Friday 17 June 2016

Colum Cille: 'A Prince by Descent, A Priest by Choice and a Saint by Grace'

We conclude the Octave of the Feast of Saint Colum Cille with this tribute from Henry P. Swan's collection of Donegal folklore:
Saint Colmcille or Columba, has been called the greatest of the Sons of Ireland. Donegal, his native county, honours him and is honoured by him.
A prince by descent, a priest by choice and a saint by grace, he continued the work commenced by Saint Patrick - for only some sixty years divided his birth from Saint Patrick's death.
Describing his personal characteristics, Neil M. Gunn  wrote of him: "Altogether he was a remarkable man. Tall, well-featured with long hair falling to each shoulder from the temples, he had a commanding presence, and was, in fact, full of restless energy, passionate and impetuous. He had that quality of voice which does not appear to be raised when speaking to those at hand, yet can be heard clearly at a distance. A statesman, an organiser, he was almost continuously on the move over land and sea, daring any peril, unsparing of himself, teaching, converting,  founding, succeeding."

H. P. Swan, Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, (Belfast, 1965), 75-76.

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Thursday 16 June 2016

Saint Colum Cille's Blessing of Assaroe

Yesterday we saw how the curse of Colum Cille impacted upon the fishermen of Mulroy Bay, today, by contrast, we see the effect of his blessing on the fish stocks at County Donegal's Assaroe Falls. Assaroe, Eas-Aedha-Ruaidh, the Waterfall of Red Hugh, owed its name to a local king who came to a watery end while attempting to cross by one of the fords. Victorian traveller William Allingham (1824-1889), gave a vivid description of the fishermen and their boats at work on the Falls and of the rich bounty to be gained:
The total take may probably be averaged at 500 salmon a day, during the latter half of the season (which closes in August); but as many as 2,000 have been taken in a day, and above 400 in a single haul.

In the Life of Colum Cille by sixteenth-century Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell, these aquatic riches owed their origin to the blessing of our saint:

134. Then Columcille fared onward to Assaroe. And him seemed it great damage to all in general and to his own dear kinsman in especial to the which he bare great love, to wit, the clan of Conall Gulban, that there should not be abundance [of fish] in the waterfall [of Assaroe] and the whole Erne. And he saw there could be none such abundance except the fish be free to go and come across the waterfall from the river to the great sea. And it was by reason of all this that Columcille blessed the waterfall. And he bound the stones and the rocks of the northern side to abase them that the fish might pass, as we have said afore. And these dumb things did obeissance to Columcille and did abase them, as is manifest to those that visit the waterfall [of Assaroe] today, for the south side is high and rugged, and the north side thereof is low. And by reason of that blessing of Columcille's it is the best river for fish in Erin today. And every feast day of Columcille from then till now, his successor hath the fishing of Assaroe in remembrance of that great miracle.

Sadly, the river found itself the subject of a mid-twentieth century hydro-electric scheme but a campaign has been launched to restore the historic salmon leap, so far without success. Read more on that here. Perhaps it too needs Saint Colum Cille's blessing?
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Wednesday 15 June 2016

Saint Colum Cille and the Mulroy Fishermen

One thing that I have learnt since I started researching the holy men of Ireland is that it really does not do to cross the saints or fail to be anything other than completely open with them. In the story below, taken from Henry P. Swan's Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, we see what happens to the fishermen of Mulroy bay when they begrudge Saint Colum Cille a share of their catch:

A Legend of Mulroy Bay

While fish abound in the waters of Lough Swilly on the right hand and Sheephaven on the left, they are exceedingly scarce in Mulroy Bay. This is the story explaining it.

It happened on his travels through Donegal that Saint Columcille came to Mulroy. Now the fishermen saw him coming and as they had only caught two salmon they grudged a gift to the saint. So one of them said "Hide the fish. We have none to spare if he does be asking us."

When Columcille came to them, he blessed them and their work and asked, "Did you catch any?" The replied that they hadn't but the saint knew that it was a lie, so he said to them, "if you didn't catch anything may you catch now; and if you did catch, may you never catch again."

From that day to this, scarcely a trout or salmon has been caught in the waters of Mulroy Bay.

H. P. Swan, Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal, (Belfast, 1965), 157-158.

Today, however, Mulroy Bay is a centre for aquaculture, particularly salmon farming!

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Tuesday 14 June 2016

Colm Cille agus Na Mic Ó gCorra

Another story of Saint Colum Cille with a Tory connection - the curious tale of the Mic Ó gCorra. Here we see the saint turning those who opposed him to stone. There are some photographs of the rocks, which seem to be known a whole lot less colourfully in English as the Stag Rocks, here.  Linking natural physical features in the landscape with tales of the saints is found all over Ireland. This particular story was collected as part of a project on the devil in Donegal tradition and published in Béaloideas, the Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, at the end of the 1980s. A summary in English was included by the authors. It looks like the Mic Ó gCorra live on for another generation in the children's book by Donegal author Proinsias Mac a'Bhaird (see cover on the left):

20. Na Mic Ó gCorra

Bhí triúr deartháireacha orthu seo a dhíbir Colm Cille san am sin a dtugadh siad na Mic Ó gCorra orthu agus rinn sé trí chreag daofasan agus tá siad le feiceáil ansin ina seasmah go dtí an lá inniu. Deirtear go rabh oiread feirge orthusan le Colm Cille agus go dtógann siad a gcuid seoltaí uair achan bhliain le pilleadh ar Thoraigh le muintir Cholm Cille a bhruith agus a dhódh ach comh luath agus a títhear iad, caithfidh siad a gcuid seoltaí a ísliú arís agus tá siad ansin ó am  Cholm Cille. Tá muid uilig ag dréim nach bhfaghann siad bogadh choíche nó dá mbaineadh siad Toraigh amach bhéarfadh siad drochbhail air agus ar a bhfuil fágtha ann.

20. The Mic Ó gCorra
Colmcille turns three brothers called the Mic Ó gCorra into three rocks. They are said to hoist sails once a year to return to Tory and kill all its inhabitants, but as soon as they are seen they must lower them again and turn to stone once more.

S. Ó hEochaidh agus L. Ó Laoire,  'An Diabhal i Seanchas Thír Chonaill',  Béaloideas Iml. 57 (1989), 37, 86.

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Monday 13 June 2016

Colum Cille Banishes Rats from Tory

Yesterday we were told in the account of Saint Colum Cille's winning of Tory Island that he decreed that no dog should be brought there. Dogs are not the only animals he banished and below is an an account of the reputation the island developed as being free from rats. It doesn't seem to have had a monopoly though, as the island of Inishmurray claimed the same status:

Rats banished from Tory

When Columcille arrived on Tory, he met with some opposition in his efforts to convert the people. The first man to stand by him was a dark man, and to him he gave the name of Dugan.

Then the saint banished all the rats from Tory and conferred the same miraculous power on Dugan. To this day, in spite of the many ships that have been wrecked on the island through the centuries, there are no rats on Tory.

It is said that a sceptical atheist from Derry once brought a box of rats to the island, but they all dropped dead a few minutes after landing. Inishmurray was also freed of rats by the saint, according to an old story.

People often journeyed many miles from different parts of the mainland to these two islands to obtain some clay. This they used to get rid of rats when they were bothered with them in their own home.

H. P Swan, Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal (Belfast, 1965), 155.

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Sunday 12 June 2016

Saint Colum Cille Wins Tory Island

Yesterday we looked at an account derived from oral tradition preserved in the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission on how Saint Colum Cille came to bring Christianity to Tory Island. Below is another account derived from the Life of the saint written in the sixteenth century by Donegal chieftain Manus O'Donnell. The essentials of the story remain the same in that Saint Colum Cille wins the territory by imitating the miracle of saint Brigid's cloak, but here he has some opposition from other holy men:

E.Getty, U.J.A. Vol. 1 (1853)

It is generally understood that Saint Columba, influenced, most probably, by a desire of securing a safe and calm retreat in his own part of Ireland, first introduced Christianity into this remote island of the ocean.  Colgan, in the Trias Thaumaturga, introduces what he denominates " the fifth life of the holy Columba, briefly extracted from the one that Magnus O'Donnell, chief of Tirconnell, wrote out from the original volume in Irish : — translated into Latin and divided into three books."  From this work it may be interesting to extract the account of the dedication of this island. "This servant of Christ," says the legend,  departed thence, [Gartan,] into the part of the country commonly designated Tuatha, (the 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 magnificient church; he proceeded towards it accompanied by several other holy men. On reaching, however, Belach-an-adhraidh, "the way of adoration, — a high precipitous hill that lay in his course, whence Tory is ob- scurely visible in the distance,— there arose dissension amongst these 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 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 consecration, and acquire authority over Tory. Each throw his staff, but that of Columbkille, at the moment of issuing from his hand, assumed the form of a dart or missile, and was born to the island by supernatural agency. The saint immediately called before him Alidus, the son of Baedain, toparch of the island, who refused to permit its consecration, or the erection of any building. He then requested him, at least, to grant as much land as his outspread cloak would cover. Alidus readily assented, conceiving the loss very trivial; hut he had soon reason to change his opinion, for the saint's cloak, when spread upon the ground, dilated and stretched so mueh; by its divine energy, as to include, within its border, the entire island. Alidus was roused to frenzy by this circumstance, and incited or hunted upon the holy man a savage, ferocious dog, unchained for the purpose, which the latter immediately destroyed by making the sign of the cross. The religious feelings of Alidus were awakened by this second miracle, — he threw himself at the saint's feet  asked pardon, and resigned to him the entire island. No further opposition being made, the blessed father consecrated Tory, and built a magnificent church, which he placed under the control of Ernanus, one of his disciples, surnamed, from this circumstance, Torracensis. Amongst other things, the saint commanded that no dog should ever again be introduced into the island.

E. Getty, The Island of Tory; Its History and Antiquities, Part III. Ecclesiastical Period, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Volume I (1853), 149-150. 

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Saturday 11 June 2016

How Colum Cille Converted Tory Island

Ulster Journal of Archaeology (1853)

Saint Colum Cille is still vividly remembered in Gaelic speaking parts of both Ireland and Scotland, a connection which has been explored in recent years by organisations such as Slí Cholmcille.  He features prominently in the folk tradition of his home county, Donegal, and below is a story of how he converted the people of Tory Island/Oileán Thoraí off the Donegal coast. It comes from the archives of the National Folklore Collection of Ireland and was a collected in the 1930s from a 76 year old man living in County Mayo. It is interesting to see here echoes of the well-known story about Saint Brigid's cloak which similarly expanded miraculously to encompass enough land for the saint's needs when she was looking for a site on which to build her monastery at Kildare:
Columcille often tried to convert Tory island but the chief of the island would not let him. Then Columcille thought of a good plan and asked the chief to let him convert as much as his handkerchief could cover. The chief thought that wasn't much ground so he granted the request. Columcille put his handkerchief under his feet and it began to spread until it covered the whole island. The chief had to keep his word so in that way Columcille converted Tory island.
We will explore some more of the Colum Cille traditions of Tory Island as we continue with the series of posts to celebrate the octave of the feast.

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Friday 10 June 2016

The Common Father and Patron of the Poor and Needy

We begin a series of posts to honour the octave of the feast of Saint Colum Cille with this vignette illustrating his charity, from a nineteenth-century biography by the minister of Campbeltown:

In one of the accounts of his life, published by Colgan, we are told, that after he had erected the monastery of Durrough, he ordered a hundred poor persons to be served with victuals every day at a certain hour, and appointed an almoner for that purpose. One day a mendicant came to apply for a share of this charity, but was told by the almoner that he could have nothing, as the appointed number had been already served. He came the second day, and was told in like manner that he was come too late, and that for the future he must come earlier, if he expected his share of the charity. The third day, however, he came as late as before, and when the almoner gave him the same reply as formerly, he bade him go and tell from him to the abbot that he ought not to limit his charity by any precise rules which God had not prescribed, but always to give while he had, in whatever number, time, or manner, the poor should apply to him. Columba, upon receiving this message, ran hastily after the mendicant, who had then assumed a heavenly form; which gave him to understand to whom he was indebted for the counsel. From that day forward he laid aside his rules, and gave to all objects, at all times, provided he had any thing to bestow. If at any time he had not, his tears would flow, till God enabled him to relieve their wants. Hence, adds the writer, he was esteemed, what he really was, the common father and patron of the poor and needy.

Rev. J. Smith,  The Life of Saint Columba, The Apostle of the Highlands (Glasgow 1824), 129-130.

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Thursday 9 June 2016

The Dove Ascends Beyond the Sky: A Hymn for the Feast of Saint Colum Cille

I was interested to see in an appendix to a biography of Saint Colum Cille by an eighteenth-century Scottish minister, the Rev. John Smith, Minister of Campbeltown, a translation of a hymn from the office for the feast. The 1620 date cited was a clue that this was most likely from the Office published by the seventeenth-century hagiologist Thomas Messingham and so indeed it proved to be. Although I was somewhat surprised to see a Scottish Presbyterian make use of the work of an Irish Catholic hagiologist who would have held a very different view of the saints, I can see that references to Saint Colum Cille entrusting his flock to the guidance of Christ by his gracious word would have been very congenial to our Campbeltown cleric. I would not though share his conviction that this is a hymn written soon after the death of the saint by his immediate successor(s). Its origins more likely lie in the texts composed for the 12th-century Translation of the Relics of the Three Patrons, also initially commemorated on June 9, on which you can read more here.

T. Messingham, Florilegium (1620)

From its connection with the subject, it may not be improper to add the following translation of a hymn used in the Office for the Festival of St. Columba, and published in Paris, in the year 1620, from an ancient MS. It was probably composed by Baithen, or some other of Columba's disciples, soon after his death. 


 WITH snowy pinions soaring high, 
 The Dove* ascends beyond the sky; 
 He scorns the earth, he leaves its clay,
 And perches in the realms of day. 

There his refulgent colours shine, 
 Reflecting back the light divine. 
 But here his tender brood he left, 
 Of their dear parent now bereft. 

 Yet, ere he mounted to the skies, 
 With many prayers, tears and cries, 
 Their charge he gave to Christ his Lord, 
 To guide them by his gracious word, 
 And bring them to the same abode 
 In which their father lives with God. 

 O God ! who didst our father hear, 
 Be to his children ever near; 
 And grace vouchsafe to lead us on, 
 Until we meet him at thy throne.
* Alluding to his name, which means "a Dove."

Rev. J. Smith,  The Life of Saint Columba, The Apostle of the Highlands (Glasgow 1824), 178-179.

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