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

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Flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles, Pagan wishing stones – all in a day’s work

His reputation was spoken of highly by good people – Mary McFadden, former headmistress and organizer of the lively ceilidh dances at Teac Jack’s and John Curran voluntary sector leader and aspiring politician. There seemed no-one better to uncover the anthropological and natural wonders of west Donegal for us than this fellow.

Seamus

So that’s how my wife, Columbia, our two small sheepdogs, Siog (‘fairy’ in Irish) and Lugh (who, according to Celtic legend, slew Balor of the Evil Eye) and myself ended up cowering for dear life under the branches of chubby furze bush as hailstones the size of a rabbit’s droppings – though much, much, much harder – pummeled down on us mercilessly from above.

But the drenching we got was worth the wetting (and sure didn’t the sun break out just a few minutes later as if to reassure us we’d be dry soon). For that’s how we got to know about flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles, Pagan wishing stones and Colmcille’s guide to the joy of sex all along the newly-Christened ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ And many’s another thing that’s in Seamus Doohan’s head about our wee area tucked away in the far corner of this, the Forgotten County.

An electrical contractor by trade, the jolly, bald-headed 48-year-old became fascinated by the immense diversity of natural and anthropological features around him in his native Gaeltacht area of Cloughaneely after he participated in a sports endurance charity event for cancer victims three years ago. There and then he decided to study the local flora, fauna and history in greater depth and to launch a guided walks and navigation service, Walking Donegal, as an added attraction for visiting tourists and for local people. So far, he has taken several hundred on tours, including visitors from countries as diverse as Italy, the US and Japan, as well as guided walks with the Errigal Arts Festival and for schools.

Seamus 2

“We are spoiled for landscape choice in west Donegal, with such a wealth of intricate and colourful plant species and a fascinating history dating back to the time of primitive man and Pagan worship, not to mention the Christian era that came afterwards,” he said.  “There is something mysterious and magnetic about the mountains around us here, with so many routes for walkers of all ages and aspirations.”

Seamus’s walks, which include forest, island, hill and beach, range in duration from one to five hours and are graded 1 through 5 in terms of difficulty, from flat terrain to challenging gradients. They traverse places such as Horn Head, Ards Forest Park, Sli an Earagail, Dunlewey Glen, Tory, Innisboffin and Arranmore, as well as the Joey Glover Challenge, a walk from Muckish to Errigal “taking in all the mountains in between.”

devil's matchstick

Halting momentarily on the way up rolling fields to Lough Altan near Errigal, Seamus suddenly bends down and parts some blades of grass. Hidden beneath is a tiny plant with a vivid red head. ‘Devil’s matchstick, or cladonia cristatella,” he says, then points to a spot a few feet away. “And over there, some Devil’s chalices.”

devil's chalis

Running his fingers over a spread of soft lime-green moss, he adds, “Sphagnum. During the First World War there was a shortage of bandages and they used this to stem the flow of blood, especially from bayonet wounds. But there are a hundred other varieties.” He swings round on his hunkers to gaze at a small plant with what looks like a set of animal horns on top. “That’s staghorn. And there’s club and fern over there. Beside them, that’s bell and ling heather. You can dry their flowers and make healthy herbal teas out of them.” Turning again, his eyes searching closely, he adds, “There’s some tormentil flowers. They’re yellow in summer, natural antiseptic to ease toothaches. And there, sundew plants. They’re carnivorous, the glands on their leaves emit a sticky gel to traps insects. They then eat them to supplement the poor mineral nutrition of the soil in which they grow.”

Spagnum

Further along, by the side of an old pony and cart track used more than a hundred years ago to get to Altan Farm, he stops again, this time beside a strange rock formation that resembles the open pages of a book.  “I call this ‘leabhar cloch Cholm Ciolle’ (Colmcille’s book of stone). It’s believed the monk, who would have wandered these hills, secretly copied a mysterious text. Who knows? This could be it – magically petrified.” Somebody nearby says the book in question was probably ‘The Joy Of Sex” – a particularly delightful illustrative book that helped enlighten me greatly in the face of strict Catholic doctrine on the sacrosanct subject. But Seamus rightly ignores my nostalgic ramblings. And rambles on up the hill.

book

Below in the sunshine, the ruins of a once sturdy, castle-like structure stands at the head of the lough, still defying the elements after all these years. To our left a herd of deer dart away on to higher ground while above us two eagles glide effortlessly, on the sharp lookout for unwary prey.

eagles

Later, up a steep climb behind Gortahork, Seamus, who is secretary and training officer of the North West Mountaineering Club, points to two round indentations carved out of bare stone, resembling an alien’s head. “Cup or ring marks, prehistoric art,” he says. “Sometimes known as wishing stones in Pagan times. Supposedly the water that gathers in them heals warts, thus the Gaeilge name, Tober na bhFáithní (the Wart Stone). ”

alien

Out at Ray, he stops at a ruined church and flat run of fields beyond, “This is known as ‘Lag na gCnámh,’ the resting place of bones, after a massacre that occurred here in the 17th century,” he ssays. “No-one knows exactly where the bodies are but there’s a lot of them under this soil somewhere.” In a hillside graveyard outside Falcarragh, he stands in the wind and rain, gazing east, “Amazing to think that druids long ago in their big, flowing cloaks stood right here with this amphitheater of hills in front of them and prayed to Nature.”As he spoke and the hailstones started pouring down again, I wondered if he might just take on the role, burst into a chant and invoke the Sun God to smile upon us.

Ray church