Thousands of euro of public money are pouring into diverse celebrations this year throughout Ireland to celebrate the life of a 6th century Celtic monk called Columba (or Colmcille) – a strange and elusive man we know almost nothing about.
Even though schools, community centres, Christian churches, local councils and other groups celebrate the 1,500th year of the mystical monk’s birth, no-one knows exactly when he was born. Nor do we know exactly where. We think it was Donegal but we don’t know for sure what part. We know he left Ireland for the Scottish island of Iona where he spent a good part of his life. But we don’t know the real reasons why.
We don’t even know for sure if Columba had a mistress, a wife, children, or indeed whether he was gay or bisexual like many of the monks of his time. (Celibacy was not compulsory then, monks/priests could marry and have families and homosexuality was not denigrated as it is today by the Catholic Church).
Nor do we know where Columba is buried. It was thought his bones (or at least the smaller ones) were wrapped up inside a wooden casket covered with silver and copper-alloy designs known as a reliquary and carried by Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn where they famously defeated the English. But we now learn there was nothing in the box, which now sits behind a glass case wired to a sophisticated security alarm system in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and labelled as the ‘Monymusk Reliquary.’
The reason we know so little about Columba is that while he and his followers attracted a worldwide reputation for penning and illustrating magnificent books of all kinds including the famous Book of Kells, there are no records whatsoever of Columba’s own personal writing, not even a simple diary.
So, how is it then we’re spending so much public money celebrating a man we know nothing about, indeed a man who was never even declared a saint, though most people think he was. Why would the Vatican canonise him anyhow? After all, the Celtic Christian church Columba represented stood firmly against the Roman version, battling tooth and nail for ultimate supremacy, that issue being eventually settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 with Rome being the victor.
Who knows, perhaps Columba, a lover of herbs, specially St. John’s Wort, followed too many Pagan practices, maybe even believing in faeries, and his writings were wilfully destroyed by the powers that be in Rome.
This brings me to another man, a man of our time.
Lively septuagenarian, author, archaeologist and historian, Brian Lacey is an exceptional dinner guest. A fine raconteur with quirky views of the world, he’s a man at ease with laughter and story-telling.
And he has just penned his latest book, on a spin-doctor called Adomnán (or Eunan) who single-handedly raised Columba’s name to ‘the High Heavens’ by inventing a series of mostly fictional or at the very least, highly-exaggerated, stories about the founder of Iona Monastery and the ‘miracles’ he supposedly performed.
Rather than it being a selfless literary endeavour, Adomnán’s reasons for writing his book were directly linked to both politics and money. In raising the profile of Columba, he also raised the public profile of the community of monks on Iona that he presided over 100 years after its founder had passed on, thus no doubt encouraging new recruits to sign up and more money donated to the monastery’s coffers.
Some in Ireland might use local slang and call Adomnán ‘a cute hoor,’ loosely translated as ‘a shrewd scoundrel, especially in business or politics.’ Probably he was, but he also achieved much more, as you can see from the article below I wrote for the ‘Donegal News’ recently.
New Book On Columba’s Spin-doctor
By Sean Hillen
Hemmed in by mountains in Dunlewey near the Poisoned Glen under the shadow of Errigal, one might think Dr. Brian Lacey has taken on the life of a hermit.
Far from it.
Instead, the gregarious 72-year-old regales visitors with colourful tales from bygone days with the natural gift of a seanchaí, explaining the complexities of early medieval life in an easy, entertaining manner.
That, and his vast experience as author, historian and archaeologist, has made him one of the most popular speakers on the life of Columba (Colmcille), the famed monk born yesterday (June 9) 1500 years ago.
Brian’s latest book, one of 15 he has penned, is of particular interest to scholars as the first written in over 1,000 years about a key 7th century figure called Adomnán, who was responsible for launching Columba into the forefront of popular folklore.
‘Without him, Columba could well have been simply a tiny blip on the radar screen of history,” said Brian, whose book entitled Adomnán, Adhamhnán, Eunan: Life and Afterlife published by Four Courts Press was launched during the recent American Conference for Irish Studies. “Adomnán wrote Vita Columbae, (Life of Columba) over a hundred years after Columba’s death in 597 AD and in doing so ‘made’ him into the saint later generations would celebrate.”
The Vita is in three sections – Columba’s alleged ‘miraculous’ powers,’ his ‘prophetic foreknowledge’ and his ‘angelic visions.’ While Brian admires Adomnán for his life’s achievements, he acknowledges he was, “an astute spin-doctor pushing his own Christian agenda.”
“If I met him, I would share few of the same beliefs, most particularly his religious views, but I certainly acknowledge his accomplishments and skill,” he said about the 9th abbot of Iona in Scotland where Columba established his community. “He probably ignored any evidence that cast Columba in a bad light. Instead of a biography he compiled a work of hagiography to extol his spirituality. He also voiced his own political convictions and raised the prestige of the monastic federation – the Familia Columbae – over which he was leader.”
He adds that Adomnán, who was probably born close to Raphoe and studied at Drumhome monastery in south Donegal, even had Columba ‘ordain’ Áedán mac Gabráin, King of Dál Riata, reputedly the earliest recorded instance in European history of the Christian inauguration of a king. “The story fitted Adomnán’s belief in an ideal Christian kingship established in Ireland and Britain,” said Brian.
Brian praises Adomnán for having many ‘firsts.’
“He was first to draft a law – Lex Innocentium – for the protection of noncombatants in war, a precursor of the Geneva Convention,” he said. “He also wrote the oldest surviving ‘guide-book’ from western Europe about the Holy Land, De Locis Sanctis, (Concerning Sacred Places), including famous buildings, structures and relics. In it, he also introduced to the English a character who would later become their patron saint – Saint George.”
Brian also said Adomnán was the first to write about the Lough Ness monster, which makes its appearance in the Vita when Columba sees people burying a man savaged by ‘a water beast.’ Adomnán also gained fame as a hostage negotiator, helping free 80 prisoners held by the King of Northumbria.
Eldest of nine children and son of a train driver in Donnybrook, history was not Brian’s first career choice. Before the academic bug hit, he worked in air traffic control in Dublin and Shannon, earning around eight pounds a week, before leaving for Brussels and Paris.
But investigating the past was a pet passion and he soon left the security of the skies and hit the ground running, studying early and medieval Irish history at UCD, becoming a lecturer at Magee College in Derry in the mid-1970s. Brian later led a team of 35 people on a one-year archaeological survey of Donegal, the first project of its kind in Ireland. “This brought us to almost every field in the county,” he recalls fondly. “Four thousand sites, including an Iron Age barracks near the Barnesmore Gap and over two thousand sites dated before 1700 AD.” That project, completed in 1983, helped Brian become head of Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service and director of the Dublin-based Discovery Programme.
In his pursuit of truth in history, Brian is not averse to controversy. He considers the Christian tale involving saints Colmcille, Fionán, Dubthach and Begley at Cnoc na Naomh (Hill of the Saints) at Machaire Rabhartaigh deciding by tossing their croziers who should convert Tory islanders, to be rooted in Paganism. “This story emerged out of the cult of Lugh and his spear. Adoration of Lugh was widespread through Europe, but the Romans, then Christianity, killed that belief.”
Having already written an earlier book entitled ‘Saint Columba His Life and Legacy,’ Brian is something of an academic celebrity at many events linked to Columba throughout this special commemoration year.
Published in the ‘Donegal News’
If you want to know more about skulduggery disguised as religion and furious political struggles between Celtic Christians and their Roman counterparts, read the excellent series of Sister Fidelma novels by Peter Tremayne (pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, historian, literary biographer and novelist).
Fidelma is a ‘dálaigh’ or judge in ancient Ireland, a sexy red-haired female version of Sherlock Holmes in a habit.
Intrigued by the reputation of this early Irish mystic monk known as Columba, I decided as a travel writer to head for Iona, the Scottish island where he established his community of like-minded people. Here’s what I found after landing on a little stony pier after taking the ferry from Mull last autumn, a massive, treacherous sea crossing that took all of five minutes.