Last year to mark the feast of our national patron Saint Patrick, I reprinted a stirring oration by the celebrated Galway Dominican preacher, Father Thomas Burke (1830-83), given in New York as part of a tour of the United States. Father Burke was speaking in the heady days of the national revival, when a growing demand for Irish Home Rule was approaching its zenith. On this occasion he is again in New York, but this time speaking on our tertiary patron, Saint Colum Cille (Columbkille, Colmcille, Columba). Father Burke presents Saint Colum Cille as a national as well as a religious hero, just as he did with Saint Patrick. We can also see in his lecture the influence of Victorian racial theories, where the naturally spiritual Celt is contrasted with the naturally hard-headed Anglo-Saxon. Indeed, according to Father Burke, the pagan Saxons didn't even have the decency to worship the Sun as the pagan Irish had, but instead embraced 'the meanest and lowest forms of idolatry'. He takes up the familiar theme of Saint Colum Cille and the pain of exile, which I am sure would have struck a chord with his Irish-American audience, who doubtless also enjoyed the overall presentation of the saint as a man with an 'Irish' temper who storms into the court of the Picts and tells their rulers he would make them take the Gospel, if he had to drive it down their throats!
(Lecture delivered in St. Columba’s Church, New York City.)
"MY FRIENDS: There are two things necessary in order to make a saint: nature and grace must both work out the character of the man. Those whom the Almighty God destines for the high sanctity which the Catholic Church recognizes by canonization, either receive from God in the beginning a calm, sweet, gentle nature, or else, if they receive from God a hard, rigorous, obstinate nature, they receive on the other hand copious divine graces, whereby they overcome this nature thoroughly, and make themselves after God’s own nature. But whatever man’s natural disposition be, whether it be the amiable, sweet, gentle disposition, easily, unselfishly yielding to others, or whether full of character, full of self-assertion, full of rigor, full of obstinacy; whatever it be, if that man is destined to be a holy man, a man after God’s own heart and nature, there is another thing that must come to him from Heaven, to aid the natural disposition which he has received, and that is the mighty copious graces bestowed by the Almighty God on the saints of the Catholic Church. The saints, of whom we read, were men like ourselves. In reading their lives nothing is more interesting than to trace the man, side by side with the saint. They had the same passions; the same difficulties to overcome; the same enemies; the world lay around them, the devil was beneath them, and the flesh was their very selves. But, arming for this contest, whereby they were to triumph, not only over the world around them, and over the powers of hell beneath them, but over their own selves, they received from God the highest, the noblest, and the most powerful graces, and by corresponding with those graces, they elaborated and brought forth their own sanctity. Now, what follows from all this? My dear friends, it follows that there is a natural and a supernatural side, even in the lives of the saints; it follows that we find the man overcoming himself, sometimes yielding so far as to bring out his natural character, but in the end overcoming himself by divine grace ; it follows that the lives of the saints are not only most instructive to us as Catholics, but that they are also most instructive to the historian, or to the antiquarian, as subjects of national character. Now, my friends, the world is divided into various nations and races of people; and all these various races differ from one another in the most extraordinary manner. All that you have to do is to travel to see this. I have traveled a great deal — all over the continent of Europe I may say, with the exception of Russia and Turkey, and nothing in all these countries struck me more than the difference of the various races. For instance, I traveled in France, and there I found a lively, impulsive, generous, and passionate people; most polite, most willing to go out of their road to serve you in any manner. Entering into a stage-coach, or railway-car, coming in hat in hand, with a “May I be permitted to speak to you, sir?” style, making themselves agreeable to you at all times. Passing through France into Germany, there I found a people silent and reserved, with perhaps more of the grandeur of manliness than in France, but no approach to anything like conversation, no apparent external politeness, though a great deal, no doubt, of true politeness. In a word, as different from the neighbouring country as night from day. So, in like manner, go to Ireland and travel through it. Let a man who is not an Irishman go there, and he finds a quick, bright, intelligent, generous, and impulsive people. If he makes a joke, no sooner is it out of his lips than the Irishman laughs, and with his ready laugh shows that he appreciates the joke; if he does not make a joke, the simplest Irish peasant he meets on the road will make one for him. If he wants a drink of water, and asks for it, the probability is, that the farmer’s wife will say to him, “Don’t be taking water; it is bad for you. Take a drink of milk.” Impulsive; speaking without thinking; saying the word first, and afterwards thinking whether it was right or wrong to say it; perhaps giving you a blow in the face, and afterwards thinking perhaps you did not deserve it. More or less slip-shod and imprudent, allowing things to take their course. Pass over to England, and you find a country as different as if you passed from this world into another sphere. Everything kept in its own place; you may pass through the land and there is neither welcome nor insult for you. If you ask for a drink of water, there is very little fear that you will be offered a drink of buttermilk.
So, throughout all the world and the nations of the earth, each one has its own character. Don’t imagine that I am abusing the Englishman by contrasting him unfavourably with the Irishman. My friends, I am one of your race; but I tell you that the Englishman has qualities that are admirable. As a rule, he is a brave man, a self-reliant man, a truthful man ; his word is his bond. Argue with him on any point— only leaving Ireland and the Catholic religion out of the question — and you will find him a fair man ; but the moment you talk to him about Catholicity, or about Ireland, he becomes irrational and unjust. Now, why am I making these remarks ? For this purpose. The saints of the various nations partake of the national character. They are, perhaps, the very best specimens of the national character of each nation of people. Whatever the nation is, that you are sure to find in the natural side of the saint’s character with this difference: there you find the grace of the Almighty God in the highest, noblest, and strongest form, acting upon the natural character of the man, or, if you will, upon the national character of the people, as embodied in that man. I am come here this evening to speak to you of one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church! A man whose name is recorded in the annals of the Church amongst her brightest and most glorious saints ! A man whose name is known throughout the whole world wherever a Catholic priest says his office, and wherever a Catholic people hear the 'voice of their pastor. There are many saints in the Catholic Church of whom we hear but little. Many saints, heroic Christian men, exalted in their sanctity. Yet how much do you know about them? You are Catholics, and you have scarcely ever heard the name of some of the great and illustrious saints: of St. Louis Bertrand, a Dominican saint of my order, one of the greatest evangelists God ever sent forth; of St Hyacinthe. But there are names of saints who were so great that the whole world was familiar with them. St Augustine — we have all heard of him; St. Patrick — who has the most ardent devotion of the Irish race. His name is known to the whole world, and will be known to the end of time. Amongst these mighty saints; amongst the saints who have written their names upon the history of the world; amongst those saints adopted by nations as their patrons, whose names are familiar to every hearth in the land where civilization and religion have extended themselves, is the name of the Irish saint, Columbkille, known outside of Ireland by the name Columba, but known amongst his own people as “Columbkille. It is of him I have come to speak. Therefore, I speak of the national character, and the natural side of the saint, as embodied in him.
You all know, my dear friends, that it is now fifteen hundred years since St. Patrick preached in Ireland. At that time the religion of Jesus Christ was only known in Italy, in Spain, in portions of France, and throughout the East in the primeval nations. The rest of Europe was in darkness. As yet the voice of the apostolic preacher had not been heard. The forests of Germany still witnessed the rites and ceremonies of the ancient paganism in that great land. The northern portions of Europe, Sweden, Norway, and Russia, amid their snows, still heard the voice of the ancient Scalds, celebrating in their sagas pagan divinities of the olden time. England was in the deepest darkness of her Saxon idolatry. A few of the ancient Britons, in the mountains of Wales, had received the Catholic faith, and their bishops and priests were ungenerous enough, and weak enough, to refuse to preach the Gospel to the Saxons, because they had invaded their land. It was in this almost universal mist and darkness, that, in the year 442, a man landed on the shores of Ireland, and lifted up his voice and proclaimed the name of Jesus Christ, and His Virgin Mother; and the Irish race today professes the same Catholic faith in all the clearness, in all the exact definiteness of its knowledge; and professes it still more in the sanctity of the national priesthood, and the system of monasticism as it was given to them from the lips of St. Patrick. My dear friends, no matter what men may say, I am here as a Catholic, as an Irish priest, and I defy any man in the world to produce such a miraculous example of conversion, and of instant maturity into fullness of love and holiness of life as that of the Irish race.
Now, St. Patrick had passed to his grave. More than half a century had passed by, when, in the year 521, one of the princes of Ulster had a son born to him. He was of the Royal House of O’Neill and O’Donnell, and descended from “King Nial of the Nine Hostages,” the man who is supposed to have brought St. Patrick as a captive into Ireland for the first time. This house of O’Donnell and O’Neill is so ancient that its origin is lost in the mists of fable, in the prehistoric times that goes before any written record except the Holy Scriptures. They were kings in the northern parts of Ireland from the sixth century downwards. St. Patrick landed in Ireland and found O'Donnell and O’Neill on the throne of Ireland. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, only three hundred years ago, there lived an Irish prince by the name of O’Neill, and when Elizabeth wanted to make him an English Earl, he answered her: “Earl me no Earls; my foot is on my native heath, and my name The O’Neill; ”and scornfully flung back her coronets and dignities. No king in Europe had so grand, so royal a title as that crown of the O’Neills of Ulster. From these came St. Columbkille. The name he received was not in baptism, but at his conversion. The word "Columba” is the Latin word for Dove. So gentle, so tender was he, so patient, that they called him the “gentle dove” in the Irish language. They went further, and because he was a monk, who loved to read in his cell who loved to live among his brothers in their cells, they called him Columbkille, which means the dove in the church or cell . Tradition and history tells us that no sooner was the child born, than his prince father called in the priest to baptize him. No delay, not even for an hour. As soon as the infant opened his eyes and saw the light of heaven, the divine adoption and the light of supernatural faith was let in upon his soul, by the holy waters of baptism. No sooner was the child taken from his mother’s breast, than he was handed over to the care of the priest who baptized him, his father and mother saying to him : “We begot this child as a child of nature, as a child of Adam; as far as he is ours he came into this world with the curse of God upon him; but, thou, O priest of God, thou dost lift off that curse and dissipate it by baptism. He is more your child than ours; take him and rear him up for that God, whose blessing, whose adoption thou hast brought down upon him in baptism.” So he remained with the priest that baptized him. As the child grew, two things grew side by side, one with the other. The first one belonged to the Irish character, and is as Irish as it could be. The second, the divine grace of God, the most wonderful. We can scarcely reconcile the two, as we look upon that beautiful young figure that rises up before us on the pages of history, as we contemplate his life. He grew from a child to a boy, from a boy to a young man. He was the most beautiful youth in all Ireland. Tall above all other men; perfectly formed, with the lofty forehead of the king’s son; the light-blue eye, full of genius, but full of temper; the strong, athletic form, delighting in coursing in the fields in the many exercises of the strong young man; a beautiful temperament, full of imagination; he was a lover of poetry and of music; and his young hands loved to tune the chords of the ancient Irish harp, and then to draw from them with thrilling grasp the very spirit and soul of Celtic music. Full of talent and intellect, with Irish brains in his head, there was no branch of knowledge or of science that was unknown to him; with him, to look at a thing was to know it; he did not require to study it. But he was also full of pride, full of passion. No man dared to contradict him; his temper was roused in a moment, and when that temper was roused, the young Irishman did not stop to think of what he said, or what he did. With the word came the blow, and then the apology, when it was too late. The very soul of the saint, when he looked at anything, decided whether it was right or wrong. Full of Celtic obstinacy; full of pride, side by side with a heart as soft and tender as that of a young woman. If he saw a poor man, or cripple, on the wayside, in feverish misery, his heart seemed to break in pity, and if no one was near to help, he would take them up on his shoulders and carry them to his house, and there feed and clothe them. And if, when carrying the poor man, or beggar, any one on the way passed by, and, when called upon to help him, refused, the temper came up at once. There was the full Celtic blood.
Noble, gentle, quick, irascible, full of character and determination, even to obstinacy. This was the natural character, yet, strange to say, side by side with this, and while thus hindered with a thousand imperfections, there was the most wonderful supernatural reign of divine graces. A thorough Celt, a thorough Irishman, his angel guardian appeared to him when he was between twelve and fourteen years of age, and said to him: “Columba, I come from heaven !” The moment Columba saw him, In the form of a radiant youth, he said at once: “Are all the angels in heaven as fair as you?” The angel answered: “They are all as fair, and many more fair. I come charged by the Christ, whom you love so dearly, to ask you what gifts you desire from God." Instantly the Irish youth, the young Irish boy, said : “ I ask from God chastity and wisdom.” The moment he said the word, three angels, in the form of three beautiful maidens, appeared before him. One, the fairest of all, then threw her arms around his neck. The Irish boy drew back afraid: “Thou hast refused my embrace, Columba; thou knowest not me; I am the Angel of Divine Virtue, I come with my sisters to remain with you forever.” These were the three sisters. Divine Virtue, Divine Wisdom, and Divine Spirit of Prophecy, who came to the child as a boy; a boy, full of faults, full of the imperfections of the Celtic character; the same imperfections that you and I have; not sitting down and being prudent and quiet, but always loving a contest; always loving to do a generous thing, and to do it on the spur of the moment; always ready to turn around to take up a slight or an insult before it is offered. Yet, side by side, we have the evidence in the life of the saint of the other portion of the Celtic character. The other great virtue, which with all its faults, the Irish character invites, is the VIRTUE of PURITY.
Thus it was most natural that Columba became a monk, and was an obedient priest. He gave his light forever to that grand Irish monasticism, which was the flower and bloom of the glory of Ireland, in that wonderful sixth century. The Irish monks at that time were the most learned, as well as the most holy men in the Catholic Church. Everywhere their virtue was known; in every nation professing the Catholic faith. Students came in profusion to Ireland, yea I even the very pagan nations sent their children to Ireland, to the grand university of the world, there to learn every highest science and art, and, above all, the art and glorious science of loving Jesus Christ and His Church. They came, they entered the mighty schools of Armagh, of the Island of Arran, on the western coast, and of Lismore, on the banks of the Blackwater. In a word, they came and entered the mighty schools that covered the whole face of Ireland, and the old historians tell us that it was considered rather a poor effort at a school where there were not at least three thousand students. The old Irish saints and monks, in their history, tell us of them, that they cultivated every highest art, and, above all, the art of music. In the ancient Life of St. Bridget, we read that on one occasion she went into the king’s palace, perhaps at Tara, and there she saw a harp hanging up on the wall. Turning to the white-haired and gray-bearded minstrel she said to him, “ Harp me a song on thy harp,” and the old man took down his harp lovingly, and seating himself, while the young Christian virgin sat before him, in melody he poured forth the glories of God and the glories of Ireland. So, when Columba entered the monastery, he found there every highest art and science cultivated; but he found there two great passions that were always burning in the heart of the ancient Irish monk, and these were an overpowering love for Ireland, and a love for Ireland’s poetry and music. The young prince, ardent, full of courage; who seemed to be marked out far more for a soldier, a sailor, or a captain of armies than for a monk, no sooner puts on the monastic cowl, than he devotes his soul to three things, viz. : the love of God’s divine religion, the love for Ireland, and the cultivation of music and poetry.
No hand was more skillful to sweep the chords of the lyre, and the old chronicles tell us that when those ancient monks assembled, they loved to play their harps ; even when they came to church to sing the divine songs, the Psalms of David, in the office they recited every day. And so, from their hands went forth the accompanying thrill of Erin’s music, while with sweetest voices they melodiously sang the praises of Almighty God; and so rich and grand was the voice of the young novice, that we read, when he was an old man, over sixty years of age, while preaching the Gospel on the Picts and Scots, he stopped and began to sing the praises of God, to the sound of his Irish harp. The pagan priests, who were around — who did not wish to let him preach — who, above all things, did not want him to sing, because his voice had a kind of supernatural power, that drew the hearts of the pagan people to God — raised their voices and shouted in order to drown the voice of St. Columba. The Irish saint looked around upon them, with the old Celtic fire of youth in his aged eyes; he pitched the highest note, and brought out from his harp the stronger chords, chanting out the Psalms of David, and the praises of God; so that, although the priests roared and bawled until they were hoarse, the voice of the saint sounded above them all. He went over all this country, and into the houses of the people, singing the glory of the highest heaven.
Everything went calmly and quietly with Columba until, when he was forty years of age, an incident happened that gave tone to his whole life, although it broke his heart. When the saint was forty years of age, he heard that St. Finnian possessed a valuable copy of a part of the Scriptures — the Book of Psalms. St. Columba wanted a copy of this book for himself ; and went to St. Finnian and begged the privilege of the book to take a copy of it. He was refused; the book was too precious to be trusted to him. Then he asked at least to be allowed to go into the church where the book was deposited ; and there he spent night after night, privately writing out a clean copy of it. By the time St. Columba had finished his copy, somebody who had watched him at the work, went and told St. Finnian that the young man had made a copy of his Psalter. The moment St. Finnian heard of it he laid claim to this copy as belonging to him. St. Columba refused to give it up, and appealed to King Dermott, the Ard-righ at Tara. The King called his counsellors together; they considered the matter, and passed a decree that St. Columba should give up the copy, because, as the original belonged to St. Finnian, the copy was only borrowed from it; and the Irish decree began with the words: “To every cow her calf ; to every book its copy.” Now mark the action of Columba — a saint, a man devoted to prayer and fasting all the days of his life ; a man gifted with miraculous powers; and yet, under all that, as thoroughbred an Irishman as ever lived. The moment he heard that the king had resolved on giving back the precious book, he reproached him, saying : “I am a cousin of yours, and there you went against me!” He put the clanship — the “Sheanachus” — upon him. The king said he could not help it. What did St. Columba do ? He took his book under his arm, and went away to Ulster, to raise the clans of O’Neill and Tyrconnell of Tyrone.
He was himself the son of their king; they were powerful clans in the country, and the moment they heard their kinsman's voice, they rose as one man; who ever yet asked a lot of Irishmen to get up a row and was disappointed? They arose; they followed their glorious, heroic monk down into Westmeath. There they met the king and his army, and, I regret to say, a battle was the consequence, in which hundreds of men were slain, and the fair plains of the country were flooded with blood. It was only then that St. Columba perceived the terrible mistake he had made. Like an Irishman, he first had the fight out, and then he began to reflect on it afterwards.
Now, at this time, St. Columba’s name was known all over Ireland, for the wonderful spirit of prophecy that was upon him. He was known all over Ireland as a very angel of God for his purity. He was already the founder of several famous monastic institutions. In Ireland there were twelve large monasteries counting their monks by hundreds and thousands, who looked up to Columba as their chief. His prophecies were wonderfully fulfilled, almost as soon as uttered. His sanctity was an acknowledged fact; and yet, in the face of all this, the natural Celtic character, the rash, quick temper of the proud Irishman broke out in him so far that he caused the death of hundreds of his countrymen. And the next day after the battle he was on his knees by the side of his priest, acknowledging his culpability. The bishops assembled, took thought over the matter, and the issue of it was, that poor, dear St. Columba, with all his sanctity, was excommunicated. As for the book there was no question; he never got it back. Strange to say, my friends, that very book, written by St. Columba’s own hand, remains and is shown to this day in Ireland. He went to confess, with great sorrow, to an aged monk named Molaise. The saint was broken-hearted for what he had done; for the blood that had been shed; and, if you will, for the scandal of his bad temper. So he had to endure and to accept any penance that would be put upon him. The confessor asked him this question: “ What is the strongest love you have in your heart ? ”And the poor penitent answered : “ The love that I have for Ireland ; that is the strongest affection in my heart." Then the most cruel penance was put upon him — that he was to depart from Ireland, never to see her, or to put his foot upon her soil again. Sentence passed, the man fell to the earth as if the hand of God had smitten him — as the Lord Jesus Christ fell under his cross, which was more than he could bear. Rising up with despairing eyes, he looked in the face of the terrible confessor to whom he had confessed his sins ; then making one effort, he accepted the great sacrifice, and said : “Father, what you have said shall be fulfilled.” Then he wrote a letter to his friend, Tyrconnell, in Ulster ; he said : “My fate is sealed. My doom is sealed. A man tells me that I must exile myself from Ireland ; and that man I recognize as an angel of God, and I must go.” With breaking heart and weeping eyes, he bade a last farewell to the green "Island of Saints,” and went to an Island among the Hebrides, on the northern coast of Scotland. There, in the mist and storms of that inhospitable region ; there, upon a bare rock out from the mainland, he built a monastery; and there did he found the far-famed school of Iona.
Then began the second grand portion of the life of this man whom God had determined and predestined to make so great a saint. He came to Iona a man, a prince, a Saint of Ireland, full of passion, full of the nationality of his race, full of the love of God, unstained, unsullied in his virgin mind and soul as an angel before the throne of God. And there he was destined to remain for thirty-six long years, in constant fasting, in unceasing prayer, until the divine grace, descending upon him, made a perfect saint of him who was before so noble a specimen of the Celtic race. Now, do you know how hard it is for one in exile? Here is an account given by one of the greatest writers of modern times. He tells us of his love that he retained for Ireland, the affectionate tenderness of the exile ; a love which displayed itself in the songs which have been preserved to us. It is beautiful. He goes on to say, that amongst other things, St. Columbkille left behind him such words as these:
“Death in faultless Ireland, is better than life without end in Albyn.
“What joy to fly upon the white-crested sea, and to watch the waves break upon the Irish shore!
“What joy to row the little bark and land among the whitening foam upon the Irish shore! “ Ah ! how my boat would fly if its prow were turned to my Irish oak-grove !
"But the noble sea now carries me only to Albyn, the land of ravens.
"My foot is in my little boat, but my sad heart ever bleeds.
"There is a gray eye which ever turns to Erin ; but never in this sad life shall it see Erin, nor her sons, nor her daughters.
"From the high prow I look over the sea; great tears are in my gray eyes when I turn to Erin — to Erin, where the song of the birds is so sweet; where the clerks sing like the birds; where the young are so gentle, and the old so wise; where the great men are so noble to look at, and the women so fair.”
In another place he says to one who was returning from his Scottish island to Ireland :
"Young traveller, carry my sorrows with thee ; carry them to Comghall of eternal life.
"Noble youth, take my prayer with thee, and my blessing ; one part for Ireland — seven times may she be blessed ! — and the other for Albyn.
"Carry my blessing across the sea ; carry it to the west. My heart is broken in my bosom.
" If death comes to me suddenly, it will be because of the great love I bear to the Gael
What can be more tender than the message that he gives to one of his monks. One morning he called from his little cell in Iona to one of his Irish monks there in exile. He said to him, "Brother, go out and stand upon the hill near the east shore; after you are there awhile a bird will come and fall at your feet with her broken wing. Take up that bird, dear brother," he said, and feed and care for her gently, restore her to strength again, for that bird will fly over to Ireland. Ah! my broken heart, that bird will fly back to Ireland again, but I can never go back.”
This was the heart of the man, the grand passion of his life, which became the source of his martyrdom. Exile from Erin was to him the bitter penance that the priest of God put upon him after the great indiscretion and sin of his life. Yet it was an Irish sin. He did not want to glory in anything wrong; and this I do say, if it was a great Irish sin, there was nothing mean, nothing nasty in that sin; it was the sin of a brave, passionate man. He felt he was injured, and he called upon his people, and bloodshed followed upon it. It was the act of an impulsive man; nothing vile to be ashamed of; nothing of which the recollection could bring anything but a manly sorrow to his heart. It was the Irish sin.
Now began a great period of his life. He was forty-two years of age when he left Ireland and landed on the little Island off the western coast of Scotland. Here his Irish monks built a wooden church, and here that man lived in one of the humblest forms of cells. St. Columba for forty years slept upon the bare ground an hour or two out of the twenty-four. Thus he lay, with a hard rock whereon to lay his head. This island on which the Irish monks landed was destined to be the most holy, the most gloriously historic spot in Western Europe. He brought monks from Ireland with him, and there upon the distant shores of Scotland, did he find a people divided into two great nations, viz. : the Irish who had emigrated hundreds of years before, in the very time of St. Patrick, who were Christians, having brought their Catholic religion with them, and who possessed the southern and western portions of Scotland. But the northern and eastern portions of the land were in the hands of another nation, the most terrible, the most brave, and, with all, the most savage that ever the Roman legions encountered. They were called the ancient Picts. So brave were they that when Julius Caesar "had conquered the whole of England, he never was able to conquer the Picts and warlike savages that inhabited Scotland. As they were brave to resist invasion, so were they also brave with an infernal bravery in resisting the Gospel. Holy saints came to them only to be torn to pieces and slaughtered. The hour of their redemption came from the hour when St. Columbkille landed on the island of Iona. He brought a large colony of Irish monks, and his first mission was to his own Irish people settled in Scotland. They were governed by a ruler subject to the King of Ireland. Columbkille went in amongst them, not to preach the Gospel, for that they had already received, but to preach that which in the heart and on the lips of the Irish priest is next to the Gospel. He went in amongst his exiled Irish brethren to preach the Gospel of Irish nationality, and of love for their native land. He spoke to them in the language of the bard and of the poet, of the ancient glories of Ireland. He told them that although they were established in a foreign land, their best and holiest remembrance, their grandest and noblest influence, was the recollection of the land from which they and their fathers came. He chose one of their princes to be king. He banded them together into a kingdom, and he crowned that Irish prince the first King of Scotland. And that Irish colony of Caledonian Scots, as they were called, were destined to conquer the terrible savage Picts, and the first man that reigned was the holy Irish Prince Aiden.
Well, my friends, it is most interesting to us to find that the very day that St. Columba crowned the Scotch king, he made this speech to him: “Mark my words" he said, “O King, the day may come when you and your children after you, may be tempted by the devil to make war upon Ireland. Upon Ireland,’" he said, “the land of my love, the land of my race and of my blood." And here are the words that he put upon that king; in the midst of the ceremony of the coronation he said to the king whom he crowned: “Charge your sons, and let them charge their grandchildren that they attempt no enterprise against my countrymen and my kindred in Ireland, the land of God; or the hand of God will weigh heavily upon them, the hand of men will be raised against them, and the victory of their enemies will be sure in the day they have the misfortune and the curse of turning against Ireland.” There was the glorious law of the Irish priesthood, and of Irish history: there was the true father of the heroic St. Laurence O’Toole, that stood in the gap on that terrible day, when no man in Ireland seemed to have heart or courage enough to strike a blow in the invading enemy’s face.
Aiden was king. He was not long crowned, when the Saxons, who invaded England, that is to say, the country that was south of the Grampian Hills, invaded Scotland also. The king had to go forth to do battle against them ; and here again we find our ancient Irish saint coming out. “Faithful love for his race and country, which had moved him with compassion for the young Irish kingdom, did not permit him to remain indifferent to the wars and revolutions which at that time disturbed the Irish Scots. There was no more marked feature in his character, than his constant, his compassionate sympathy, as well after as before his removal to Iona, in all the struggles in which his companions and relatives in Ireland were so often engaged. Nothing was nearer to his heart than the claim of kindred. For that reason alone he occupied himself without ceasing in the affairs of individual relatives.” ‘This man,” he would say, “is of my race. I must help him. It is my duty to work for him, because he is of the same stock as myself.” “This other man is a relative of my mother's.” Then he would add, speaking to his Scottish monks : “My friends, they are my kindred, descended from the O’Neills.” “See them fighting,” he would exclaim when hearing of a victory. Perhaps, he said it in Heaven before the Throne of God in the day when Red Hugh O'Neill destroyed the English army at the Yellow Ford. He was praying one day with his favored companion monk, named Dermot, and whilst they were together, the saint said: “Rise, O, Dermot! ring the bell and call the monks to pray.” The monk rang the bell, and all the other monks of the monastery came around the father. Here are his words :
“Now, let us pray with intelligence and fervour for our people and for King Aiden, who, at this very moment is beginning his battle with the barbarians.” They prayed, and after a time Columba said: “I behold the barbarians fly. Aiden is victorious.” Who were the barbarians ? The Saxons of England, the pagan Saxons, the haters of religion and of his Irish people, the haters of Aiden, the Irish king, and his religion. Another nation lay before him, and the heart of the saint was touched for them. You have seen what he did for his own countrymen in Scotland. He saw in the northern fastnesses of the land those uncivilized, savage, pagan Picts. The men to whom no missionary was ever able to preach ; the men whom no preacher dared to address. And here again see how the character of the Irish saint came out. He arose and took with him a few of his Irish monks, and they travelled into the very heart of their country. He went in order to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Picts.
Their king had established himself in a mighty fortress, his pagan priests with him. They were noticed, and when from the towers they saw the brave missionary, the magnificent form of the Irishman, coming, the king admired his manliness and his princely and undaunted courage. He saw the light of the sun beaming upon the grand face of the saint, and he loved him, but he gave orders that the gates of the fortress should not be opened. “Tell him, no man shall enter here as a guest who is not welcome, and that if he attempts to preach he shall die.” The message was given, but Columba, without hesitation, without stopping to take counsel, without one moment's prudence, the instant he heard that the king had said he should not come, his Irish blood was up, and it seemed to him there was no reason why he should not go in. He went straight to the very door of the castle and dealt it a mighty blow with his staff. “Open,” he said, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Again he struck it, and the mighty gates fell open, and St. Columbkille of Iona walked in like a conqueror. There was the king on his throne, angry, thirsting for his blood; finding the pagan priests around him claiming that he had violated their laws and that he should be put to death, he lifted up that terrible voice of his, in the Irish language, which was easily understood, with a slight interpretation, by the Gaels or the Picts. He said: “I would here speak today. I tell the king to his face, and the chieftains, I am Columba of Iona, and would make them take the Gospel, if I had to drive it down their throats.” Years of sorrow, years of repentance, years of prayer and of fasting had passed over his head, and he was now an elderly man, beyond the prime of life, but the moment opposition is shown to a righteous cause, that moment the old Irish blood of his youth, and all the terrible ardor of his Celtic nature is raised within him. My friends, he converted the Pictish nation nearly as perfectly as Patrick converted the Irish. He left his character upon them, so that they became a staunch, a loyal, and true Catholic race in the Highlands of Scotland, and they continued so to be, almost to the present hour. Highlanders of Scotland. Yes! there are villages in the Highlands of Scotland which have suffered for defense of their faith, like Ireland; suffered by bad landlords; the same scourge came upon them of English Protestantism and bad laws; but the traditions of Ireland’s Columba was with them, and his words remained with them like a blessing, and there are villages in Scotland that never yet lost their Catholic faith, through weal or through woe.
Now another nation lay before him. Great was the heart of the man and true. He saw the pagan Saxons of England in their hundreds and thousands. What did they worship? They worshiped the meanest and lowest forms of idolatry, they had not the grace to worship the Sun, like the Irish. They worshiped Thor, the God of the Scandinavians, a huge fellow with goggle eyes, no feet, and a big club in his hands. They were Saxons! St. Columba neither loved nor liked them. They were Saxons! Perhaps he, being a prophet, foresaw that, they would be the “Scourge of God” to the land of his love. They were Saxons! They had assaulted and invaded the land of his own people in Scotland, and the king whom he had crowned. But they were men, and they had souls. And he loved them in the mighty love that burned in his heart for the Lord and Saviour who died for him. So, accordingly, we find that after his conversion of the Picts, the mighty preacher went south, and with the aid of his monastic brethren, the Irish St. Columbkille converted all the Saxons of Northumbria and the middle portions of England. Badly have they repaid us, for we gave them faith, and they endeavoured to rob us of our faith. We gave them through our great St. Columbkille the liberty of the angels of God, and they have endeavoured to deprive us of that liberty which is the inheritance and birthright of the children of men. We gave them light, and they have endeavoured to repay us with darkness. To the Irish saint and his brethren chiefly belongs the honour of converting the Saxons to Christianity. For though St. Augustine came to England to preach the gospel, his labours were only in the south. St. Columbkille and his children had already converted the Saxons of the north. They were the true apostles of England.
And now old age was upon him. He was approaching his seventy-sixth year, and we read two things of him, namely — that to the last day of his life he never mitigated or changed his austerities. The old man of seventy-six still lay upon the damp earth, with a rock for his pillow. The old man of seventy-six still fasted every day of his life. The old man of seventy-six seemed to have a heart as young, as compassionate, as tender, as if he was a boy of fourteen. And one little incident shows us how much the Irish fire was tamed down in him by the sanctity of the saint. When he was an old man, the great feature of his character was, that he still continued the holy work as diligently as when he was young — writing a copy of the sacred Scriptures. The great passion of his life was writing books — there was no printing in those days — writing books, even when he was bent to the earth with old age and austerities. Yet he fired up into the ardor of the young harpist as he took the Irish harp, and with his aged fingers swept the chords, his voice pouring forth the praises of Ireland and of his God. We read that when he was an old man, strangers frequently came to him for his blessing; and one day a man came into the little room where St. Columba was writing, and in his eagerness to get the saint's blessing, rushed forth with such vehemence that he overturned the ink-bottle and destroyed the whole manuscript. Oh! if he had done that thirty or forty years before. But all the old saint did now, was to put his arms about him, embrace him, and say: “Have patience, my son; be gentl ; don’t be in such a hurry.”
He was seventy-six years of age, and he prayed that he might die at Easter. God sent an angel to tell him that his prayer was granted. Now, mark the Irish heart again. The moment that he heard his prayer was granted, he prayed to God to let him live another month ; for he said to the monks: “My children, I prayed that I might die and pass my Easter Sunday in heaven. God said He would grant my prayer; but then I remembered that you have just fasted a long Lent, upon bread and water, and that you are all looking forward to Easter Sunday as a day of joy; and if I died on that day, it would be a sad and sorrowful day; so I asked my God to put it off a month longer.” The month passed. It was Saturday night, and Columba, in the morning, told his children, the monks: “This night I will die and take my rest.” The monks were accustomed to go into the church precisely at twelve o’clock. The bells rang, and Columba was always in the church to prayer when he was not studying; he went before the others into the dark church — there were no lights — and knelt at the foot of the altar. Dermott, his faithful attendant, followed the old man, and, groping about in the church for him, at first not being able to see him, exclaimed : “Father! dear father! where art thou?” A feeble moan soon was heard, and guided to where he lay. The other monks came in bringing torches in their hands, and found Columba stretched out — dying! grasping the foot of the altar — dying! under the very eyes of that Lord and God whom he loved so well— dying! with a heart long since broken with love for that Lord Jesus, and for the dear land that he had left behind him. They raised him up, and with his dying lips he said: “Come around me that I may give you my last blessing.” He lifted his aged hand, and before the sign of the Cross was made, the hand fell by his side ; the light of human love departed from his eye; and one of the most glorious souls of apostles and martyrs that ever passed into Thy kingdom, O Lord! beheld Thee in Thy joy!
This was our old saint. How grand, how great is his national character! How great the character of the saint in his cell! Above all, how interesting to study the depths of that soul, and the changes which had taken place in it since his youth. At the beginning of his life, he was vindictive, passionate, bold, a man of strife, born a soldier rather than a monk. Often in his lifetime he was involved in fighting; and when the Irish were fighting their battles they would cry out, “Columba, pray for us.” And his soul went out from his cell into the thick of the fight with them. He was, at the same time, full of contradictions and contrasts. He was tender and irritable, rude and courageous, ironical and compassionate, caressing, imperious, grateful, revengeful, led by pity as well as by wrong, ever moved by generous passions; and among all passions, fired to the last by the love of poetry and the love of Ireland; little inclined to melancholy when he had once surmounted the great sorrow of his life, which was his exile. Thus, full of contradictions, yet harmonized by divine grace, he lived and died a saint who is the glory of the Church of God. And who, I hope, and trust, and believe, will, by his prayer, yet obtain for his native country of Ireland all which she legitimately desires of happiness, of freedom, and of joy.
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