastery which may have been for both monks and nuns. Although the monastery must have been enriched in the 12th century by the acquisition of a metal crozier now in the National Museum, this did not prevent one fire in 1153 and two more in 1155. A greater threat was posed by the descent of the Normans who laid waste the monastery and surrounding lands in 1175, within less than a decade of their arrival in the country. However retribution was on its way. The great Norman baron Hugh de Lacy had taken over the monastic lands and began to build a castle there, which can probably be identified with the motte to the south of the house now known as Durrow Abbey. But while he was surveying his handiwork, a ‘youth of Meath’ produced an axe from under his cloak and slew the baron ‘in reparation to St. Colmcille, in whose church of Durrow the castle was being built’. Norman retaliation was doubtless hard and swift and is likely to have heralded the end of the ancient monastery. But the Canons remained on without any happenings as dramatic as Hugh de Lacy’s murder to make it into the history books.
The new visitor facilities, planned for completion at the end of next year, will bring the history and heritage of this important monastery to the attention of an international public, who deserve to know about it in order to appreciate fully the treasures of this midland gem.

Peter Harbison is the Honorary Academic Editor of the Royal Irish Academy.
All photography (with the exception of Fig 5) courtesy of The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government

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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