Wednesday 15 January 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 66 – Columbanus – how the Irish saved civilisation!

St. Columbanus in stained glass window

At the moment I still live in Conlig – between Bangor and Newtownards, though we’ll soon be moving to our new/old cottage near Downpatrick. Bangor is not from the Irish – it’s from the Latin, Beann Chor, meaning good choir. That’s because the town of Bangor grew up around the ancient Irish monastery that was established there around 555 AD by a man called Comgall. 

It is reported that St. Patrick had once rested there and saw a valley filled with angels. All that remains there now is ‘St. Malachy’s Wall’ – most of the stone being re-used to build a later Abbey Church nearby – and a sundial, which is now placed in front of the Town Hall.

Comgall was born between 510 and 520 in Magheramorne, Co. Antrim, and educated at Movilla, in Newtownards, Glasnevin, in Dublin and Clonmacnoise, on the River Shannon, in Co. Offaly. He held to a very strict rule, with a lot of prayer and fasting, but also music and singing – the Bangor Antiphonary being the hymnbook which remains from those times. 

Almost 3,000 monks worked, studied and prayed there. They also held a 24-hour prayer watch – prayer, scripture reading and worship – that continued for more then 100 years and probably explains why Bangor has become known as ‘The Light of the World’ – sending missionaries out to Europe during what was known as the ‘Dark Ages.’

The two best-known of those missionaries were Colombanus – or Columban – and Gall, or Gallus. Columbanus – meaning ‘white dove’ – was born of a rich family in the province of Meath in 540 AD, but came to Bangor to study under Comgall. At the age of forty he was given permission to travel to Europe and took twelve younger men with him, including Gall.

They landed in Brittany, near St. Malo, in 585 AD, leaving a village of Saint Coulomb there, before moving on to Annegray, where they founded a monastery in an abandoned Roman fortress. In 590 he founded a second monastery in a nearby castle, at Luxeuil-les-Bains, and then a third called Ad-Fontanas – modern day Fontaine-lés-Luxeuil.

When the king of Burgundy died – who had been a strong supporter of Columbanus – his sons were still minors and Columbanus fell foul of their grandmother, Brunhilda, and eventually he and his Irish companions were forced to leave Burgundy. Their ship, however, was driven back to shore by a storm and the captain refused to take them any further. Columbanus and his friends travelled across France to Switzerland and Bregenz, in Austria, where they established another monastery. 

Colombanus moved on after a year, crossing the Alps into Italy, but Gallus remained and later founded another monastery nearby, which was named after him, St. Gallen – now the town of St. Gallen. 

Columbanus arrived in Milan in 612 and was welcomed by the king and queen of Lombardy, who gave him land at Bobbio, including a ruined church, so he could establish a monastery there, which he did in 614 AD. Columbanus died at Bobbio a year later, having meanwhile been invited to return by the new king of Burgundy. He and his followers are credited with saving the civilisation of Europe.

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