By A. M. Sullivan

CHAPTER IX. (continued)

From the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900)

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At the comparatively early age of twenty-five, Columba had attained to a prominent position in the ecclesiastical world, and had presided over the creation of a crowd of monasteries. As many as thirty-seven in Ireland alone recognized him as their founder. "It is easy," says Montalembert, "to perceive, by the importance of the monastic establishments which he had brought into being, even before he had attained to manhood, that his influence must have been as precocious as it was considerable. Apart from the virtues of which his after life afforded so many examples, it may be supposed that his royal birth gave him an irresistible ascendency in a country where, since the introduction of Christianity, all the early saints, like the principal abbots, belonged to reigning families, and where the influence of blood and the worship of genealogy still continue, even to this day, to a degree unknown in other lands. Springing, as has been said, from the same race as the monarch of all Ireland, and consequently himself eligible for the same high office, which was more frequently obtained by election or usurpation than inheritance—nephew or near cousin of the seven monarchs who successive wielded the supreme authority during his life—he was also related by ties of blood to almost all the provincial kings. Thus we see him during his whole career treated on a footing of perfect intimacy and equality by all the princes of Ireland and of Caledonia, and exercising a sort of spiritual sway equal or superior to the authority of secular sovereigns."

His attachment to poetry and literature has been already glanced at. He was, in fact, an enthusiast on the subject; he was himself a poet and writer of a high order of genius, and to an advanced period of his life remained an ardent devotee of the muse, ever powerfully moved by whatever affected the weal of the ministrel fraternity. His passion for books (all manuscript, of course, in those days, and of great rarity and value) was destined to lead him into that great offense of his life, which he was afterward to expiate by a penance so grievous. "He went everywhere in search of volumes which he could borrow or copy; often experiencing refusals which he resented bitterly." In this way occurred what Montalembert calls "the decisive event which changed the destiny of Columba, and transformed him from a wandering poet and ardent bookworm, into a missionary and apostle." While visiting one of his former tutors, Finian, he found means to copy clandestinely the abbot's Psalter by shutting himself up at nights in the church where the book was deposited. "Indignant at what he considered as almost a theft, Finian claimed the copy when it was finished by Columba, on the ground that a copy made without permission ought to belong to the master of the original, seeing that the transcription is the son of the original book. Columba refused to give up his work, and the question was referred to the king in his palace of Tara." What immediately follows, I relate in the words of Count Montalembert, summarizing or citing almost literally the ancients authors already referred to:

"King Diarmid, or Dermott, supreme monarch of Ireland, was, like Columba, descended from the great King Nial, but by another son than he whose great-grandson Columba was. He lived, like all the princes of his country, in a close union with the Church, which was represented in Ireland, more completely than anywhere else, by the monastic order. Exiled and persecuted in his youth, he had found refuge in an island situated in one of those lakes which interrupt the course of the Shannon, the chief river of Ireland, and had there formed a friendship with a holy monk called Kieran, a zealous comrade of Columba at the monastic school of Clonard, and since that time his generous rival in knowledge and in austerity. Upon the still solitary bank of the river the two friends had planned the foundation of a monastery, which, owing to the marshy nature of the soil, had to be built upon piles. 'Plant with me the first stake,' the monk said to the exiled prince, 'putting your hand under mine, and soon that hand shall be over all the men of Erinn;' and it happened that Diarmid was very shortly after called to the throne. He immediately used his new power to endow richly the monastery which was rendered doubly dear to him by the recollection of his exile and of his friend. This sanctuary became, under the name of Clonmacnoise, one of the greatest monasteries and most frequented schools of Ireland and even of Western Europe.

"This king might accordingly be regarded as a competent judge in a contest at once monastic and literary; he might even have been suspected of partiality for Columba, his kinsman—and yet he pronounced judgment against him. His judgment was given in a rustic phrase which has passed into a proverb in Ireland—To every cow her calf, and, consequently, to every book its copy. Columba protested loudly. 'It is an unjust sentence,' he said, 'and I will revenge myself. ' After this incident a young prince, son of the provincial king of Connaught, who was pursued for having committed an involuntary murder, took refuge with Columba, but was seized and put to death by the king. The irritation of the poet-monk knew no bounds. The ecclesiastical immunity which he enjoyed in his quality of superior and founder of several monasteries, ought to have, in his opinion, created a sort of sanctuary around his person, and this immunity had been scandalously violated by the execution of a youth whom he protected. He threatened the king with prompt vengeance. 'I will denounce,' he said, 'to my brethren and my kindred thy wicked judgment, and the violation in my person of the immunity of the Church; they will listen to my complaint, and punish thee sword in hand. Bad king, thou shalt no more see my face in thy province until God, the just judge, has subdued thy pride. As thou hast humbled me to-day before thy lords and thy friends, God will humble thee on the battle-day before thine enemies.' Diarmid attempted to retain him by force in the neighborhood; but, evading the vigilance of his guards, he escaped by night from the court of Tara, and directed his steps to his native province of Tyrconnell.

"Columba arrived safely in his province, and immediately set to work to excite against King Diarmid the numerous and powerful clans of his relatives and friends, who belonged to a branch of the house of Nial, distinct from and hostile to that of the reigning monarch. His efforts were crowned with success. The Hy-Nials of the north armed eagerly against the Hy-Nials of the south, of whom Diarmid was the special chief.

"Diarmid marched to meet them, and they met in battle at Cool-Drewny, or Cul-Dreimhne, upon the borders of Ultonia and Connacia. He was completely beaten, and was obliged to take refuge at Tara. The victory was due, according to the annalist Tighernach, to the prayers and songs of Columba, who had fasted and prayed with all his might to obtain from heaven the punishment of the royal insolence, and who, besides, was present at the battle, and took upon himself before all men the responsibility of the bloodshed.

"As for the manuscript which had been the object of this strange conflict of copyright elevated into a civil war, it was afterward venerated as a kind of national, military, and religious palladium. Under the name of Cathach or Fightu, the Latin Psalter transcribed by Columba, enshrined in a sort of portable altar, became the national relic of the O'Donnell clan. For more than a thousand years it was carried with them to battle as a pledge of victory, on the condition of being supported on the breast of a clerk free from all mortal sin. It has escaped as by miracle from the ravages of which Ireland has been the victim, and exists still, to the great joy of all learned Irish patriots."[3]

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[3] "The Annals of the Four Masters report that in a battle waged in 1497, between the O'Donnells and M'Dermotts, the sacred book fell into the hands of the latter, who, however, restored it in 1499. It was preserved for thirteen hundred years in the O'Donnell family, and at present belongs to a baronet of that name, who has permitted it to be exhibited in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy, where it can be seen by all. It is composed of fifty-eight leaves of parchment, bound in silver The learned O'Curry (p. 322) has given a facsimile of a fragment of this MS., which he does not hesitate to believe is in the handwriting of our saint, as well as that of the fine copy of the Gospels called the Book of Kells, of which he has also given a facsimile. See Reeves' notes upon Adamnan, p, 250. and the pamphlet upon Marianus Scotus, p. 12."—Count Montalembert's note.