Colmcille: mysterious monk, mystic and mischief-maker

Though his name has become well known down through the centuries, nobody seems to know much about him – one of the reasons he has become a figure of legend.

But efforts are now underway to unmask the mysterious Irish monk known as Colmcille and in so doing create a special pilgrimage aka the Camino of Santiago de Compostela that could provide a much needed boost to the ailing tourism sector amid the rugged beauty of northwest Ireland.

To this end, a launch event will take place this Friday at 12.30 in An Crann Og in Derrybeg, west Donegal, where all will be revealed.

invitation

Much of the information about the enigmatic fellow was written many years after his death in the middle of the 6th century and as such, as often happens when attempts are made to enhance an individual’s saintly credentials, is either embellished or simply inaccurate. But the result has been even greater intrigue and heightened interest in the fellow – what he did and what he stood for.

One absorbing element is that his name is linked to the ‘illegal’ copying of a secret manuscript – with many observers saying it may have been the first-ever case of copyright infringement. But nobody is certain whether it really happened as described or, if it did, what the sacred document was, belonging to Finian, the monk’s former teacher, that Colmcille felt such a great need to copy, and why.

Following the incident, Diarmuid, High King of Tara, is supposed to have handed down an edict, “To every cow her calf, and to every book its transcript. And therefore to Finian of Moville belongeth the book.” Not surprisingly, this decision was not to the liking of certain interested parties, including the revered monk himself. Records indicate fighting erupted over this bizarre case of intellectual theft with Colmcille facing the High King at the ‘Battle of the Book’ on the slopes of Benbulben in Sligo.

Some also say this – a bloody battle that left several thousand dead – was the reason Colmcille left Ireland for Scotland voluntarily and with great remorse, to establish his own settlement on the island of Iona. Others say he was ordered, or ‘advised,’ to get out of town fast or have assassins forever chasing his tail. After all, a spear to the head or sword to the gut were pretty strong persuaders in the dark days when rival monks were also fighters well trained in the art of swift and agonizing chop-chop.

Colmcille’s story by most accounts began in Gartan, Donegal, where he was born into the northern branch of the O’Neill Clann around 521. His mother, Eithne, was believed to be a princess from Leinster, and his father, Fedelmidh, a prince of Tír Conaill and the great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the pagan king who brought Patrick, he of shamrock fame, as a slave to Ireland. Christened Criomhthann (meaning ‘fox’), Colmcille certainly lived up to his name, jumping in among the chickens as he did and causing such a furor.

Scholar, warrior, mischief-maker, prince, diplomat – Colmcille seems to have been a man of many parts. If you want to learn more about him, be at Crannog, this Friday where Brian Lacey, renown historian, author and expert in the era, and Moira Ní Ghallachóir, founder of outdoors tourism group, mng.ie which organises ‘Rock agus Roam,’ will speak at the launch of an innovative tourism venture entitled ‘Connecting Colmcille.’

In addition, a special exhibition entitled ‘Amra Cholium Chille’ – a modern translation of a poem composed after the monk’s death with paintings by Brian Ferran and caligraphy by Donald Murray – will be opened at An Gailearai in Aislann Ghaoth Dobhair at 8pm this Friday evening. The event is free and open to the public with wine and refreshments served.

For further reading, see the works of University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

Connecting Colmcille 1

Advertisements

Columba: saint, soldier or New Age Pagan?

Columba, considered saintly by some, charismatic by others, was a bit of a ‘cute whore,’ a caustic and cantankerous character, a male chauvinist, thrifty to the point of miserliness and perhaps a non-entity who did diddly squat except be a pawn for powerful war lords vying over territory in early Ireland.

Such are the colorful views of some leading historians, archaeologists and writers gathered recently in what is considered the Celtic mystic’s ‘home place’ of west Donegal to deconstruct aspects of the legendary fellow’s life. The three-day conference at Loch Altan Hotel, Gortahork, was organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall, ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba.

Photo by Alan Sproull

Rural west Donegal – the area is considered the ‘home place’ of the legendary Columba. Photo by Alan Sproull

So who then was responsible for some of the magnanimous stories about this larger-than-life character and his supposedly ‘unEarthly’ powers and their ultimate adoption as mainstream belief? A new, ambitious group hell-bent on making sure it rose to the top of the ‘Champions League of Religions’ table, that’s who. Not an easy task, mind you, for developing Christianity faced well-established teams of equally high calibre, many with loyal fan bases, catchy club anthems, ambient arenas and good-looking kits – all well-suited to the emotional needs and superstitions of Irish people around 2,000 years ago.

To compete with the Red Devils, Gunners, Barças, Reals, Inters and Juves of the religious world, Christianity had to go on the transfer market to strengthen its position. And it didn’t much waste time about doing so either, quickly transferring a bunch of Pagan symbols – wells, crosses, incense, wreaths, bells, chants, ceremonies – even wedding rings – under its spreading angelic wings.

But that wasn’t enough. With solid defensive work and fine attacking play, opposing teams held out well against them.

Then leaders of the new movement put their collective heads together and in an illuminated moment of intellectual brilliance (in lingo religiosa ‘the Holy Spirit came upon them’) realized the one vital ingredient missing from their strategy – the persuasive power of an ancient, as well as modern, condition known commonly as ‘celebratitis.’

picts

Using Pagan symbols such as the cross, Columba may have persuaded tribes-people to a different way of thinking.

So, as one does when one has rising aspirations of political greatness, they created a sub-committee. A subcommittee with the sole purpose of weaving together stories on selected individuals, stories so grandiose and wondrous they’d make celebrities out of any plain Peter, Paul and Mary, alive or dead. In fact, their preferred choice was the latter, for among all the beliefs abounding – then and now – there’s one you can be pretty damn sure of –- it’s difficult to argue with a corpse.

Thus was born the legend of Columba – about whom, conveniently for his ‘handlers,’ conjecture heavily outweighs fact.

Hell-bent on their mission, monks of the newly-fashioned Christian organization created a carefully-crafted chronology of the fellow’s life that they entitled ‘Chronicles of Iona’ but while others mention a library in Kilmacrennan where it might have been housed, no-one has found a single shred of evidence of it (or such evidence, for reasons of strategy, has been craftily shifted to location unknown). A censored part of it is in the ‘Annals of Ulster.’ In it is included details of what they purport to be miracles (seemingly the head gaffer put around a memo to his fellow brethren asking for submissions as they were a bit short on anecdotes) and other material supporting their cause, including their anti-woman crusade (all contributions welcome as to the origin of this particular stance). For example, Columba is supposed to have banished all women from Iona, warning others to be wary of them, not to give them too much power, or – interestingly – too much water, one conference speaker claimed.

As for his alleged saintliness, historians indicate Columba – like many other monks of the time – often believed the secular to be more sacred than the spiritual and were mere ciphers for rival, warring factions, at a time when churches were placed on territorial borders as symbolic deterrents or markers. It is believed Dai Riada, the king of the area associated with Columba, might have wanted to expand his holdings and used our fellow solely for that reason.

Fired up by his missionary zeal, Columba also supposedly skedaddled hither and thither all over Europe. But, just as in the case of saints’ relics, he’d have to have been cloned to be in all the places he is supposed to have been, doing the things he is supposed to have been doing. Some believers, for example, say he was not only involved in discovering the holy wells of Derry but was the actual founder of that particular northern Irish city. There’s little contemporary evidence of this. Due to the gap of years between his death (around 593) and the city’s founding, he’d have to have been a time-travelling vampire to have accomplished the task. Another monk, Augustine, is more central to Derry, having established a church there since the 600s AD. At best, Columba’s favorite Uncle Fiachra was Derry’s founder but again evidence even of this is severely lacking.

According to Christian slant, Columba is also thought to have brought back the so-called Gospel of Martin from Tours in France. Please don’t ask me to accept this on ‘blind faith.’ That’s like the blind leading the blind, and there’s no easier way to go astray than that. More likely, with spelling in those days being less than precise and Tory Island known in documents as Toraigh, Toirinis and Tourensis, it was a case of geographical misplacement (or story enhancement).

iona

Iona – a windswept Scottish island that reflects the heritage of the legendary Celtic mystic.

Even the much talked about Battle of Cúl Dreimne near Ben Bulben in Sligo – allegedly fought over Columba’s illegal copying of a book (‘to every cow its calf and to every book its copy’) and his banishment to Iona – this may simply have been the workings of an over-imaginative scribe in a cloistered scriptorium. Instead, the battle may have been over the killing of man, who was under Columba’s protection, by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, High King of Tara. Some say the leader of a monastic settlement in Inismurray Island, Sligo, then told Columba bluntly it would be‘better’ to high-tail it out of town and across the water (others say he may have left out of guilt at causing so much bloodshed).

Regardless, what seems to be true is that there was no love lost between Columba and Diarmait. Diarmait, the last High King to worship in the Pagan manner and who celebrated the Feast of Tara, the pagan inauguration ceremony, was not keen on this new Christian doctrine, seeing it as an opportunistic usurper. The Irish annals include a reference to him even building druid fences on the battlefield.

As for Columba being caustic and cantankerous, word has it that he’d simply curse people he didn’t like. One man who pretended he was asleep to avoid talking to him ended up snoozing for a year and a day. Poked in the eye by a reed while tying his shoe, Columba cursed all reeds, thus the reason they’re brown and no longer sharp. After slipping on a salmon…… well, I’ll let you conjure up for yourself what curse Columba might have bestowed upon those innocent little creatures.

Amidst all the fact, fiction and propaganda, what emerges is that Pagan leaders and Christian monks and their supportive warring chieftains battled each other for territorial advantage and the spoils of victory that came with it.

Whether you believe Columba was your average Joe Blow or a saint, a term open to so many interpretations (one speaker at the Gortahork conference referred to him as “a bit of a James Bond character”), the cult that grew around him makes for fascinating anthropological and sociological discussion.

That is why the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project, a partnership between Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, could be a boon for cultural tourism. After hundreds of years, wouldn’t it be nice for communities, and not only the church, to benefit from such a legendary figure? Developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful pilgrimage project could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

For further information, see the book by University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey’s (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

A note of caution: when reading about Columba and his exploits it is probably helpful to keep in mind the old adage – History is written by the victors.

A poem attributed to Columba is also worth musing upon –

“If poet’s verses be but fables

So be food and garments fables

So is all the world a fable

So is man of dust a fable.”

Donegal Connections – festival of books

For me living in the Gaeltacht region of Gaoth Dobhair in northwestern Ireland, the most surprising thing emerging from the recent, well-organised and stimulating ‘Belfast Book Festival was the number of novels set or inspired by little ol’ Donegal, the so-called ‘Forgotten County.’

Until then, I had been used to reading locally about publication of novels in our native language being funded by the various cultural groups such as Foras na Gaeilge, but hadn’t really thought too much about the diversity of English-language novels set or inspired by the beauty of the county (aside from Brian Friel’s plays), nor the use of phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ in such novels.

I know I’ll be accused of heresy and probably burned under a heather bush on the shadow of Lugh’s Mountain (otherwise known under its Christian name, Errigal) for suggesting this, but with the use of Irish diminishing in everyday conversation, should the various language groups not ease their overly-tight qualification criteria and fund publication of English-language novels that have some Irish phrasing in them?

IMG_1173

Author Emma Heatherington (seated left) and family, with evening event host, broadcaster, Sarah Travers, (seated right) and festival director, Keith Acheson (back right).

To my mind, it seems like not just a very reasonable suggestion, but a most innovative one that delivers many benefits. Books in Irish, by their nature, are for people who already speak and read our native language. Yet what we desperately need is to encourage non-Irish speaking people to become interested in our language and hunger to learn more. As English is one of the world’s leading languages, are not novels in this language not a perfect place for Irish phrases to be included to help achieve this aim? Will that not help expand use of Irish, both domestically and abroad? Such a linguistic/literary initiative would also help support economic development, especially through tourism, by attracting more visitors to Donegal and other such Gaeltachts. Such areas – while on the whole, providing inspiring land and seascapes – tend to be marginalized, unemployment black spots on the map of Ireland.

The landscape of the Outer Hebrides, with its stark cliffs, ghostly mists and lonely beaches, has become a definitive character of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy entitled ‘Hebrides’ and has helped revitalize tourism in that part of Scotland.

Food for thought.

IMG_1162

Crime fiction writer, Claire McGowan, with David Torrans of Belfast’s ‘No Alibis’ Bookstore at the Ulster Hall, talking about her genre and her work.

Anyway, back to the most enjoyable ‘Belfast Book Festival’ and novels set in the beautiful countryside of Donegal. Take the delightfully funny writing of Emma Heatherington and her book ‘One Night Only’ about four desperate housewives who take off in a car for an outing to the ‘Forgotten County’ and the hilarious, and poignant, consequences. Emma, who is due to speak next week at Ireland’s newest Writing Retreat in west Donegal is a multi-talented woman whose work ranges from novels to short stories to scripts and screenplays, including ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘Playing the Field.’ Her personal ‘growing up’ story of having to become ‘Mum’ to her siblings as a young teenager after her own mother’s untimely death is touching. Aside from her literary output, one can’t help but admire Emma greatly. And she’s a natural, engrossing speaker to boot.

Then there’s Kenneth Gregory, fantasy novelist and mythologist extraordinaire with character names as Gaeilge, perhaps Ireland’s answer to the R.A. Salvatore/ Robert Jordan/ Marion Zimmer Bradley combo. His debut novel ‘The Polaris Whisper,’ the first in a trilogy, was published by Blackstaff Press. He will also speak and teach at Donegal’s ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Wordswriting retreat. Negotiations are now underway for the novel to be turned into a television series with a movie option. His second novel in the series is ‘The Poison of Newgrange.’ ‘Shahryár’s Heir: A Prince among Thieves’ is his first fantasy novel in a re-invention of the Arabian Nights’ stories.

IMG_1188

Blackstaff Press authors Laurence Donaghy and Kenneth Gregory discuss the art of writing, Celtic mythology and fusing fantasy with historical fact with journalist and author, Leona O’Neill at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Speaking together, he told me, “It is an honor to speak at such an event as the Ireland Writing Retreat. Northwestern Donegal is an awe-inspiring place, with an intriguing, colorful history packed with legends. So enthralled am I by the area that the third book in my trilogy, a modern-day thriller, has the working title of ‘Brinlack,’ a place beside Bloody Foreland. My best editor, my brother, Mark, lives there and I visit often.”

Then there’s the lady who shares my name, Sophia Hillan, former associate director of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies and director of the International Summer School in Irish Studies. During an hour-long interview, Sophia told me about how she came upon a scrap of paper that led her to produce a most fascinating Donegal-based, non-fiction book entitled ‘May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland,’ published by Blackstaff Press in 2011. Her first novel ‘The Friday Tree’ has now just been published by the same publishing group and is set within a stone’s throw of where I grew up and lived for many years in Andersonstown, west Belfast.

IMG_1170

Two intelligent beautiful ladies, leaders in their respective fields – (l to r), author, Emma Heatherington and broadcaster, Sarah Travers.

That’s a lot of Donegal-based writing crossing so many genres, not to mention the many books written about Donegal’s very own mystic monk – Columba – including those by authors Máire Herbert  and Brian Lacey  – more of which will be written about in my next blog.

Of course, not all the authors and books at the ‘Belfast Book Festival’ were linked to Donegal. Head honcho of the Crescent Arts Centre and festival director Keith Acheson and his hardworking team, including marketing director Tracy O’Toole and outreach and education director, Ann Feely, as well as community arts development officer, Jan Carson, (her novel is entitled ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’) and her colleagues at the Ulster Hall, deserve full praise. They brought together a diverse collection of writers in various genres who spoke on such wide-ranging subjects as ageing and sexual politics (Lynne Segal – ‘Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing,’ ‘Is the Future Female?,’ ‘Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men,’ and ‘Straight Sex: The Politics of Desire’); murder most foul (Claire McGowan – ‘The Fall,’ ‘The Lost’ and ‘The Dead Ground,’ some of which use phrases ‘as Gaeilge’); matters of the heart and mind (Joseph O’ConnorInishowen,’ ‘Ghost Light,’ ‘The Thrill Of It All’ and ’Star of the Sea’); and guardian angels (Carolyn Jess-Cooke – ‘The Guardian Angel’s Journey’ and ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’), as well as providing publishing and public speaking advice through guests such as the lovely actress and teacher Rosie Pelan; the inimitable Ian Sansom (Mobile Library Series including ‘The Case of the Missing Books’ and ‘Mr. Dixon Disappears;’ and self-publishing guru, Alison Baverstock (‘Is There A Book in You’ and ‘Marketing Your Book: an author’s guide.’).

IMG_1217

Agents and publishers, including Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander (r), Patsy Horton (c) and Alice Kate Mullen (l) of Carcanet Press, discuss their roles and responsibilities in the writing field.

In terms of diversity of writer and subjects, the week-long series of events surpassed most such festivals I have attended – and I have been to many, including both the Salon du livre Paris and the London Book Fair. Also – beyond just the world of books – the festival reflects the emergence of Belfast from its enforced dormancy as a dynamic and attractive city with many options for would-be visitors, from cozy, atmospheric cafes, terrific restaurants and avantgarde and traditional theatres such as The MAC and the Lyric.

By the way, other speakers at the Donegal writing retreat which begins formally on Sunday, June 28th between An Bun Beag and Bun an Leaca (on which there are only four places left) include ‘Antony-Cleopatra’ expert Rachael Kelly and award-winning author Anthony Quinn and former detective-cum-writer Martin Ridge who lives near Falcarragh.

IMG_1246

As fiesty and stimulating as ever, author, socialist, feminist and civic leader, Lynne Segal greets her avid admirers.

Rachael, a native of Belfast has become the foremost expert on the age-old romance between Roman leader, Mark Antony, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (made famous on-screen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) after completing her doctorate in film studies on it. Rachael has also penned the first novel in a trilogy on the two historical figures entitled ‘Queen of the Nile,’ set in 1st-century-BC Alexandria. Rachael’s earlier novel, ‘The Edge of Heaven,’ won the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition 2014, while her short story, Blumelena, was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2012. Her ‘Long Anna River’ won the Orange Northern Woman Short Story Award and was later featured in an anthology called ‘The Barefoot Nuns of Barcelona,’ while ‘The Night Sky In November’ was runner-up in the White Tower Publishing Short Story Competition. Her poem, ‘A Five Yard Odyssey,’ won ‘The Battle of the Bards.’

IMG_1227

Alison Baverstock, publisher, trainer and writer, talks about the advantages and pit-falls of self-publishing, accompanied by successful self-publishers at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Anthony Quinn was born in 1971 in Tyrone and his short stories have been short-listed twice for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. He was also the runner-up in the Sunday Times New Food Writer competition. ‘Disappeared‘ is the title of his first novel. Published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press in 2012, it was was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award, as judged by book critics from the LA Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Guardian. It was also selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. BORDER ANGELS, the sequel, was published by Mysterious Press last year.

IMG_1233

Actress and teacher, Rosie Pelan, instructs writers how to best speak their words in public.

Martin Ridge, from Galway but living in Donegal for many years, is a retired Garda officer. He almost single-handedly took on the might of the Catholic Church when he investigated rumors – that soon became distressing facts – about the horrific rape and sexual abuse of young boys by members of the clergy in northwest Donegal, in and around the towns of Gortahork and Falcarragh. His brilliantly-written book ‘Breaking the Silence’ tells a tragic story of the carnage such abuse created in the lives of the boys, now men, many still living in the area, and the arrogance of the church towards that abuse in refusing to co-operate with investigations or offer appropriate compensation. This particular rural area now has the ignominy of being the worse area for clerical abuse record in all Ireland. For more information on the Ireland Writing Retreat see http://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/