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The History of Ulster
The Mission of St. Columba


St. Columba a Member of the Royal House of Ulster - He founds a Church in Derry - Responsible for the Battle of Cuildrevne, - "The Battle of the Books" - Repairs to lona - The Conversion of Northumbria - St. Columba returns to Ireland - Attends the Convention of Drum - Ketta in Derry - The Boru Tribute - The Battle of Moyrath (Moira) - The Coming of the Danes.

About fifty years after the death of St. Patrick there arose almost as remarkable a spiritual leader in the person of St. Columba, whose influence outside his native land was even greater than that of his predecessor, and who may with truth be regarded as the founder of what was for centuries the centre of Christianity in the West.

St. Columba was born at Garten, in Donegal, in 521, and was a member of the royal house of Ulster the Hy-Nials. His portrait has been admirably limned by Adamnan, who indeed gives us the man in his habit as he lived. After the lapse of centuries this vivid portrait has lost none of its charm. We recognize the complete and genuine humanity of the man, despite the ultra-miraculous nature with which his biographer seeks to endow him. The chief characteristic of St. Columba was his whole-hearted and genuine love for his native land. Ireland seems to have been, despite his calling, the chief object of his love, and his sorrow at leaving her his most poignant affliction.

In 545, we are told, he founded the monastery and church at Derry, a place in which he seems to have centred his affections, for frequent are his references to the beloved "Oaks of Derry".

But though St. Columba had a tender heart, he had a fiery temper, and that fiery Celtic temper, it has been held, led to his being largely responsible for the battle of Cuildrevne in 561. Strange as this may appear, the evidence in its favour is so strong that, although Adamnan tries to make light of it, it cannot be ignored ; otherwise St. Columba's exile from a land he loved cannot be explained. The banishment of the saint to lona cannot possibly have been voluntary, but must have been undertaken as a penance and token of penitence for the share he had taken in the unpriestlike work of bloodshed.

The story of the battle of Cuildrevne may be told in a few words, and shows how even saints may occasionally lose their tempers. St. Finian of Moville possessed a rare copy of the Psalter. St. Columba, without the knowledge or permission of the owner, secured the book and transcribed it. St. Finian, having discovered this, demanded the copy, which St. Columba refused to surrender. The matter was referred to the Ardri. He decided against St. Columba, who refused to abide by the judgment, and, rousing all his relatives and friends to side with him, thus brought about the first recorded "Battle of the Books".

Two years after this sanguinary encounter St. Columba left Ireland with twelve companions, and landed in lona, where he became the cynosure of all the eyes in Christendom. Here he lived and laboured, and here he died in 597, and with his death there passed away one of the most important men of his time, and certainly the first Irishman of his day.

It must be remembered that Britain, which during the lifetime of St. Patrick had been on the whole Roman and Christian, had, under the iron rule of its Saxon conquerors, relapsed into paganism, and therefore Ireland had slowly become, by this process, more and more isolated from Christendom. She was a spark of Christianity surrounded by a mass of paganism, a disk of light in a circle of gloom. As such she became a beacon to all enthusiasts of the Faith, with the result that, through the Irish colony at lona, Ireland was largely responsible for the conversion of the North of England. How this came about may be briefly told. Oswald, King of Northumbria, had in his early days taken refuge in lona, and when called upon to reign he at once summoned the Irish missionaries, and, acting himself as their interpreter, so impressed his subjects that great numbers of them were converted. Thus, with Oswald's warfare against heathenism in the North and St. Augustine's great and indefatigable labours in the South, England once more became Christian. But in the very enthusiasm of the adherents and propagators of the Faith lay the seeds of schism. Disputes arose on various subjects connected with the Church, and many wordy warfares ensued. Unimportant as these may appear, they were the source of trouble at the time, and eventually did much to shape the destiny of Ireland.

In her isolated position, separated from the continent of Europe, and surrounded by the waves and tempests of the Atlantic, Ireland existed, as it were, "alike unknowing and unknown". Her children, unlike those of the sister isle, have never been great lovers of the sea, and therefore never ventured afar, consequently she was unknown. Cassar scarcely mentioned her; Agricola superciliously remarked that she might be worth conquering, but thought, in his ignorance, the conquest could be gained with a single legion. All the known world had fallen before the Romans, but Ireland was left severely alone. Is it to be wondered at, under these circumstances, that as time progressed, and the world changed from paganism to Christianity, and Ireland with it, she should, while embracing the new Faith herself, be little affected by the triumphs of that Faith on the far-away Continent, and be regardless of the temporal or spiritual power of Rome.

In this she stood somewhat apart amongst the peoples of Europe. True, St. Patrick had ruled that all disputes in the Church which could not be settled at home should be sent to Rome for decision; but this canon had been overlooked, so dim and distant did Rome appear to be. Ireland was soon to learn how far-reaching was the power of the Holy See.

Rome being a centre of learning and in touch with other centres of learning discovered that in computing Easter the Jewish cycle was incorrect, and forthwith she substituted a more correct cycle. Of this important alteration the Irish were unaware, and when their attention was drawn to the matter by Rome, some of the churches determined to adhere to the Jewish cycle, which had been introduced by St. Patrick, while others were in favour of adopting the new cycle. The controversy raged for over a century, and was finally settled by submission to Rome. This submission of the Church of Ireland to the powers at Rome, which claimed a right of disposition over "the isles of the sea", became the first link in the chain of events which led to Pope Adrian's issuing the famous bull "Laudabiliter", by which he gave Henry II of England permission to enter Ireland "and execute whatsoever may tend to the honour of God and the welfare of the land".

But if Ii eland was thus delivered over to British rule (a rule which, whatever it may be to-day, was for centuries a rule of greed and plunder, of butchery and ruthlessness) by her love of a Church which has held the world in awe, she owes much to that Church for physical well-being and intellectual and spiritual advancement. "The Irish", said Sir James Mackintosh, "are enabled to boast that they possess genuine history several centuries more ancient than any European nation possesses it in its spoken language." That they are able to pride themselves on the antiquity of their annals is due to the influence of the Church missionaries, who everywhere were the pioneers of the new learning as of the new Faith, and the preservers of such chronicles as existed at their coming. But not alone did the monks encourage literature: they were carvers, gilders, painters, architects, and bookbinders, as well as illuminators and lovers of letters. While a turbulent torrent of war roared round the walls of their monasteries they calmly proceeded with their work, producing vessels of gold and vessels of silver, carven work of exquisite beauty, chalices, croziers, and crosses, and illuminated manuscripts with marvellously intricate and dexterously drawn designs.

But learning was not confined to the monasteries; there were lay teachers who had themselves been taught by the monks, and these men went up and down through the land instructing the people, and thus playing a very important part in the diffusion of knowledge. Every large monastery had a school attached, and in these schools secular as well as ecclesiastical learning was carefully attended to. There is ample evidence that Latin and Greek were carefully studied and successfully acquired.

The reputation of Ireland as an intellectual centre spread far and wide, and attracted scholars and would-be scholars from all parts of the Continent. From Britain they came, as Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne, expressed it in a letter to one who had himself been educated in Ireland, in "fleet loads".

But, alas! Ireland was to experience but a brief period of peace from within or from without. While she could she enjoyed this period of steady moral and intellectual growth, and availed herself to a very remarkable extent of all the benefits it afforded her. But even as she dreamt of a golden age of light and letters, of peace and plenty, she was suddenly torn asunder with internal dissensions and threatened with foreign invasion.

St. Columba, as we have seen, was in his sanctuary at lona, and to him came his neighbour, Aidan, King of the Dalriadans, a Caledonian colony, to complain that the Ardri, the King of Ulster, named Aedh, demanded tribute of him. Aidan had befriended St. Columba on many occasions, and St. Columba had anointed Aidan as king. To settle this dispute St. Columba crossed to Ulster with King Aidan in order to attend the Convention of Drum Ketta. This was held in A.D. 587 in a small town in County Derry. It is said that this was the most numerously attended and representative gathering that had been held for many years. St. Columba addressed the huge gathering, and finally he won the day.

This was not, however, the only matter which had to be considered. The Ardri insisted on the payment of the Boru tribute, which, it will be remembered, was first imposed by Thuathal. The Leinster king resisted this demand, and finally a battle was fought in which the Ardri was slain.

The next internal upheaval occurred in the reign of King Domhnall. A grandson of the Ardri just mentioned, he became Ardri in 627. It is recorded that as a child he was carried to the Convention of Drum Ketta in order that St. Columba might bless him. The saint did so, and prophesied that, unlike the majority of Irish kings, Domhnall would die In his bed. Domhnall, when he became Ardri, proceeded to do the best he could to test the truth of this prophecy. He made war on an Ulster prince named Congal. Congal had slain a previous Ardri, and Domhnall sought to punish him. He defeated Congal and drove him out of his Ulster possessions into exile. After an absence of some ten years in Britain, Congal returned at the head of a large army. Domhnall now sorrowfully said he did not wish to fight Congal. He suddenly remembered that he was his fosterfather, and that he loved him! Why then did he some years before drive him from Ulster? But notwithstanding the sentiments expressed by the Ardri he collected men in the other provinces and proceeded to prove his love for Congal by opposing him in a fierce battle fought at Moyrath (Moira) in Down. Congal fought with great bravery, and the story of his encounter in single fight with a warrior named Conall is recorded in a Bardic tale, The Battle of Moyrath, in which Congal and his opponent are compared to Hercules and Antasus. Congal, however, was mortal, and he was slain and his army annihilated, and Domhnall died in bed as predicted.

Ulster suffered both from within and without. Northern pirates landed in 824 and sacked Bangor, and laid waste the whole district, plundering and burning town after town as they careered wildly on their way, devastating the country like a cloud of locusts. Maghera, Moville, and Armagh, to mention but a few of the principal objects of their attacks, were pillaged.

Nine years later the renegade Bishop-King of Cashel, who aspired to be Ardri, plundered Clonmacnoise, and "butchered the monks like sheep", and so terrified the Primate of Armagh that he paid homage to the cut-throat.

Such were the internal dissensions which disturbed a sorrowful land; but these "old unhappy far-off things" fade into insignificance when compared with the dangers which menaced Erin from without. Hitherto she had escaped the Scandinavian scourge which for four hundred years had swept over Britain. But she had suffered in common with Britain and Gaul from incursions of vikings, and had hitherto warded off their attacks. Their black ships, with crews of Picts, Danes, and Norsemen, now came sweeping over the waves in such numbers that they menaced her very existence. These Danes were "merciless, sour, and hardie". Here, if ever there was one, was a chance for a united Ireland! Alas, that dream has never been realized! The vikings found an easy prey, and visiting various portions of the coast line they, in their light ships, sped up the rivers, and landing unexpectedly, struck terror into the hearts of the Irish by the very suddenness and fierceness of their attacks.

Led by a chief whose name is variously given as Thorkels, Turges, and Thorgist, sixty of their ships entered the Liffey and sixty more the Boyne. Here they landed and burned and plundered, ravished and massacred the natives. They spent much of their fury on the churches. Turges killed all the priests and monks he could lay his hands on. He burned the Cathedral of Armagh, and set his wife on the High Altar at Clonmacnoise to utter incantations. He also exacted a tribute called "nose money", so called from the name of the organ which he removed if the money was not paid. In the end he carried his cruelty so far that in despair the natives arose on their oppressors, of whom a general massacre took place, and Turges was seized and slain. But this was only a temporary reaction. More Danes appeared Amlaff, Sitric, and Imar and with countless ships, filled with their fierce followers, they enslaved the island. The Irish, still divided amongst themselves, were easily broken. The Danes built and fortified towns along the coast, and into these citadels they gathered the spoil of the whole land. Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Wexford, and Dublin all owe their origin in the first instance to the vikings. The history of the next three hundred years is one of war and all the horrors of war.


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