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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 20 - Columba; Birth; Education; Founds numerous colleges


The light which Patrick had come from the banks of the Clyde to kindle in the darkness of Ireland, was in due time carried back to the native country of the apostle, and made to burn on the mountains of Scotland. There that light was to create a church, and that church was to mould a nation, and that nation was to become in after times one of the most powerful organizations on the face of the earth for the propagation of that Christianity and liberty, of which it was itself, first of all, to be an illustrious example and an unsurpassed model. Following in the steps of the man who carried back this light across the Irish sea to the Scottish shore, we return to that country whose history we are to trace along the line of conflict and achievement, till at last Scotland is seen standing before the world with its great lesson, that a perfect and stable liberty can be attained not otherwise than through a full and perfect Christianity.

This is the proper business of the historian, and in so far as he comes short of it he falls beneath the dignity of his theme, and misses the end and reward of his labour. What boots it to grope in the grace of thrones and nations, and to bring up from the darkness bits of curious lore and forgotten information? To know when this battle was fought, or when this hero died, makes the world none the wiser, if the information terminates in itself. There is a spirit in man and there is a soul in nations, and till that soul has been breathed into a people, they will continue to grovel in the dust of barbarism and slavery. To note the birth of this soul, to trace its growth, and to mark how it slowly but surely leads nations onward to power and grandeur, and so put on record models that may guide, lessons that may teach, and examples that may stimulate the ages to come, is the high office of history. And thus it is that with the arrival of a stranger who sought our shores on a mission as sublime as his appearance was humble and unpretending, the interest of our country' s story begins.

In the year 563, on one of the days of early summer, an osier-built wherry was seen on the waters of the Irish Channel, its prow turned in the direction of the Argyleshire mountains. It bore as its freight a little company of venerable-looking men. Steering their slim but buoyant bark; warily amid the currents that circle round the outlying islands, and the surges that roll in from the Atlantic, they moor their vessel in a little creek in the island of Iona. Their voyage ended, the strangers step on shore and straightway proceed to erect a few huts for temporary shelter and dwelling. Who are the men who have just taken possession of this little isle, till now hidden amid the Hebridean waves, but destined from this day forward to be illustrious through all time? And, in particular, who is he who is the chief and leader of the little band, if we may judge from the air of authority that sits so easily on him, and the deference which we see so spontaneously paid him by his companions.

We hear them address him by the name of Columcille. Translated into our own vernacular, this term signifies the dove of the church. The name is of good augury. He who owns it cannot be other than the bearer of good tidings. And a bearer of good tidings he truly is. "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings." So had the prophet said of old, and this ancient strain might well have awakened the echoes of our glens and mountains when this currach touched the strand of Iona, for now the knell of a pagan Druidism in Scotland was rung out. Columcille, or Columba,—for we shall speak of him under this last and better known form of the name,—was born at Gartan, amid the wilds of Donegal, Ireland, on the 7th of December, A.D. 521.[1] He was related by blood to more than one of the royal houses of Ireland. His father, Fedhlimidh, belonged to the Northern tribe, the Hi Niall, or O'Neill. The Nialls were one of eight powerful and warlike races which had governed Ireland for centuries, and whose lineage, when we attempt to trace it, is lost in the darkness of the ages. Fedhlimidh was descended from the eighth son of a great king, who figures in Irish story as "Niall of the nine hostages," and who was so named because he had received that number of hostages from a king whom he had conquered.[2] This Niall was the monarch of all Ireland at the beginning of the fifth century, and was probably the reigning king at the time when Patrick, the future apostle of that land, was carried thither as a captive. By the mother's side, also, Columba was royally descended. Eithne—such was her name—was the daughter of the king of Leinster, one of the four subordinate kingdoms into which Ireland was then divided.[3] The blood of two royal houses thus flowed in the veins of the son of Fedhlimidh and Eithne, and it was just possible that on some future vacancy, Columba might be called to mount the throne. In Ireland the son did not always succeed the father. By the law of Tanistry, the sceptre, on the demise of the monarch, became the right of that one of the blood relations who chanced to be the oldest. If the son was the oldest, he succeeded to the government; if not, the throne fell to a brother, or to some more distant relative of the deceased monarch. This law was designed to obviate the more than ordinary perils attendant on the rule of a minor in a country such as Ireland then was. A firm and strong hand was needed where the sceptre was to be swayed over powerful vassals always at feud among themselves, and often by their ambitions disturbing or upsetting the government.

Nature had withheld from Columba no endowment of mind and person which could fit him for the task before him. All those advantages which men admire, and, it may be, envy, when they see them in others, and are pleased with, or perhaps vain of, when they find them in themselves, met in him. He was royally descended, his stature was lofty, his person was majestic, and his intellect was capacious. He possessed, moreover, a rich and sonorous voice, and this, combined with a quick apprehension and a graceful utterance, enabled him on all occasions when he addressed his fellows to command their attention and win their confidence. His deportment was at once dignified and affable. In disposition he was naturally quick and choleric, but withal generous and confiding. This was an assemblage of qualities which would have gained him distinction and given him influence in any age, but in the age in which his lot was cast these various endowments left him without a peer as regards the ascendancy he wielded and the submission accorded to him. His commanding presence and other physical endowments contributed not a little to the respect which waited on him, for among barbarous tribes bodily strength is often accounted a higher prerogative than intellectual power. One would be strongly tempted to suspect that the biographers of Columba have striven to decorate him with all the attributes which go to form the hero and the evangelist in one, were it not that the work which he accomplished remains the imperishable proof of the sagacity, the courage, the eloquence, the piety, and the moral and spiritual elevation of the man. Had Columba possessed only the graces which monkish devotees are capable of imagining, he never would have done his work. Sterling qualities and real virtues, we may be sure, were needed to bring Pictish Scotland out of the darkness of Druidism. Columba was greater far than any of his mediæval biographers have been able to concede,—greater than Adamnan makes him,—greater; even, than the elegant and fascinating but superficial picture which Lamartine has painted of him.

We know absolutely nothing of Columba till we find him at school. His earliest years are a blank. They are no blanks, however, in the pages of some of his biographers, and, in particular, of Adamnan, who was the heir of his chair, but not of his theology. Even his boyhood Adamnan has glorified with prodigy and miracle. Not a few of these wonders are grotesque, some are absolutely silly, others are painfully profane, and all are incredible. A greater even than the apostle of Iona has had to endure a similar infliction at the hands of writers of the same school. We turn from these fictions to the undoubted facts which lie embedded in gossip and fable in the amazing pages of Adamnan. When he was come to years, Columbia devoted himself to the service of that Christianity which was not over a century old in Ireland, and which had still a battle to fight to make good its position in the face of a Druidism, on the ruins of which it had risen, but which it had not as yet been able wholly to dislodge. Not a few highborn youths were, in that age, emulous of entering the service of the Church. But birth, even royal birth, was not of itself a passport into the ministry. One must be a theologian and a scholar—at least after the measure of the age—before being admitted into sacred office. Columba the scion of a royal house, equally with the peasant's son, had to comply with this rule. Before becoming a preacher of the Gospel, he must first sit at the feet of some doctor of name.

But where was the young Columba to receive the training which was deemed indispensable for the office to which he aspired? Must he set out for those far-off cities in the East that basked in the learning and eloquence of the great doctors of the Church? There was no need for Columba to take so long a journey. The barbarous Ireland of a century ago had now its schools of letters and theology like Egypt and Asia Minor. If not so renowned, these fountains were purer than any that now existed on the original seat of Christianity. The latter had begun to receive an admixture from a pagan source. The Irish seminaries still continued to send forth the pure waters of evangelical truth. Quitting "the scene of his fosterage," Columba placed himself at the feet of Finnian, where, in the words of Adamnan, "he learned the wisdom of Holy Scripture."[4]

Finnian, one of the lights of his country, presided over a theological seminary at Moville, at the head of Strangford Loch. We may infer from the words of Adamnan quoted above, that the doctor of Moville made the Bible his textbook. Here Columba was made a deacon, and here his biographer makes him work his first miracle, which, like that at Cana, was the turning of water into wine.[5] Of many possible prodigies, Adamnan might have selected one less likely to suggest comparison with the opening of a greater Ministry. Quitting the school of Moville, the young deacon traveled southward, and entered the seminary of Clonard. Here, it is said, not fever than 3000 pupils were at that time receiving instruction. Three thousand, and three hundred are favorite numbers with the Irish chroniclers. But there is nothing incredible in these numbers. The Ireland of that day, as we have seen, was famous throughout Christendom for its schools and its learned men. Even war helped to crowd its educational establishments with scholars. The Franks were ravaging Gaul; the Saxons were treading out Christianity in England; but in Ireland it was peace; and all who wished to pursue their studies without distraction repaired to the quiet shores of that land. Clonard, to which we see Columba repairing, was one of the largest schools of the day. Its abbot or principal was also named Finnian. But the second Finnian did not unite the two offices of abbot and presbyter, for when Columba had finished his course of study at Clonard, and was ready to receive ordination, he was sent to Etchen of Clonfad.

Within the walls of the monastery, the youth of royal descent was on the same footing as the son of the peasant. To both were presented the same lessons, and both sat down and partook of the same meal. To both were equally allotted those manual labours with which it was customary to diversify the studies prosecuted indoors. Columba had to take his turn with others in grinding over-night the corn for the next day's food. He had to assist in dressing the garden of the monastery, in clearing out the wood in the midst of which these early institutions were often set down, in cultivating the lands already brought under the plough, and in carrying home the sheaves in autumn, and storing up the grain against the approach of winter. These sons of the prophets made war upon the noxious growths with which long neglect had covered the landscape, at the same time that they prepared themselves for the yet more arduous battle that awaited them with the errors which had darkened the soul and enslaved the intellect of the nation.

The evangelistic energy and enterprise of that age found vent in the erection of monasteries. The reader has already been admonished not to let the name mislead him. The monasteries of the sixth century were essentially different from the monasteries of the twelfth and succeeding centuries. These last were the abodes of drowsy and oftentimes luxurious idleness. Or at the best they were inhabited by a superstitious piety, which, eschewing the unholy field of the outer world, immured itself within conventual walls, diversifying the passage of the monotonous hours by the practice of a routine which could hardly have been more lifeless, and certainly not more profitless, if, instead of an ecclesiastical, it had been performed in a literal, tomb. The monasteries of Columba's day and country, on the other hand, were astir with life. They were great schools in which the youth of many lands quenched their eager thirst for knowledge. They were, moreover, centers of active evangelical propagandism. They combined in a wonderful degree the function of school and church, as their inmates did that of student and. missionary.

The monastery grew up in quite a natural way. A church of clay and wattle was the beginning of what was afterwards, perhaps, to become a famed seat of learning, and by consequence a crowded resort of youth. Around the church was placed a few modest dwellings, constructed of the same humble materials. The whole was enclosed by a strong palisade, to defend its inmates from the beast of prey, or the worse violence of the robber. But as its fame spread, and scholars from distant parts began to resort to it, its first humble erections were replaced by statelier buildings, and the little cluster of cells rapidly grew into a town. Religion and intellectual light began to spread around it, and the waste in which it had been set down was transformed into a cultivated country. These establishments were admirably adapted to the age in which they flourished. The circle of study pursued in them was as extensive as the advance of knowledge permitted. In addition to the sacred and classic tongues, theology, astronomy, and other branches there taught in them. Sound and systematic knowledge was thus the basis of all the operations they carried on; and the inmates, being under rule, the waste of power in desultory or individual effort was arrested, and the labours of all were turned into a common channel, and resulted in the accomplishment of a common end. For instance, it was as a school, and not as a primatial see, that Armagh first rose into distinction. Its monastery was founded in the fifth century, and being presided over by a succession of eminent scholars, it became in process of time famous. Its day of glory has left a touch of light after long centuries upon the old town.

Ordained a presbyter by Etchen, Columba was fairly launched on public life. In what walk of labour shall he serve his country and his age? In none can he do so more effectually than in that commonly chosen by the best spirits of his time. It became his aim to multiply the schools of divine and human knowledge,—to open springs of water in the barren places of the land. In A.D. 545, Columba being then only twenty-five years of age, founded the church of Derry [6] and the monastery of Durrow, the first situated at the northern extremity of Ireland, and the second in the middle of the County Meath. Both stood in the heart of an oak forest. It was usual in these circumstances to cut down the trees, and convert the cleared space into fields and gardens for the use of the monastery; but Columbia took so great a pride in his grand embowering oaks, that he would not permit one of them to be laid low. They might fall by the hand of time or by the violence of the tempest,—from these accidents he could not protect them,—but they were jealously guarded from stroke of axe.

Having made a beginning with these two monasteries, the young churchman went on opening another and yet another school of Christian instruction in the land. Before he had attained his prime, quite a crowd of monasteries called Columba their founder and father. The Irish annalists reckon them roundly at three hundred; but we have already called the reader's attention to the marked propensity of these writers to run into threes when dealing with numbers. Adamnan has given us a list of thirty-seven monastic institutions founded by Columba during the fifteen years that followed the erection of Derry, i.e., from A.D. 540 to 560. Even this was much for one man to accomplish. In virtue of being their founder, Columba exercised jurisdiction over them. He prescribed their discipline, and arranged the course of study to be pursued in them. At times he made a tour of visitation through them, that he might judge of the progress of the scholars, rectify what was amiss, and stimulate by his presence the zeal and diligence of both masters and pupils. As he approached their gates, the youth came out to receive with princely honours—and seldom have such honours been so justly bestowed—the man from whose Christian philanthropy flowed all the great benefits they were there receiving. In these journeys Columba lingered longest at Derry. It was the "beginning of his strength," and the many monasteries that rose after it so far from diminishing his affection for this his "first-born," made his heart cling the more fondly to it. He may be pardoned if he beheld with a glow of pride this galaxy of lights kindled by his exertions in a sky where a century before all had been dark.

It was at this hour when the labours of Columba were being crowned with remarkable success, and he was cheered with the hope of being able to erect yet more monasteries, and gathering into them yet greater crowds, that those perplexities sprang up in his path that led to a great and unexpected change in his life. Although he knew it not, Columba had reached the end of his labours in the land of his birth; and the troubles in which he now embroiled himself were overruled for transferring him to that other country where he was to render that special service which should cause him to be remembered in the ages to come as one of the world's greatest benefactors. Great obscurity rests on this part of his career. How far the political complications into which Columba was drawn were unavoidable on his part, and how far they were the result of a choleric temper and an ambitious spirit, it is hardly possible now to say. Adamnan, as is natural, hesitates to pronounce him blameworthy, and yet he does not wholly exculpate him. We can only collect the disjointed statements which his biographers have transmitted, and request our readers to look at them in the light of the age, and the exceptional position of Columba.

His troubles began thus. Columba let slip no opportunity of multiplying copies of Holy Scripture. It happened, when on a visit to his former master, Finnian of Moville, that he made a transcript of a Psalter belonging to the latter. He shut himself up in the church where the Psalter was deposited, and worked overnight at his self-appointed task. He could kindle no lamp without making Finnian aware of the business that occupied him. This method of nocturnal working must have involved considerable difficulty; but his biographers tell us that he guided his right hand by the light which issued from his left. The transcription, notwithstanding all his caution, came to the knowledge of the good Finnian, who claimed the copy as belonging to himself, much as an author in our day would claim property in a reprint of one of his own works. But Columba refused to give it up, and the dispute was referred to the arbitration of King Diarmid. "To every cow," was the decision of the sage king, "belongs her own calf, and to every Psalter belongs its own copy. The transcript must go to Finnian." Columba, who felt, doubtless, that the analogy—for argument it could not be called—pointed in just the opposite direction, bore from that hour a grudge against King, Diarmid, and his displeasure was deepened by an incident that soon thereafter fell out. A youthful prince, who had committed an involuntary murder at the feast of Tara, fled for protection to Columba. The offender was pursued by the servants of King Diarmid, brought back, and put to death. The Brehon law visited homicide with no graver punishment than a small fine. But the umbrage which Columba conceived at the proceedings of the king in this case, was owing, not so much to his having stretched his power beyond the limits of the law, as to his having violated the right of sanctuary, which he as Head of so many monasteries,was entitled to exercise. Columba resolved to maintain the rights of the Church against the rights of the king, in this case illegally exercised. He had the art to engage his relations, the northern O'Nials, in his quarrel, and the result was a battle near Sligo, in which King Diarmid, who was related to the southern O'Nials, was defeated. To avenge the defeat he had sustained in arms, the king resolved to measure weapons with Columba in the ecclesiastical arena. He convoked a synod at Telton, in the county of Meath, and arraigning Columba as a fomenter of domestic feuds, he carried against him, though not unanimously, a vote of excommunication. Such, in brief, is the story which has received current belief in Ireland since early times. There seems little doubt that the great churchman had some connection with the battle of Kooldrevoy, and that some sort of excommunication was pronounced upon him by his brother ecclesiastics. So much is admitted by Adamnan, jealous as he is of the honour and sanctity of his great predecessor. There may have been peculiarities about these transactions which, were they known to us, would possibly mollify our judgment of them, and palliate, if they did not wholly exonerate, the man whose great name has come to be mixed up with them. But these peculiarities can now never be known. Columba, a scion of the royal house, the first ecclesiastic of his day in Ireland, could not easily have disentangled himself from national and political affairs, even had he wished it.

Shall we, therefore, deny to Columba a place in the great roll of Christian heroes? No! History enables us to trace advance, from age to age, in the perfection and grace of the Christian character. As a divinely revealed system, Christianity stands complete in the Bible. In that holy book; it is without increase and without diminution. The ages as they pass cannot add one truth to it, nor take so much as one truth from it. But as a system comprehended by the world, Christianity has been growing all along, and in proportion as it develops, so does it elevate its professors to a higher ideal of character and a higher platform of acting. The men of the sixteenth century stand on a higher level than the men of the sixth. They may not be men of greater intellect or greater faith, but they have a truer conception of the character which Christianity requires, and they make a nearer approach to the Divine Exemplar. We cannot imagine Luther seeking reparation on the battle-field for any affront or wrong that might have been done him. Calvin saw his followers dragged to the stake by hundreds, but he never once instigated the Huguenots to avenge their martyred countrymen by arms. But when we turn to the ecclesiastics of Columba's century, and when we go back to Chrysostom, to Athanasius, to Cyprian, and others, we find that we are among great men, it is true, but men whose character is less symmetrical, and whose souls are less lofty than their successors of the era of the Reformation. In the words of the great Chalmers, " We are the fathers, the ancients are the children."


Footnotes

1. Life of Saint Columba, by Adamnan, edited by Reeves, Historians of Scotland, vol. vi. p. xxxiii. Edin., 1874.

2. Montalembert, Monks of the West, vol. iii. p. 102. Edin. and Lond., 1867.

3. Montalembert, vol. iii. p. 103.

4. Vita Sancti Columbæ. Adam. lib. ii. cap. i.

5. Adamn. lib. ii. c. i.

6. The church of Derry, like Patrick's Sabhail, is recorded to have stood north and south. Its remains were still in existence in 1520. In the fourteenth century it was called the Black Church of Deria. Its round tower was standing in the seventeenth century. Durrow was called the "abbey church." A sculptured cross, called Columkille's Cross, stands in the churchyard, and near it is Columkille's Well. The abbey possesses one most interesting relic, known as the Book of Durrow, a MS. believed to be nearly, if not altogether, as old as Columba's time. It is preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Another famous monastery founded by Columba was Kells, in the north-west of County Meath. Its fine round tower, ninety feet high, still stands in the churchyard. Its great literary monument, the Book of Kells, is preserved in Trinity College, Dublin. The monasteries of Tory, Drumcliff, Swords, Raphoe, Kilmore, Lambay, Moone, Clonmore, Kilmackrenan, Grattan, Glencolumkill, and a host besides, called Columba pater et fundator. See Life by Adamnan, Introduction. Edin., 1874.


 

 


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