The Irish presidency of the European Union provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the achievements of the Irish in Europe from the sixth to the eighth centuries.
St Columban is arguably the best-known Irish person to have visited the European continent then.
Born on the Carlow/ Wexford border about AD543, he studied under Sinell of Cleenish, whose monastery was on an island of the river Erne, in modern Co Fermanagh.
Later he joined the monastery at Bangor under the abbot Comgall and was ordained a priest.
At age 51, with a number of companions, he set sail for Europe to become a pilgrim for Christ.
In Saint Columbanus: Pilgrim for Christ, Fr Aidan Larkin gives a biographical sketch of the saint: “The child would grow to manhood and become first a monk, then a priest, a distinguished scripture teacher, a master of Latin prose style and rhetoric, a competent versifier, an abbot, a founder of monasteries and monastic lawgiver, notably in Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaines, in Burgundy, France, from where he would be expelled, and then in Bregenz, Austria, and finally in Bobbio, northern Italy, where he would die in 615.
A European saint
“The monasteries that he founded would multiply themselves. Figures vary, but around 60 is a reasonable claim for the number of monastic communities living under the Columban Rule in the following generation, in France; and, out of roughly 100 French diocesan sees, at least 12 would be occupied by his disciples.”
In June 2008, in a reflection on the life of St Columban, Pope Benedict XVI said there was good reason to call Columban a European saint.
The pope drew attention to the fact that the expression “totius Europae – of all Europe” first appeared in a letter which Columban wrote to Pope Gregory the Great in AD600. Pope Benedict also points out that Columban’s last monastery at Bobbio became a “cultural centre on a par with the famous (Benedictine) monastery of Monte Cassino”. Columban never forgot his Irish identity.
In fact, he is the first Irish person to articulate a sense of what it means to be Irish. In the letter he wrote to Pope Boniface in AD613, he wrote of “…we Irish”.
The Irish were not held in high esteem in continental Europe during the Roman Empire and even after the collapse of that empire.
Columban and the monks who followed him to Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries changed that perception radically.
The fact that, within a generation after his death Jonas, a monk at Bobbio, wrote the Life of Columbanus is a testimony to the importance of Columban’s legacy in Europe.
The UCC historian Damian Bracken has commented that, “this is another first: Columbanus is the first Irishman to be the subject of a biography”.
Columban and the other Irish monks who laboured in Europe between the sixth and eighth centuries helped to shape the European identity. According to Bracken, “shrines, towns and landmarks across Europe bear Columbanus’s name and testify to the widespread diffusion of devotion to the saint”.
In the middle of the ninth century a biographer of St Gall, a colleague of Columban, acknowledges the debt of his people to Ireland “whence the splendour of such light came to us”.
In July 1950 a congress was organised in Luxeuil in eastern France to celebrate the 1,400th anniversary of the birth of St Columban. It was the brainchild of Robert Schuman, one of the founders of the European Union, who was at the time foreign minister of France and a tireless promoter of understanding and co-operation among European countries.
In his speech then he said that, “St Columban, this illustrious Irishman who left his own country for voluntary exile, willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time. He is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe.”
Taoiseach of the day, John A Costello, told the gathering that: “All statesmen of today might well turn their thoughts to St Columban and his teaching. History records that it was by men like him that civilisation was saved in the 6th century.”
A Columban priest, Fr SEÁN McDONAGH is based at Dalgan Park, Navan, Co Meath.