Tuesday 11 June 2013

Columba and the Dove

Below is a poem which captures the theme of exile which the Irish came to associate with Saint Colum Cille. It draws on the story that an exhausted, windswept bird from Ireland was blown on to the shore of Iona. The saint, for whom thoughts of his beloved northern homeland were never far away, nurses the avian exile back to health and sends him on his way home. The poem was published in an American religious journal of 1904 and the sentimental treatment of the theme of exile would, no doubt, have appealed to an Irish-American readership. In the version of this story which I am familiar with, the bird is actually a heron, but perhaps the writer here draws on the literal meaning of the saint's name - 'the dove of the church'. 



IN exile far from Derry's hill
It ached the sweet Columba sore
He nevermore might gaze his fill
On Erin's loved and lovely shore.

He nevermore might hear the finch
In Fanad's wood beside his home,
Nor watch round craggy cape and inch
The surges of Lough Swilly foam.

No more might see Ben Bulban fling
About his form his cloak of cloud,
Nor royal Edar, like a king,
Blaze out in heathery purple proud.

Nor see the shining salmon leap
The cascade white of Assaroe,
Nor net the trout, nor hear the sheep
Bleat in the meadows of Raphoe.

For so decreed the penance sore
That drove him forth an exiled man :
To see his native land no more,
While grass was green and water ran.

But daily, far from Derry's hill,
He walketh where the breakers roar,
And far through mist and sea-fog still
He watches from Iona's shore.

And gazeth o'er the ocean dim
Through smoking spume and drifting spray,
Where on the sunset's golden rim
His Erin lieth far away.

With arrowy sleet his eyes are blind,
The needles of the tempest sting;
When lo! against the northern wind
What cometh up on weary wing?

What cometh from the distant south,
The holy south where Erin lies?
A prayer leaps to Columba's mouth,
The tears well up within his eyes.

" My little bird from Derry's oaks,
Christ Jesu send him safe ashore,
That breasts the breeze with valiant strokes
Of wounded wing and pinion sore!'

So prays he, and through storm and sleet
It wins to land - oh, blessed thing!
An Irish dove, and at his feet
It droppeth with bedraggled wing.

The tears are on Columba's cheek.
" O little wanderer from home,
What dost thou in Iona bleak ?,'
Why wingest thou across the foam ?

" Why dost thou leave thine Irish nest
'Neath Derry's hill by reedy Foyle?
Oh foolish little bird, to breast
The wind that blusters over Moyle!'

" But thou, assuaged of grief and pain,
Shalt win again to Erin's shore.
O happy dove, to see again
The fields my feet may tread no more!"

So spake the Saint with tearful word,
The while with gentle hand he strook
Its plumage soft and raised the bird
And to his convent's shelter took.

And fed it there and brought it forth,
And set it free with happy smile,
And bade it hasten from the north
And win its way to Erin's isle.

'' O little wanderer from home !
Go, hasten hence and take my love
O'er golden leagues of sunset foam
To Durrow's hill and Derry's grove.

" 'Neath Derry's oaks, God's angels, go,
A shining host in garb of gold.
To Derry's oaks and sweet Raphoe
O take my blessing manifold!'

Up rose the dove in joyous flight
And winged its way unto the south,
As sure as by a beacon-light
The fisher gains the harbour's mouth.

And long with wistful eyes the Saint
Watched by the ocean's margin gray
The bird become more faint and faint
Until it vanished far away.

Catholic World, Volume 79 (1904), 620-622.

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