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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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.

Druids, faeries and a giant with a hole in his head – a witch’s brew of a carnival in Falcarragh

Possessing creative flair and organizational ability in abundance Kathleen Gallagher wanted to utilize her multi-faceted talents to support cultural and tourism development in Falcarragh – hey presto, some of the most colorful carnivals ever to grace the environs of this small, west Donegal Gaeltacht town.

Born in the tiny district of Carrowcannon, Kathleen (44), a teacher of early school leavers in Letterkenny, was a member of the Cosa Meata ‘Funky Feet’ Carnival Group and the more informal, self-named, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Creative Creaturs.’

Kathleen

As such, she was plum full of innovative ideas. And anyone who had the honor of witnessing the dramatic scenes as around 90 people dressed as zombies, vampires and creatures that go ‘boo’ in the night (with Kathleen as a zombie bride) emerged over the hill from the direction of the Bridge of Tears in the Muckish Gap, slouching into Falcarragh crossroads to the pulsating sounds of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ a few years ago know exactly what the term ‘innovative idea’ means. That particular event in 2010 raised more than 14,000 euro for the victims of the Haiti earthquake and also gained national recognition by featuring in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin watched by tens of thousands.

Haiti

Then there was the ‘Great Ball Race’ event on October 30, 2011, at which 4,000 numbered balls were released at the top of Falcarragh hill rolling down towards Gortahork and captured in a specially-designed collection chute, made by Dutchman, Rein de Groot. The event raised 4,230 euro for Concern to help reduce drought in Africa.

leprachaun

That brings us to the inaugural and intriguingly-entitled ‘Evil Eye Festival’ (Féile na Súile Nimhe) last year, which Kathleen and colleagues shaped to fit the national tourism campaign ‘The Gathering,’ and which will be repeated this year. Starring five impressive, 7-foot high puppets, two so complex they had to be operated by three people, a large cow structure made of timber and wire designed and made by Kerry Law and her partner Roger O’Shea and a 16-person squad of dynamic samba drummers representing the evil Balor’s army, as well as the assistance of the Cloughaneely Drama Group under the direction of Manus Diver and Joanne Butler and three of the area’s Irish schools of dancing (McCafferty, Maureen Byrne and Kavanagh), Kathleen and her team made local legendary history come to dynamic life. In the environs of Ballyconnell House estate (a verdant community preserve that may soon be turned into a Catholic Church-run drug addiction clinic), the story of the battle between Balor and his grandson, Lugh, son of Eithne, and the stealing of ‘An Glas Gaibleann’ (Cow of Plenty) from Mac Aneely, came to multi-colored life. Narration was in English and dialogue between characters ‘as Gaeilge,’ all replete with witches, faeries and a druidess (Biróg).

pupets 3

“It’s such a fantastic story, just waiting to be told in a multi-art form way,” is how Kathleen described the genesis of the event. “I knew we had a core of very creative people here who were well able to deliver a great spectacle. It was a case of building social capital in the area. We have plenty of local talent here. We just need the resources.”

The response to the festival last year was terrific, Kathleen recalls. “It worked out brilliantly. First of all, the weather stayed kind. And so many people – many of them locals, some of whom didn’t know the details of the legendary story of Balor and Lugh or the story about the stone behind the GAA field – came to enjoy the spectacle. Also, many people volunteered to help, even a plasterer, Martin Whoriskey from Gortahork, who saw us rehearsing at The Yard where he was working and happened to mention that he used stilts in his job to reach high spots. Immediately, we begged him to join us, which he did, playing the role of Balor – on stilts, of course. Aisling Friel from Gortahork, a former member of Cosa Meata Carnival Group, played the role of Eithne, daughter of Balor.”

headless man

For their efforts, the ‘Balor team’ was runners-up in the National Heritage Council award for ‘Most Innovative’ event, as well as the Me2U Donegal Volunteers Award.

Challenges, of course, were many, as they tend to be when launching such an ambitious idea. “It was a brand new project so people were initially a bit bewildered about it at the start. We also needed to find available space, both for the equipment and our life-size puppets, as well as for workshops such as the samba drumming training led by Roger. We were very thankful to Paul Kernan (coordinator) and his team at The Yard, who helped us very much. Sean Fitzpatrick, a wonderful designer, produced our posters and brochures.”

evil eye 1

With this year’s event due to take place between August 22 to 24, Kathleen and her committee – Sarah de Groot (treasurer), Angela Boyle (administrator), Finola Early (costume design), Kerry Law and Roger O’Shea (artistic design), Sean Fitzgerald (graphic design), and Moira Gallagher (public relations), are now focusing their minds on fund-raising, not an easy matter in these recessionary times we live in. Last year, they  raised €3,500 in fundraising for the three-day festival by organizing a ‘couch to circuit’ 5km training programme, a 9-week regime of three sessions of jogging a week; a “Santa spin,’ in which people dressed as the chubby fellow in red and chose any means of transport to move around the Falcarragh area (including ‘suitcases on wheels’ and go-karts); and a leprechaun hunt in the Ballyconnell House estate.

summer

Kathleen would like to develop her team’s ideas further and expand the yearly events’ calendar both to entertain members of the local rural community and attract more tourists to the area but urgently requires greater, guaranteed funds to do so. “So much effort goes into fund-raising before we even begin to embark on our ideas and there’s only so many times you can ask someone to volunteer their time and effort,” she said during an interview at An tSean Bheairic this week. “It would be so much easier if we were financially well supported and could focus our efforts more on creating great entertainment, with strong educational value, for young and old alike.”

Kathleen and her merry band of entertainers launch their fund-raising campaign soon. They deserve our full support. Delve deep into your pocket and give generously.