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 Sister Maura John Clarke

sister-maura-clarkeSister Maura John Clarke, Irish American Catholic Maryknoll sister who serves as a missionary in Nicaragua and El Salvador, is born Mary Elizabeth Clarke in Queens, New York on January 13, 1931, the eldest of three children.

Clarke’s parents, both born in Ireland, settle in Belle Harbor, Queens, New York in the late 1920s. She enters Maryknoll in 1950 and makes her first vows in 1953. Initially, she is attracted to Maryknoll by a deep desire “to become closer to God and to serve Him.”

After graduation from Maryknoll Teachers College in 1954, Sister Clarke is assigned to teach at St. Anthony’s Parish School in The Bronx. In 1959 her growing desire “to serve Him” is further strengthened with her assignment to Siuna, Nicaragua, as a teacher and then superior of the little community. She is in Managua from 1970 to 1976 where she ministers to the people, sharing with them in the cataclysmic earthquake of 1972. With them she works tirelessly, helping them rebuild their homes and establish basic Christian communities.

In 1977 Sister Clarke returns to the Center to serve on a Maryknoll Sisters World Awareness Team, working primarily along the East Coast of the United States. She is the same everywhere she serves – friendly, loving, generous, gentle, using her gifts and abilities tirelessly, and trusting that with God’s help she can do what is needed. When her term with the World Awareness Team ends early in 1980, she decides to return to Nicaragua.

In August 1980 emergency needs in El Salvador call Sister Clarke and she spends her first weeks there in Santa Ana. However, after Sister Carol Piette’s death, she volunteers immediately to accompany Sister Ita Ford in Chalatenango to minister to the poor and oppressed and the imprisoned.

When Sister Clarke comes to the Regional Assembly the day before Thanksgiving, November 26, 1980, she feels not only willing to return to El Salvador, but convinced that Chalatenango is the place where she can and will serve Christ’s poor. With Sister Ford she searches out the missing, prays with the families of prisoners, buries the dead, and works with the people in their struggle to break out of the bonds of oppression, poverty, and violence. Their days are filled with difficulty and fearful danger at times.

Sister Clarke returns with Sister Ford to El Salvador late in the afternoon of December 2, 1980. Two of their good friends and collaborators in mission meet them at the airport to take them back to Chalatenango. A few hours later she is beaten, raped, and murdered along with three fellow missionaries — Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel and missionary Jean Donovan — by members of the military of El Salvador. She is buried in Chalatenango, El Salvador.