Journalism: a funny thing, sometimes

Sometimes it’s not writing about political showmanship and skullduggery or economic booms and busts that create good journalism.

Sometimes, it’s the simple quirks of everyday life that make for a good story.

You can imagine my delight in unearthing these two tales of near disaster in Donegal that end happily.

They give new meaning to the term ‘missing people.’

Missing boy (5) found safe – in a hot press on Gola Island

gola island donegal, donegal tourism, gaeltacht tourism,

He almost ‘missed the boat’ 

gaeltacht tourism, gola island, donegal tourism

 

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Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Another cultural entertainment success for Amharclann

What a terrific cultural contribution this historic theatre provides not just for Bunbeg, not just for the Gaeltacht, not just for Donegal but for all-Ireland, north and south.

world itineraries

by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their…

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Giant rhubarbs, faeries and other enchanted species on ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Invasion by giant rhubarb plants throughout Donegal’s Gaoth Dobhair region captured the imagination of international writers during this summer’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – with intriguing stories involving faeries and magical creatures emerging onto blank pages. Some of the stories are soon to be published on the Ireland Writing Retreat Blog.

And such far-fetched tales weren’t due to the influence of the whiskey, poitín and pálinka served up at various events throughout the enjoyable week-long event, even though such potent liquids have been Muse for generations of great novelists and playwrights including James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming and Mark Twain.

wild rhubarb Donegal, faeries in Donegal

Faeries and other magical creatures hide among the giant rhubarb leaves.

Call it a combination of fresh sea-air along the ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ excellent writing guidance from published authors and a wee drop or two of uisce beatha, some of the inventive stories focused on faeries planting the giant rhubarb to warn humans about how they are polluting and destroying the natural environment around us,” said one of the retreat organizers, delighted with the week’s success. “The writings were really fun to read and bringing such a diverse group of fine international writers here also helps promote this lovely area through literary tourism. One participant summed it up brilliantly when she said, ‘I came to Donegal searching for inspiration, and instead found magic.’  That makes me proud. I know we’ve achieved our goal.

The stories also included a mysterious faerie named after the gigantic rhubarb, called Rhu, who can produce a flame by simply cupping her hands together and a secret, white-washed faery-home hidden among the plants themselves.

Sliabh Liag Distillery, Donegal whiskey

Ian Smith plays his own composition ‘The Holy Hour’ as Sliabh Liag Distillery managing director, James Doherty, and international writers listen intently.

With Donegal having its first distillery for more almost 200 years, the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – at which I’m proud to be one of the tutors – collaborated with the Sliabh Liag Distillery to create a hearty ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ for participants.

Taking place at Teac Jack, a popular boutique hotel in Glassagh, and with the distillery’s chief executive James Doherty at the helm, writers from places as diverse as Wyoming, Alaska, Newfoundland, California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Belfast and Ballybofey sipped whiskey cocktails with the surprising flavors of rhubarb (not the infamous rhubarus gigantus variety) and orange.

We want to reclaim part of the lost heritage of Donegal, to replicate the uniqueness of whiskey-making, a skill that was an integral part of life here two centuries ago,” Doherty said, as he described the subtle taste of his company’s ‘Silkie’ brand to his attentive audience.

Not only but guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith entertained guests with some of his very own compositions, one appropriately entitled ‘The Holy Hour,’ about whiskey, that will feature next year in a special musical show he stars in that will tour Germany, entitled ‘Whiskey, You’re The Devil.’

Teac Mhuiris Donegal, An Crann Óg Donegal

Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg serves up a tasty feast for international poets and novelists at the Ireland Writing Retreat.

Bringing even more good cheer, writing retreat participants – most of whom had never been to Donegal before – also enjoyed traditional foods ranging from delicious home-baked breads and scones to carrageen moss and dulse in the traditional thatched cottage ‘Teac Mhuiris’ with panoramic views over Bloody Foreland and the islands of Gola, Inismeain and Umfin. Here, local people, Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg, the Bunbeg community center, her daughter Alanna, experienced seanchaí-historian Antoin MacAodha, Anna Ní Bhroin from Foras na Gaeilge and music teacher, Caitlín Joe Jack, related the history of the cottage, taught basic Irish words and phrases including the meaning of place-names, as well as Irish dance steps in advance of a lively cèilidh that evening at Teac Jack.

The week-long writing retreat also featured a host of other activities including nightly music concerts, a boat trip to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat’ captained by Sabba Curran and a talk by uncrowned King Eddie Joe McGee, as well as a tour of Glenveagh National Park and Castle.

boat to Gola Donegal, Gola Island Donegal

Captain Sabba Curran of ferry-boat, ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat,’ at Magheragallon Pier with international writers headed for Gola Island.

As for classes, participants completed assignments on many of the excursions they experienced during the week which were then critiqued by published authors and editors, including Anthony Quinn, author of five books, ‘Disappeared,’ ‘Border Angels,’ ‘The Blood Dimmed Tide,’ ‘Blind Arrows,’ and ‘Silence’; Mark Gregory, a forensic word editor, and yours truly. Tuition focused on strengthening key writing skills such as character development, dialogue and importance of landscape.

I was delighted to host a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ highlighting the importance of questions (thus IQ meaning ‘I Question’) and the five journalism Ws – ‘who, what, why, where, when’ with the all-important sixth W, ‘what if,’ in the development of strong plot and character. And to use my recently-published novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal with New York, Washington and Kansas City, as an illustration of that.

Pretty Ugly a novel, Sean Hillen author, IQ for Creative Writing

No greater joy than being surrounded by friendly, talented writers – except maybe winning the national lottery.

Without public funding of any kind, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ now in its fourth consecutive year, has gone from success to success, with a second Autumn Writing Retreat taking place late this September.

Lion-tamers, nude concert-goers, the Rolling Stones, one-clawed lobsters and terrific Irish music

How can small boxes of air that fit neatly between one’s hands create the haunting rhythm of a heartbeat, the roar of an angry sea and the chanting of cloistered monks at prayer?

Ask the talented, five-member ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble’ who captivated a packed audience earlier this week at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (a region that features prominently in new suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ (Easons, Gallaghers/Matt Bonners Bunbeg, Amazon) and where the Irish Writing Retreat takes place every year).

Such wondrous music left me bemused about how such a rich diversity of melodies can emerge from such a tiny bellows-buttons-reed instrument. The ensemble, with members from different Irish counties, was one of many performances at this week’s ongoing annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ (Winter School) in Gaoth Dobhair (the festival continues right through Sunday, so buy your show tickets now).

Composed of Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox – the musicians brought this popular, cozy pub to a hushed and appreciative silence. So exhilarated were affable pub manger and owner, also himself a fine musician, Hugh Gallagher, my wife, Columbia, myself and others, we gave them a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation.

Irish Concertina Ensemble, Scoil Gheimhridh

Boxes of air that produce mellifluous music.

Drawing on a wealth of melodies, some old, some new, some composed for other instruments such as the fiddle, flute and uilleann pipe, the group displayed the surprising and immense versatility of the concertina.

Not only were there versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of myriad talents at Ionad Cois Locha in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta‘s northwest service in Donegal, who recently passed away.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Another highlight of this week’s festival and music school so far has been the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan. The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name whose fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Donegal Irish music

(l to r) Frankie ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Gavin and Brendan ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan display their ample talents at Teac Jack.

To say Gavin’s bow tripped lightly over the strings would be a severe understatement. Skipping, dancing, somersaulting even, would be much more appropriate descriptions – from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others he performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘), leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Not only, but the founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, is also a natural raconteur and effortlessly entertained his listeners with an assortment of jokes, ranging from lion-tamers to one-clawed lobsters. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

The festival’s energetic and committed organizers deserve great praise.

They include Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player who was mentored by west Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy (who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named after); Cathal Ó Gallchóir, who is also manager of local community center, An Crannog in nearby Derrybeg, where varied activities ranging from yoga to Irish language and music classes take place; their excellent, friendly support team; and special guests such as fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, who opened the festival this year and who conducted a most interesting, light-hearted and insightful  afternoon interview with Gavin at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair (more on that, including naked Danish concert-goers and sessions with Jagger and Co. of The Rolling Stones in an enlarged festival review on World Itineraries later this weekend).

Scoil Gheimridh, Irish music festivals, live Irish music

Cathal Ó Gallchóir introduces festival musical performers.

‘Scoil Gheimridh’ has now rightly become a prominent feature of national Irish cultural life. Students and teachers, men and women, schoolchildren and retirees, both national and international, lovers of instruments ranging from the bodhrán, an Irish hand drum, to fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina and even traditional sean-nós singing and dancing, gather every year in this beautiful north-western region known as the ‘Forgotten County’ to attend classes taught by leading musicians and to enjoy the many concerts and seisún.

Here, in this most northerly region of Ireland, interest and pride in the native Irish language, Gaeilge, and the rich cultural heritage of their forebearers remains impressively strong, especially in the face of the fickleness and superficiality of modern-day life.

The festival ends this weekend with a concert tonight (Friday, 8.30pm) by Dublin four-piece band, Lynched, at Teac Jack; an exhuberant New Year’s Eve celebration at Club CLG Gaoth Dobhair with Kerry-based Polca4 and local band, An Crann Óg; and two seisiún mór (big informal music/dance sessions) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag Saturday and Sunday, plus the classes.

Sponsors of the annual winter school include The Arts Council of Ireland.

‘Pretty Ugly,’ suspense-filled medical novel set on Donegal’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Over the last 40 years or so in media I’ve covered police, education, city hall, the rise, and fall, of Mayors, Prime Ministers and Presidents, I’ve been a medical writer, a war correspondent, a columnist, a travel writer, a publisher, a creative writing teacher…

…I’ve written about heart transplants, airplane crashes, wars (Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Romania, not to mention my very own native northern Ireland), I’ve survived earthquakes and tropical storms and a few other catastrophes (some of my very own making)… but completing my first novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ recently linking Ireland (Belfast and Donegal) and the US (Kansas City, Boston, New York and Washington) beats them all for sheer challenge.

Pretty Ugly novel, Sean Hillen author

Pretty Ugly’ has been a few years in the writing, and I wish I could say it was all plain sailing, but as probably most first-time novelists will tell you, “It wasn’t.”

I crashed into some plot rocks, found myself diverted by a few wayward literary waves and was even capsized mid-story and tossed into the opaque waters of writers’ block without a literary lifebelt. And if that wasn’t enough, I then had to throw a lot of ballast overboard in a desperate attempt to save the whole kit and caboodle from going under (100,000 words in total), with only myself on the poop deck waving a sad farewell.

The GOOD news, however, is that it’s DONE! And boy, am I PROUD – not about ‘Pretty Ugly’ being a success. That decision I leave to others more astute and objective than I, which includes you. But about finishing it, just the way I wanted.

Christmas gifts, new booksNow all I need is appreciative book-lovers to read what I’ve written. In fact, as many such readers as I can possibly muster. More than that, some of those fine people to kindly, generously, selflessly, write a short comment on the Amazon page below. Around 50 words is enough. I’ll even settle for 10. Even one, preferably ‘Great.’

I know it’s a lot to ask. In today’s fast-moving world, there seems barely enough time for even the ‘must-do’ things in daily life than to pen a few words to help an aspiring author. But following the timeworn advice, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get,’ I’m asking. Not quite with cap in hand, but with one knee slightly bent (lopsided, probably from playing too much football as a young man).

So, here goes…

PRETTY UGLY in print

PRETTY UGLY in kindle

Far be it from me to say, ‘Pretty Ugly’ would make an excellent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year or birthday gift for book-reading friends and family, but think of it this way. It has a pretty cover, it’s a pretty good read and it’s a pretty size so it’s bound to look extremely pretty wrapped up with nice colorful paper or inside a seasonal red stocking. What about the ugly bit, you ask? Always keep in mind, ‘Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.’

Who knows, maybe the land and seascape descriptions and dramatic action in ‘Pretty Ugly’ that take place in west Donegal including Gola and Tory Islands, Dunlewey, the Poisoned Glen, Gaoth Dobhair, Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland), Bunbeg, Teac Jack, Teac Hiudái Beag’s and many other places, will kick-start literary tourism here in the northwest.

new medical novels, wild atlantic way novelsIf it could but emulate a fraction of what Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ and ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller did for Salem, Massachusetts; Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With A Vampire’ did for New Orleans, Lousiana; John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ for Savannah, Georgia; an even George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ more popularly known as ‘Game of Thrones,’ did for northern Irish tourism, then the rewards would be rich. A flood of international visitors would come to the area creating stronger business for local cafes, restaurants, pubs, B&Bs’ and hotels, as well as greater support for community and cultural activities.

Why, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ even contains words and phrases as Gaeilge, therefore supporting development of the Irish language and scenes involving traditional Irish music seisiún and that most ancient of skin rejuvenation treatments – bog turf.

Anyway, please take a look and see what you think. Then leave a one-word or ten-word review on Amazon. I’d be much obliged.

Go raibh maith agat. Is mise le meas mor.

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

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.”