Columbanus and Patrick

By Fr Des

St Columbanus (he lived from about 550 until 615 a.d.) should never have got on the wrong side of Queen Brunhild. But he was impatient and that did nobody any favours.

When Queen Brunhild came asking for two nephews to be baptised and he refused, because, he said, their daddy would not get married in church, the royal Frankish fat was in the saintly Irish fire. Columbanus should have followed his own advice: in one of his letters he says “Get together quickly and don’t argue over ancient quarrels but keep quiet and forget about them…” This advice would be of great value today in Ireland but did not get very far with Brunhild. She connived with the king to tell St Columbanus to get out of his territory. Columbanus was stubborn and refused to go, harsh words were spoken – Columbanus, like any good Irish saint, used harsh words at times, so the king thought he should win the argument by soothing Columbanus and Columbanus thought he could win by just sitting there and refusing to budge. Then, while Columbanus was waiting to see the king to protest at how his monks were being treated, the king, trying to be nice, sent him a meal as a sign of goodwill. It was disconcerting for Columbanus when the lovely meal blew up in his face.

Amazing how exciting the lives of the saints were in those days 1,400 years ago when Irish missionaries, Columbanus among them, went preaching in Continental Europe. This year, 2014/2015, marks the one thousand four hundredth anniversary of the death of Columbanus – not by exploding puddings but by natural causes – and maybe we shall see a revival of interest in this man who by any standards was remarkable. A man for whom Bangor had provided a sanctuary and learning place until about the year 591 when he grew restless, as many an Irish monk did, and headed for Continental Europe. The marks of his travels, his preaching, his learning and arguments, are still to be seen in many parts of Europe and there has been much study done of what he wrote, to whom he wrote, the arguments he got into, and even about the style of his Latin. Poor St Patrick described himself as an ignorant person – he wasn’t but that’s the way he told it – and people said his Latin was not good, but Columbanus had Latin in which he could write to pope, bishop or prince with the greatest of ease.

In those days Latin was used by church and state officials while local languages were used for everything else. In Ireland he had to use both the Irish and the Latin languages. Even hundreds of years later when Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace Ó Malley) from the West of Ireland visited Queen Elizabeth in England they talked to each other in Latin. A difference between Patrick and Columbanus is that while some of Columbanus’s writings remain, only two of Patrick’s do. That’s a pity because while Columbanus’ reputation has had to suffer from some bad biographers, Patrick’s had to suffer even more of them. One slight connection between these two men is that Columbanus on his travels seems to have visited and worshipped at a shrine dedicated to St Martin, who is said to have been Patrick’s uncle.

Kate Tristram has written a very readable book about Columbanus, the saint who once lived only a short chariot ride from what we now call Belfast: Columbanus, The Earliest Voice of Christian Ireland (Columba Press). It’s well worth reading for Columbanus’s fourteen hundredth anniversary in 2015.

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