Adult Life in Ireland

Adult Life in Ireland

We have very little information about any of Colum Cille’s activities before he left Ireland for Scotland (around 562). He was by then about forty-two years of age, presumably having led something of an eventful life before that. Whether or not he was the founder of any monasteries in Ireland before he left for Scotland is a major question. Bede says that before he came to Britain, he had founded the monastery of Durrow in the Irish midlands, now in County Offaly. But Bede’s version is contradicted by Adomnán who implies that Durrow was not founded until the 580s.

The later legends are all definite that Colum Cille founded the monastery of Derry - his first and thus most beloved monastery – well before he left Ireland for Iona. But the earliest surviving version of this legend occurs in the 10th or early 11th century preface to the Latin prayer-poem Noli Pater Indulgere, ‘Father do not allow’. A scribe working in Derry in the twelfth century, and on very insubstantial grounds, went so far as to give the date of 545 as the year in which that foundation occurred. Colum Cille’s church was said to have been called the Dub Regles or ‘Black Abbey’. A church of that name certainly did exist in Derry from very early times because, when it was burnt in a major fire in 1166, the annalist adds that this was something ‘which had not been heard of from ancient times’. Notwithstanding the legend, we cannot say how old the Dub Regles was at that time. However, historical evidence does not support such an early date for the foundation nor the attribution to Colum Cille. The legendary version can be challenged on various grounds, and there is alternative evidence that the monastery was founded some time later by a relative of Colum Cille’s called Fiachra mac Ciaráin, who died in 620.

Adomnán twice dates Colum Cille’s departure for Iona to two years after the battle of Cúl Dreimne. We now know that that battle was fought in 560 at the foot of Benbulbin Mountain in the vicinity of the later Columban monastery at Drumcliff, near Sligo. The battle of Cúl Dreimne was clearly a significant encounter, the true circumstances of which have become obscured and enshrouded in later myths. The legend claims that the northern Uí Néill defeated their southern Uí Néill rivals led by the king of Tara, Díarmait mac Cerbaill. The cause of the battle is not recorded in contemporary texts but later annalists claimed that the northerners gained the victory ‘through the prayer of Colum Cille’. The Annals of Tigernach adds that Díarmait had an additional, exotic weapon - a druidic protective ‘fence’ of some kind. Whatever the facts, the battle seems to have been remembered as a conflict between the forces of Christianity and those of pagan druidism.

The battle gave rise to many legends; the best known of them tells how Colum Cille himself was responsible for it. He was said to have been visiting the monastery of one of the Saint Finnians when he discovered a manuscript of the Psalms. Fearing that Finnian would refuse him permission to make another copy of it, he began to do so secretly. When Finnian learned about this he argued that the transcript was his property also. Colum Cille was furious and referred the matter to Díarmait mac Cerbaill, the high-king at Tara. Díarmait found in favour of Finnian and uttered the famous judgement:

Le gach boin a boinín, le gach leabhar a leabhrán — To every cow its calf [literally: ‘little cow’], to every book its copy [literally: little book].

It is often claimed that this is one of the oldest references in history to the concept of copyright but the earliest written version only occurs in Manus Ó Domhnaill’s 'Life of Colum Cille' written in 1532. It has been suggested, therefore, that the story may owe its origins to a reflex of the kind of problems that arose as a consequence of the invention of that most recent innovation of the time, the printed book.

At any rate, in the story Colum Cille, now doubly infuriated, promised to avenge what to him seemed an unjust decision. At that time a son of the king of Connacht, Eochaid Tirmcharna, was a hostage at Tara. While playing hurling, the young prince accidentally killed a son of one of Díarmait’s men. The boy fled for protection to Colum Cille but Díarmait, contrary to custom, refused to recognise his sanctuary. The youth was captured and executed. Colum Cille made his way back to Tír Chonaill. Although only at the start of his career, Colum Cille’s kin were not prepared to accept such insults to their illustrious relative and so they prepared for battle. Colum Cille’s people, the Cenél Conaill, and the other neighbouring kingdoms made an alliance against the king of Tara. The result was the battle of Cúl Dreimne.

These late stories are, of course, fictional and the character of Colum Cille that comes out of them is very much at variance with that shown in the more sober and genuinely historical sources such as Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. In fact in reality, it has been shown recently that Colum Cille and king Díarmait may have been first cousins and that the king may have been actually leading the Donegal kingdoms in the battle rather than attacking them.

However, there has been considerable debate among historians as to whether Colum Cille had any role in the battle. Some later legends suggests that guilt for his alleged role in the death of those who fell in the battle was the cause of his going into exile in Scotland. Adomnán records the fact that a synod held at Tailtiu (Teltown near Kells in County Meath) excommunicated Colum Cille ‘improperly as afterwards became known’. If Colum Cille did have some involvement in the events surrounding the battle, it is possible that he would have been disciplined by a gathering of his peers. However, Adomnán does not further explain the reason for their original incorrect edict. At any rate sometime afterwards, Colum Cille set out for Scotland.

Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Project, Dublin