Sunday 3 June 2012

Manus O’Donnell’s life of Colum Cille

Although the Life of Saint Columba is most famously covered by the monk Adamnan, there is a later and less well-known Life by the 16th-century Donegal prince, Manus O'Donnell. It was first translated in the early twentieth-century by Andrew O' Kelleher et al., and this work is in the public domain here. Contemporary Columban scholar, Brian Lacey, has brought out a new edition:

From about 1510 Maghnus Ó Domhnaill (Manus O’Donnell) was a leading political figure in the north west of Ireland. Between 1537 and 1555 he was chieftain of Tír Conaill. In 1532 he completed the greatest cultural achievement of his life, the composition of the Beatha Colaim Chille or ‘Life’ of the 6th-century monastic founder whom Manus claimed as his ‘high saint and kinsman in blood’. The ‘Life’ is an extraordinary work, running to nearly 100,000 words of verse and prose, written, for the most part, in clear, elegant Irish. It is a compendium of all that was known or (more correctly) believed about Colum Cille in Manus’ day.

Like the life of Manus himself, the Beatha Colaim Chille is being recognized increasingly as an example of the extension to Gaelic Ireland of Renaissance ideas and standards. Although the Beatha is not our best source for reconstructing the life of Colum Cille, it does provide an insight into the beliefs, practices and cultural interests of Gaelic Ireland in the early part of the sixteenth century, prior to the onset of the Reformation and the Tudor conquest.

Brian Lacey is Director of the Discovery Programme, author of Colum Cille and the Columban Tradition (1996), and editor of the Archaeological Survey of Donegal (1983).

The book is published by Four Courts Press.

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