Turtle Bunbury

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Even as he ran, Columba knew he was too late. From the entrance to the abbey, he saw the glinting daggers plunge into the young prince’s heart and throat. The boy died quickly, his blood seeping into the green pastures of Kells Abbey. And Columba, the Abbot who closed his eyes, knew that this was only the beginning of a terrible war.

Of all the hundreds of saints that Ireland has produced, none can hold a match to Saint Columba for sheer drama. His epic story has entranced people ever since his first biography was etched with an inky feather back in the 7th century. By then his name was already legendary throughout the northwest of Ireland and Scotland. He would go on to become the patron saint of floods, poets, bookbinders and, perhaps most notably, of both Ireland and Scotland. By the 16th century, he was venerated by Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic alike.

Fast forward to 2010 and the story of Ireland’s ‘Royal Saint’ is headed for the big screen with a movie called ‘The End Time’. Jeremy Irons has signed up to star as the feisty Donegal missionary with filming to begin next spring. ‘The End Time’ will be directed by Bafta-award winning Norman Stone who recently directed the biopic of ‘Florence Nightingale’.

Mr Stone says the film will be a ‘warts and all’ examination of Columba's life. "I see him as a man of incredible faith, integrity and strength, but, at times, flawed”, says Mr. Stone. "He was not a saintly saint and this film will be more a character study and a political thriller than a Christian epic. Columba will not wear a halo. It needs big-screen treatment and, in Jeremy, we have the right person to deliver the performance we are looking for."

Tradition states that Columba was a Prince of the Royal House of O’Neill, born on the grassy shores of Lough Gartan, Co. Donegal. His father, Prince Felim, or Fedilmith, was a great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the iconic 5th century high king of Ireland. The baby was christened Crimthann (meaning ‘fox’) but later changed his name to Colmcille (meaning ‘dove of the church’). The Christian texts from the 7th century refer to him as Columba.

His date of birth is stated as 7th December 521, which is some 28 years after the death of St. Patrick. Owing to the older man’s efforts, Christianity had taken a firm root in Ireland. Young Columba was educated in the monastic school at Moville, on the shores of Strangford Lough in Co Down. A model student, he was taught by St Finnian, an energetic missionary with close links to Rome.[i]

After further training with an ancient bard called Gemman, he entered Clonard Abbey, probably the finest Christian school in Ireland at this time with perhaps as many as 3,000 students. The school sprawled upon the banks of the River Boyne in Co. Meath and was run by the venerable St Finian (not to be confused with his namesake from Moville).

Again the tall yellow-headed Ulsterman excelled, becoming one of St. Finian’s inner circle, later known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Ordained a priest in 540, he advanced to St Mobhi’s monastery in Glasnevin, along with his college friend St Ciaran, who later founded Clonmacnoise. However, four years later, a bubonic plague ripped through Ireland, killing Mobhi, and Columba abandoned Glasnevin.

From this time onwards, he appears to have become an active church builder. His first monastery was built in an oak forest on the banks of the River Foyle on some land gifted to him by King Aed of Connaught. The settlement, upon which the Long Tower Church stands today, was later called Doire Colmcille, and is better known as Derry.

During the late 540s and 550s, Columba embarked on a grand tour of Ireland and is credited with founding monasteries at Kells, Durrow, Clonmore, Lambay Island, Swords, Moone, Drumclifffe and Glencolumbcille, close to his place of birth.[ii]

Two key events are also said to have happened in this time. Firstly, the House of O’Neill invited him to stand as their candidate for the High Kingship of Ireland. He declined, preferring to pursue his calling with the church. The O’Neills then turned to his pagan cousin, Dermot Mac Cerbhaill, who duly became High King.

Secondly, he paid a visit to St. Finnian, his old teacher from Moville, who was by now a Bishop living at Dromin, Co. Louth.[iii] While browsing through Finnian’s library, Columba came upon a particularly rare book of Latin psalms written by St. Martin of Tours. Eager to have his own copy of this sacred work, the priest surreptitiously slipped into the scriptorium (or writing room) and created an exact replica. Legend holds that he made it ‘at night, in haste, by a miraculous light’.

Finnian was unimpressed and demanded the copy back. Columba refused, reasoning that making copies of such work was vital to the spread of Christianity and thereby setting a useful precedent for anyone advocating Google’s right to free content.

The matter went to the High Court in Tara where the judge was no less a soul than Columba’s cousin, Dermot, now High King of Ireland. It is said that Dermot was miffed that he had been his clan’s second choice and, with cauldron-stirring druids whispering into his earlobes, the monarch felt little love for his Christian cousin. Dermot then delivered his landmark judgment. ‘To every cow her calf, therefore to every book its copy’. Columba was obliged to hand his copy over.[iv]

The date of Dermot’s arbitration is unknown but it was to become a seminal event in Columba’s life. It ignited a bitter rivalry between his supporters and those of the High King.

The quarrel rumbled dangerously onwards until 561 when, during a hurling match at the annual Tailteann Games in Co. Meath, a row broke out on the pitch. Prince Cunan, son of King Aed of Connaught, directed a deadly blow with his hurl to a son of High King Dermot’s Royal Steward. Realizing what he had done, Cunan fled on horseback to the abbey in Kells where his cousin Columba was the Abbot. Cunan sought sanctuary in the Holy Church. However, when Dermot and his men tracked the fugitive prince down, the High King ordered them to advance into the abbey and bring him out. Then he instructed his men to execute the young man.

King Aed sought vengeance for the killing of his son while Columba was appalled that the sanctuary of the church had been violated. The two men formed an alliance and determined to bring an end to Dermot’s tenure as High King As the western clans formed into an army, Dermot’s forces marched to meet them, druids to the fore. The two sides met at Cúl Dreimhne (Cooldrevny), beneath the slopes of Ben Bulben in Co. Sligo. It transpired to be a victory for the men of the west but over three thousand men were slain in the battle.

But while Aed and his army celebrated victory, Columba was appalled by the loss of human life. Wittingly or not, he had played a key role in causing the battle. His Christian superiors believed the Abbot of Kells and Derry had acted completely out of line. A synod of clerics and scholars gathered to have the maverick Donegal priest excommunicated. St. Brendan of Birr (another of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland) interjected on his behalf and negotiated a compromise whereby Columba would go into exile.

Columba vowed that he would go to Scotland where he would gain as many souls to Christ as had been slain in the battle of Cúl Dreimhne. He set sail in a wicker currach with twelve trusty companions. They landed on the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland on the eve of Pentecost in the spring of 563. Thirteen years would pass before he returned to his native soil.

Columba and his men set to work and built a monastic settlement on Iona, complete with church, refectory, and cells, all constructed from wattle and planks. Under Columba’s guidance, the island became the epicenter for an early Christian renaissance as its’ monks and students began to churn out books, art and music.

From Iona, Columba ran an extraordinary network, dispatching monks to spread the word of the Celtic Church across Pictish Scotland, whilst developing their links with the church in Ireland and Britain. This evangelizing came at a critical moment as Europe, still reeling from the collapse of the Roman Empire, was sinking into the Dark Ages.

As the Venerable Bede put it: "The monastery of Iona, like those previously founded by Columba in Ireland, was not a retreat for solitaries whose chief object was to work out their own salvation; it was a great school of Christian education, and was specially designed to prepare and send forth a body of clergy trained to the task of preaching the Gospel among the heathen."

In 574, Columba scored perhaps his greatest victory when he ordained Aedhan, the previously pagan king of Dalriada, or western Scotland. This is the earliest recorded consecration of a king in Great Britain.[v]

Columba was a skilled diplomat and became something of a kingmaker. He also clearly had a useful arsenal of miracles up his sleeve. For instance, when he arrived at the royal palace of Brude, one of the most powerful of the Pictish Kings, near Inverness, the gates were bolted against them. Columba made the sign of the cross and the bolts flew open. Brude was duly intimidated into throwing in his lot with the Christians.

On another occasion, Columba encountered a funeral party burying a ‘poor little man’ who had been killed by a monster while swimming in the nearby waters. When the monster suddenly reappeared, Columba again made the sign of the cross and roared, "You will go no further". To the surprise of all, the monster turned and fled. The swipe in this 6th century tale is that the event took place on Loch Ness.[vi]

In 575, Columba returned to Ireland to attend the synod of Druim Ceat, near Derry, where he was applauded for his successes in Scotland. He became a champion of Ireland’s bards and poets, and his diplomatic skills were again called upon to settle disputes between feuding kingdoms. A renowned man of letters and hymn writer, he is credited with having transcribed over 300 books, including The Book of Durrow.[vii]

In 592, as the Annals put it, Columba ‘went to the angels from his body, after seven years and seventy.’ He died on Iona and was buried by his monks in the abbey he created. Two centuries later, after a series of devastating Viking raids, the monks of Iona fled the island. Many of them settled in Kells, the abbey Columba founded in Co. Meath, which is where they completed the celebrated Book of Kells, a masterwork of Irish Celtic symbols, art and literature. Columba was disinterred and reputedly reburied in Downpatrick, Co. Down, along with St. Patrick and St. Brigid.[viii]

Mr. Stone says that ‘The End Game’ will explore Columba’s role in preserving and spreading Christianity. 'It's the whole idea of just how precarious the future of Christianity was at that time when Druids still had such power and Europe was entering the Dark Ages. We are talking about a world 500 years before ‘Braveheart’ so it is a fascinating period and it has never been tackled on the big screen.”

"Columba struggled with a hunger for power. He was an independent spirit and a very gifted man. He changed the religious and social map of Ireland, Scotland and Britain. But the big temptation for him was whether to go over to the Dark Side’."

The scouts for Mr. Stone’s 1A Productions are now on the hunt for suitably epic film locations. No doubt many isles, both Irish and Scottish, will be vying for the role of Iona. Irish audiences might also recognize the hills of Donegal where the Saint was born, the slopes of Ben Bulben beneath which battle of Cúl Dreimhne took place, and other locations such as Lough Neagh and Kells, with which the Saint was so closely associated.


[i] Amongst Finnian’s possessions was an extremely rare copy of St. Jerome’s Bible which would go on to be the official bible of the Roman Catholic Church. St

[ii] The monastery in Kells, Co. Meath, was reputedly built upon the grave-mound of a learned Spanish chieftain so that Columba might absorb the dead man’s knowledge an energy.

[iii] To add to the confusion, there are those who suggest Bishop Finnian and Saint Finnian of Moville were two different people. And that is before we get on to Saint Finnian of Clonard.
[iv] This was a landmark judgment and established a principle still widely held in intellectual property law today. It is often said that Columba’s version of St Martin’s psalter is ‘The Cathach’ which is housed today in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. In fact, the RIA’s ‘Cathach’ is a later copy, dating to the late 6th or early 7th century, although it is nonetheless the oldest known example of Irish writing.
[v] Many of Aedhan’s subjects were of Antrim origin as the Gaels had been sweeping into Scotland for several generations.

[vi] This story is told in Vita Columbae, a biography of the saint written in the late 7th century by Saint Adomnán (or Eunan) of Iona, a descendent of one of his O’Neill cousins and the 9th Abbot of Iona.

[vii] He was apparently a mighty singer. According to one account, he could ‘raise his voice so wonderfully that it was sometimes heard eight furlongs off … but what is stranger still: to those who were with him in the church, his voice did not seem louder than that of others’. He once silenced the Druids with his rendition of the 44th Psalm.

[viii] Others claim he is buried at Saul Church near Downpatrick.