seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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St. Columba Arrives on the Isle of Iona

iona-abbey-isle-of-iona

St. Columba, an Irish monk, and twelve followers arrive on the tiny isle of Iona, barely three miles long by one mile wide, on May 12, 563, establishing a monastic community and building his first Celtic church. Iona has an influence out of all proportion to its size on the establishment of Christianity in Scotland, England and throughout mainland Europe.

Once settled, Columba sets about converting most of pagan Scotland and northern England to the Christian faith. Iona’s fame as a missionary centre and outstanding place of learning eventually spreads throughout Europe, turning it into a place of pilgrimage for several centuries to come. Iona becomes a sacred isle where kings of Scotland, Ireland and Norway are buried.

Columba is born of royal blood in 521 AD in Ireland, or Scotia as it is then called. He is the grandson of the Irish King Niall. He leaves Ireland for Scotland not as a missionary but as an act of self-imposed penance for a bloody mess he had caused at home. He had upset the king of Ireland by refusing to hand over a copy of the Gospel he had illegally copied, leading to a pitched battle in which Columba’s warrior family prevailed. Full of remorse for his actions and the deaths he had ultimately caused, he flees, ultimately settling on Iona as it is the first place he finds from which he is unable to see his native Ireland. One of the features on the island is even called “The Hill with its back to Ireland.”

Columba, however, is not the shy retiring type and sets about building Iona’s original abbey from clay and wood. In this endeavour he displays some strange idiosyncrasies, including banishing women and cows from the island. The abbey builders have to leave their wives and daughters on the nearby Eilean nam Ban (Woman’s Island). Stranger still, he also banishes frogs and snakes from Iona, although how he accomplishes this feat is not well documented.

The strangest claim of all however is that Columba is prevented from completing the building of the original chapel until a living person has been buried in the foundations. His friend Oran volunteers for the job and is duly buried. It is said that Columba later requests that Oran’s face be uncovered so he can bid a final farewell to his friend. Oran’s face is uncovered and he is found to be still alive but utters such blasphemous descriptions of Heaven and Hell that Columba orders that he be covered up immediately.

Over the centuries the monks of Iona produce countless elaborate carvings, manuscripts and Celtic crosses. Perhaps their greatest work is the exquisite Book of Kells, which dates from 800 AD, currently on display in Trinity College, Dublin. Shortly after this, in 806 AD, come the first of the Viking raids and many of the monks are slaughtered and their work destroyed.

The Celtic Church, lacking central control and organisation, diminishes in size and stature over the years to be replaced by the much larger and stronger Roman Church. Even Iona is not exempt from these changes and in 1203 a nunnery for the Order of the Black Nuns is established and the present-day Benedictine abbey, Iona Abbey, is built. The abbey is a victim of the Reformation and lay in ruins until 1899 when restoration is started.

No part of Columba’s original buildings have survived, however on the left hand side of the abbey entrance can be seen a small roofed chamber which is claimed to mark the site of the Columba’s tomb.

(From: “St. Columba and the Isle of Iona” by Ben Johnson, historic-uk.com, pictured is the Iona Abbey and Nunnery)


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Birth of St. Columba

St. Columba, also called Colum or Columcille, Irish abbot and missionary Evangelist is born on December 7, 521, in Tír Chonaill (mainly modern County Donegal) in the north of Ireland. He is credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. He also founds the important abbey on Iona, which becomes a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry and is highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts. Today he is remembered as a Catholic saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Columba studies under Saints Finnian of Movilla and Finnian of Clonard and is ordained into the priesthood around 551. He founds churches and the famous monasteries Daire Calgaich, in Derry, and Dair-magh, in Durrow.

Columba and his twelve disciples erect a church and monastery on the island of Iona (c. 563) as their springboard for the conversion of Scotland. It is regarded as the mother house and its abbots as the chief ecclesiastical rulers even of the bishops. Columba gives formal benediction and inauguration to Áedán mac Gabráin of Dunadd as king of Dál Riata.

Columba accompanies Aidan to Ireland in 575 and takes a leading role in a council held at Druim Cetta, which determines the position of the ruler of Dál Riata in relation to the king of Ireland. The last years of Columba’s life are apparently primarily spent in Iona, where he is already revered as a saint. He and his associates and successors spread the gospel more than any other contemporary group of religious pioneers in Britain.

Columba dies on Iona and is buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descend on Iona. Columba’s relics are finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. The parts of the relics which go to Ireland are reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St. Patrick and St. Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick.

Three Latin hymns may be attributed to Columba with some degree of certainty. Excavations in 1958 and 1959 revealed Columba’s living cell and the outline of the original monastery.

St. Columba’s Feast Day, 9 June, has been designated as International Celtic Art Day. The Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, great medieval masterpieces of Celtic art, are associated with Columba.


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The Founding of Trinity College, Dublin

trinity-collegeOn March 3, 1592, a small group of Dublin citizens obtain a charter by way of letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I incorporating the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, later to become known as Trinity College (Coláiste na Tríonóide). It is one of the seven ancient universities of Britain and Ireland, as well as Ireland’s oldest university.

Originally established outside the city walls of Dublin in the buildings of the dissolved Augustinian Priory of All Hallows, Trinity College is set up in part to consolidate the rule of the Tudor monarchy in Ireland, and it is seen as the university of the Protestant Ascendancy for much of its history. Although Catholics and Dissenters have been permitted to enter since as early as 1793, certain restrictions on their membership to the college, such as professorships, fellowships, and scholarships, remain until 1873. From 1956 to 1970, the Catholic Church in Ireland forbids its adherents from attending Trinity College without permission from their archbishop. Women are first admitted to the college as full members in January 1904.

Trinity College is now surrounded by Dublin and is located on College Green, opposite the former Irish Houses of Parliament. The college proper occupies 47 acres, with many of its buildings arranged around large quadrangles and two playing fields. Academically, it is divided into three faculties comprising 25 schools, offering degree and diploma courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.long-room-trinity-college

In 2015, Trinity College is ranked by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings as the 160th best university in the world. The QS World University Rankings places Trinity as the 78th best. The Academic Ranking of World Universities has it within the 151–200 range. All three publications rank Trinity College as the best university in Ireland. The Library of Trinity College is a legal deposit library for Ireland and the United Kingdom, containing over 4.5 million printed volumes and significant quantities of maps, music, and manuscripts, including the Book of Kells.

On a side note, the organization of the exhibits within the main building of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas was inspired by the famous Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College, which Bill Clinton first saw when he was a Rhodes Scholar.