By A. M. Sullivan

CHAPTER IX. (continued)

From the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900)

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At length there arrived an event for Columba full of excruciating trial—it became necessary for him to revisit Ireland! His presence was found to be imperatively required at the general assembly or convocation of the princes and prelates of the Irish nation, convened A.D. 573 by Hugh the Second.[6] At this memorable assembly, known in history as the great Convention of Drumceat, the first meeting of the States of Ireland held since the abandonment of Tara, there were to be discussed, among other important subjects, two which were of deep and powerful interest to Columba: firstly, the relations between Ireland and the Argyle or Caledonian colony; and secondly, the proposed decree for the abolition of the bards.

The country now known as Scotland was, about, the time of the Christian era, inhabited by a barbarous and warlike race called Picts. About the middle of the second century, when Ireland was, known to the Romans as Scotia, an Irish chieftain, Carbry Riada (from whom were descended the Dalariads of Antrim), crossed over to the western shores of Alba or Albyn, and founded there a Dalariadan or Milesian colony. The colonists had a hard time of it with their savage Pictish neighbors; yet they managed to hold their ground, though receiving very little aid or attention from the parent country, to which nevertheless they regularly paid tribute. At length, in the year 503, the neglected colony was utterly overwhelmed by the Picts, whereupon a powerful force of the Irish Dalariads, under the leadership of Leorn, Aengus, and Fergus, crossed over, invaded Albany, and gradually subjugating the Picts, re-established the colony on a basis which was the foundation eventually of the Scottish monarchy of all subsequent history. To the, re-established colony was given the name by which it was known long after, Scotia Minor; Ireland being called Scotia Major.

In the time of St. Columba, the colony, which so far had continuously been assessed by, and. had duly paid its tribute to, the mother country, began to feel its competency to claim independence. Already it had selected and installed a, king (whom St. Columba had formally consecrated), and now it sent to Ireland a demand to exempted from further tribute. The Irish monarch resisted the demand, which, however, it was decided first to submit to a national assembly, at which the Scottish colony should be represented, and where it might plead its case as best it could.

Many and obvious considerations pointed to St. Columba as the man of men to plead the cause of the young nationality on this, momentous occasion. He was peculiarly qualified to act as umpire in this threatening quarrel between the old country, to which he felt bound by such sacred ties, and the new one, which by adoption was now his home. He consented to attend at the assembly. He did so the more readily, perhaps, because of his strong feelings in reference to the other proposition named, viz., the proscription of the bards.

It may seem strange that in Ireland, where, from an early date, music and song held so high a place in national estimation such a proposition should be made. But by this time the numerous and absurd immunities claimed by the bardic profession had become intolerable; and by gross abuses of the bardic privileges, the bards themselves had indubitably become a pest to society. King Hugh had therefore, a strong public opinion at his back in his design of utterly abolishing the bardic corporation.

St. Columba, however, not only was allied to them by a fraternity of feeling, but he discerned clearly that by purifying and conserving, rather than by destroying, the national minstrelsy, it would become a potential influence for good, and would entwine itself gratefully around the shrine within which at such a crisis it found shelter. In fine, he felt, and felt deeply, as an Irishman and as an ecclesiastic, that the proposition of King Hugh would annihilate one of the most treasured institutions of the nation—one of the most powerful aids to patriotism and religion.

So, to plead the cause of liberty for a young nationality, and the cause of patriotism, religion, literature, music, and poetry, in defending the minstrel race, St. Columba to Ireland would go!

To Ireland! But then his vow! His penance sentence, that he should never more see Ireland! How his heart surged! O great allurement! O stern resolve! O triumph of sacrifice!

Yes; he would keep his vow, yet attend the convocation amid those hills of Ireland which he was never more to see! With a vast array of attendant monks and lay princes, he embarked for the unforgotten land; but when the galleys came within some leagues of the Irish coast, and before it could yet be sighted, St. Columba caused his eyes to be bandaged with a white scarf, and thus blindfolded was he led on shore! It is said that when he stepped upon the beach, and for the first time during so many years felt that he trod the soil of Ireland, he trembled from head to foot with emotion.

When the great saint was led blindfold into the convention, the whole assemblage—kings, princes, prelates, and chieftains—rose and uncovered as reverentially as if Patrick himself had once more appeared among them.[7] It was, we may well believe, an impressive scene; and we can well understand the stillness of anxious attention with which all waited to hear once more the tones of that voice which many traditions class among the miraculous gifts of Columba. More than one contemporary writer has described his personal appearance at this time; and Montalembert says: "All testimonies agree in celebrating his manly beauty, his remarkable height, his sweet and sonorous voice, the cordiality of his manner, the gracious dignity of his deportment and person."

Not in vain did he plead the causes he had come to advocate. Long and ably was the question of the Scottish colony debated. Some versions allege that it was amicably left to the decision of Columba, and that his award of several independence, but fraternal alliance, was cheerfully acquiesced in. Other accounts state that King Hugh, finding argument prevailing against his views, angrily drawing his sword, declared he would compel the colony to submission by force of arms; whereupon Columba, rising from his seat, in a voice full of solemnity and authority, exclaimed: "In the presence of this threat of tyrannic force, I declare the cause ended, and proclaim the Scottish colony free forever from the yoke!" By whichever way, however, the result was arrived at, the independence of the young Caledonian nation was recognized and voted by the convention through the exertions of St. Columba.

His views in behalf of the bards likewise prevailed. He admitted the disorders, irregularities, and abuses alleged against the body; but he pleaded, and pleaded successfully, for reform instead of abolition. Time has vindicated the far sighted policy of the statesman saint. The national music and poetry of Ireland, thus purified and consecrated to the service of religion and country, have ever since, through ages of persecution, been true to the holy mission assigned them on that day by Columba.

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[6] Aedh (pronounced Aeh), son of Anmire the First.

[7] Some versions allege that, although the saint himself was received with reverence, almost with awe, a hostile demonstration was designed, if not attempted, by the king's party against the Scottic delegation who accompanied St. Columba.