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

International guests from three continents are immersed in Irish culture at ‘Forgotten Land, Remembered Words’ Ireland Writing Retreat in Gaoth Dobhair

“These kind of events (Goitse go Gaoth Dobhair festival and ‘Forgotten Land, Remembered Words’ Ireland Writing Retreat) reflect cultural tourism as its best. With a rich tapestry of culture, history and legend in Donegal, the powers that be should be investing heavily in these kinds of activities. Any other place in the world would be delighted to have such a rich background as a platform to promote tourism and the economic benefits it brings.” Jane Gilgun, Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota and participant at the recent writing retreat

group with Jane

International participants at the ‘Forgotten Land, Remembered Words’ writing retreat enjoy blue skies and sunshine outside Teac Jack.

From creative writing workshops and authors’ talks to ceildhe dancing, from hillwalking to studying the secrets of lyric writing, from performance of Irish seannós singing to learning ‘cúpla focal’ as Gaeilge and insights into Celtic mythology – such were some of the experiences of international participants at the inaugural ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ held last week in Donegal.

group with Ronan

Raidió na Gaeltachta’s Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí chats with writing retreat guests at Cabaret Craicailte in Teach Hiúdaí Beag.

A host of local people helped guests from three different continents – Australia, America and Europe – immerse themselves in local Irish tradition. They included Eileen Burgess, Divisional Manager of Donegal County Council Cultural Services; Pat Gallagher singer-songwriter and band leader of ‘Goats Don’t Shave’; Mary Nic Phaidin, former school principal and prime organizer of ceildhes in Teac Jack; Noeleen ni Cholla, seannós performer and Foras na Gaeilge representative; Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí, RnG broadcaster and founder of the dynamic Cabaret Craicailte; Seamus Doohan, walking guide and local historian; Moya Brennan, singer-songwriter, formerly of Clannad fame; Màirin Ó Fearraigh and Síle ui Ghallchóir, sisters and Gola Island guides; Caitlin Ui Dhuibhir, leader of An Crann Óg music group; Martin Ridge, long-time detective and author with transport provided mainly by Grace Bonner, winner of this year’s ‘Gaelforce’ event (over 40s category).

group with noeleen

Noeleen ni Cholla, sings sean-nós and explains to guests about the activities of Foras na Gaeilge.

While most of the creative writing, language, music and dance classes took place inside Teac Jack’s in Glassagh, participants also enjoyed hiking around the base of Lugh’s Mount (Errigal) where they learned about native flora, local history and Celtic legend. Time spent at Leo’s Tavern in Crolly, Teach Hiúdaí Beag in Bunbeg and a day over on Oileán Ghabhla (Gola Island) during the ‘Goitse go Gaoth Dobhair’ festival added to the depth of their overall experience.

Group with Mary

Retreat speaker, award-winning author and movie expert, Rachael Kelly, enjoys an informal get-together with Mary NicPhaidin, friends and family in the lobby of Teac Jack.

The next ‘Forgotten Land. Remembered Words’ Ireland Writing Retreat takes place this September. Spread the gospel and help attract more international tourists to your area.

For those unable to attend the week-long ‘Forgotten Land, Remembered Words’ Ireland Writing Retreat, here is a reproduction of a feature story published in Monday’s ‘Donegal News’ indicating some of the many highlights from it.

Donegal News after event

Donegal’s largest circulation newspaper, Donegal News, focuses Monday’s edition on the ‘Forgotten Land, Remembered Words’ Ireland Writing Retreat.

Cultural tourism – its time is nigh

There are some among us (either through ignorance or greed) who consider Donegal unfit for cultural tourism – but a quick glance at what’s happening right now in the area proves them wrong.

Take, for example, the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project.

As I started writing this, many people – tourism and community leaders, teachers, retired air-force pilots, sociologists, photographers, authors, solicitors, doctors and academics – were gathered at Óstán Loch Altan, Gortahork, in the scenic northwest of the county, talking enthusiastically about developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful cultural tourism pilgrimage project that could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

Speakers at the conference air their views as to how the proposed pilgrimage trail could be developed.

Organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall and ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba and supported by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Foras na Gaeilge, this three-day conference which ended today (Sunday) aims to develop a heritage trail based on the travels and travails of the Celtic mystic, Columba. Such a project could not only inform Irish and foreign visitors about local history, archaeology, folklore and heritage but also create employment and business for hotels, B&Bs, cafes, restaurants, museums and bars alike in the two regions.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to expand our learning and to attract visitors on a significant historical route from south-west Donegal to the Isle of Lewis in north-west Scotland,” said Randall, chairman of the Islands Book Trust.

This united effort is supported by renown authors-cum-academics such as 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).

Renown University of Cork researcher and author Máire Herbert beside the old stone cross on Tory Island with her groundbreaking book on the mystic monk Columba (Colmcille).

With additional speakers such as University of Galway’s Mícheál Ó Dónaill, Calum MacGilleain, Tristan ap Rheinallt and Aidan O’Hara from Scotland, Noel O’Gallchoir from Gaoth Dobhair, Noleen Ni Cholla, Moira Ni Ghallchoir, Maolcholaim Scott, Liam O’Cuinneagain and even the King of Tory Island himself, Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri, the conference comprehensively analyzed the tantalizing persona of Columba from the sociological, archaeological, historical, religious and mythological perspectives. And, more importantly, how interest in the fellow can be turned into a dollars and cents/euros and pennies booster for local tourism.

Brian Lacey, medieval historian and author, informs guests at the Sli Cholmcille conference about Pagan and druidic practices in and around Errigal and Muckish mountains.

The only drawback to an otherwise excellent symposium of speakers was the often poor technics, the out-of-focus projection of some otherwise well-researched multi-media presentations.

But the development of Sli Cholmcille is just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick glance at the local newspapers – the Donegal News and the Donegal Democrat – this weekend alone, shows a rich vein of cultural tourism – including the weekly music seisúns and this summer’s ‘Gaelturas’ initiative at Teach Hiudai Beag; the year-long programme of music and dance at Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern; the ‘Goitse Gaoth Dobhair’ events in Bunbeg this coming weekend, which emerged from the ‘Dearg le Fearg’ language equality campaign, as well as ‘Luinneog Lunasa’ in the same area; the ‘Swell Festival’ on Arranmore; and ‘FestiFál’ and ‘Evil Eye Festival’ in Falcarragh to name but a few. Other local diverse activities with strong potential range from rock-climbing, wind-surfing and kayaking with Rock agus Roam; horse and pony riding at the Dunlewey Trekking Centre and elsewhere; the craft demonstrations at Ionad Cois Locha; and the educational Walking Donegal, the hill, coast and lake hikes with informed guide, Seamus Doohan; as well as specialty walks such as the ‘Tullaghbegley Heritage Walking Weekend.’

The list is endless.

And that’s not to mention the many literary tourism opportunities based on the art of creative writing.

Antonia Leitner from Carinthia in Austria is not shy to show her love of books and learning at Magheroarty Beach.

The idyllic landscapes and seascapes of Donegal have been an inspiration to many best-selling novelists and short story authors who have set their plots within or around the county, in genres ranging from sci-fi to literary fiction and fantasy, as well as plays. These writers include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, Sophia Hillan, Kenneth Gregory, Emma Heatherington, Michael Harding and Laurence Donaghy, some of whom will speak at Ireland’s newest writing retreat ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Words’ from June 28th to July 4th in Gaoth Dobhair.

With the national initiative ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ now well underway and Donegal an integral part of it, there’s only one thing stopping the cultural tourism momentum that’s building up – a continued reluctance by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the primary economic development organisation in the Gaeltacht – to fund the many projects with serious money not just the few pennies it has been doling out until now to stave off a rising tide of protest.

‘Acupuncture of the body, acupuncture of the earth’ – author Brian Lacey describes a theory he learned from a Slovenian artist.

As many people are now saying, this organisation must host regular, open, community meetings and really listen to what local people – the very people they are there to serve – want in terms of more innovative community development; provide much greater transparency in its spending of an estimated 1.2 billion euro in public money, than it has to date; and an end to kow-towing to political parties and their funders (first Fianna Fail and now Fine Gael) which has resulted in far too much money going into the pockets of a rich elite of developers/builders who make easy profits from building simplistic, unneeded, industrial estates.

A new direction is required and a Catholic Church-run sex, drugs and alcohol addiction center in Falcarragh, with no guarantee of decent local jobs – especially as such a centre already exists in Donegal and research indicates this is sufficient for need – is hardly the panacea for high unemployment and emigration from the area. Some say real investment in local cultural tourism means shelving the proposed investment of three million euro by Údarás in the addiction centre and putting those euro millions into local tourism projects, the one sector a beautiful region like Donegal can benefit widely from, now and in the long-term (if that three million euro is spent on the proposed addiction centre, it spells the end for any real investment in anything else – no other board members of Údarás in other Gaeltachts will vote for any further significant monies for Donegal).

In this regard, it is quite sad to see how much Tory Island has fallen below its full potential – far behind many other attractive island retreats dotted around Ireland. The dismissive attitude of relevant funding authorities – and perhaps the disunity and lack of concerted lobbying and effort by local people (full burden cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one man, King Patsy Dan) – has meant its tourism income has suffered greatly, with accompanying lack of promotion (not even a regular newsletter on events or significant signage on the mainland and on the island itself).

“I am tired of trying to persuade Udaras na Gaeltachta officials to properly fund projects here on Tory Island, their ears are deaf, they simply don’t understand,” said King Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri. “The people here deserve such support. Our ancient and colourful history calls out for it.”

Befriending Royalty. Modern version of the horse-drawn carriage?

It’s make-or-break time for northwest Donegal.

Let’s put an end to the notion that cultural tourism is an unimportant, peripheral activity, the kind of mind-think that Údarás officials are stuck on, and have been for decades. This specialized sector has the potential to provide immense, long-term economic benefits for this hard-hit, hard-pressed part of the county and country, but it requires serious commitment and financial support.

In a future post I will give specific examples from my extensive sojourns in other parts of the world as an international travel writer where cultural tourism has transformed and enlivened a local and often paralyzed economy.

Meanwhile the next post will focus on what precisely various speakers at the conference said about Columba, this larger-than-life monk who seems to defy description, someone about whose background we know very little, either because documents were destroyed by marauding, book-burning Vikings, or were deftly confiscated by church abbots on a precise propaganda campaign.

To read more of Sean’s work, check these sites:

Digging for Dracula

World Itineraries

Examiner

JustLuxe

Ireland Writing Retreat

Fios Training and Coaching Organization

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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