Ireland: Top Saints

Early Irish Missionaries (Cont.)

Saint Columbanus was a pioneering early Irish missionary to continental Europe, who founded major monasteries in the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms, most famously Luxeuil (in present-day France) and Bobbio (Italy).

Saint Columbanus / Columbán ( “the white dove”) (540 – 615 AD) was born in Nobber, in modern County Meath. He studied under Saint Sinell, Abbot of Cluaninis in Lough Erne, and then moved to the monastery of Bangor on the coast of Down, which at that time had for its abbot Saint Comgall. He spent many years there until c.589 he received Comgall’s permission to travel to the continent.

Columbanus set sail with twelve companions; their names are believed to be Saint Attala, Columbanus the Younger, Cummain, Domgal (Deicolus?), Eogain, Eunan, Saint Gall, Gurgano, Libran, Lua, Sigisbert and Waldoleno. This little band travelled via Britain to France. Their landing site is marked by a shrine at Carnac in Brittany.

They soon made their way to the court of Gontram, king of Burgundy, who gave them a gracious reception, inviting them to remain in his kingdom. The saint  selected for their abode the half-ruined Roman fortress at Annegray in the solitudes of the Vosges mountains. Here the  monks led the simplest of lives, their food often consisting of nothing but forest herbs, berries, and the bark of young trees.

The fame of Columbanus’s sanctity drew crowds to his monastery. Many, both nobles and rustics, asked to be admitted into the community. Sick persons came to be cured through their prayers. But Columbanus loved solitude. Often he would withdraw to a cave seven miles distant, with a single companion who acted as messenger between himself and his brethren.

After a few years the ever-increasing number of his disciples obliged him to build another monastery. Columbanus accordingly obtained from King Gontram the Gallo-Roman castle named “Luxovium” (Luxeuil), some eight miles distant from Annegray. It was in a wild district, thickly covered with pine forests and brushwood. A third monastery was erected at Fontaines. The superiors of these houses always remained subordinate to Columbanus. It is said that at this time he instituted a perpetual service of praise, known as laus perennis, by which choir succeeded choir, both day and night. He wrote his Rule for these flourishing communities, which embodied the customs of Bangor and other Celtic monasteries.

The Frankish bishops were not well disposed towards this stranger abbot, because of his ever-increasing influence, and at last they showed their hostility. They objected to his insistence on observing the Celtic Easter and his exclusion of men as well as women from the precincts of his monasteries. In 602 AD a council assembled to judge him. Columbán addressed a letter to the prelates in which he advised them to pay attention to matters equally important with that of the date of Easter. As to his paschal cycle he says: “I am not the author of this divergence. I came as a poor stranger into these parts for the cause of Christ, Our Saviour. One thing alone I ask of you, holy Fathers, permit me to live in silence in these forests, near the bones of 17 of my brethren now dead.”

When the Frankish bishops still insisted the abbot was wrong, he laid the question before the Pope Saint Gregory I. He dispatched two letters to that pontiff, but they never reached him, “through Satan’s intervention”. A third letter is extant, but no trace of an answer appears in Saint Gregory’s correspondence, owing probably to the fact that the pope died in 604 AD, about the time it reached Rome.

He directed another epistle to Pope Boniface IV, but before receiving an answer (which has been lost), Columbanus had got involved in the politics of the royal household. After  the deaths of Gontram and his short-lived successor, the kingdom was split. The young Theodebert II of Austrasia and Thierry II of Burgundy were both minors, and their  guardian, Queen Brunehault / Brunehild, held real power in the governments of the two kingdoms. She encouraged Thierry in the practice of concubinage in order that there might be no rival queen. Thierry, however, had a veneration for Columbanus, and often visited him. Brunehault became enraged with Columbanus, stirred up the bishops and nobles to find fault with his Rules regarding monastic enclosure. Finally, Thierry and his party went to Luxeuil and ordered the abbot to conform to the usages of the country. Columbanus refused, whereupon he was taken prisoner to Besançon to await further orders.

Taking advantage of the absence of restraint, he speedily returned to his monastery. On hearing this, Thierry and Brunehault sent soldiers to drive him back to Ireland. None but Irish monks were to accompany him. Accordingly, he was hurried to Nevers, made to embark on the Loire, and thus proceed to Nantes. As soon as they set sail, such a storm arose that ship was driven ashore. The captain would have nothing more to do with the monks; they were thus free to go where they pleased. Columbanus made his way to the friendly King Clothaire at Soissons in Neustria where he was gladly welcomed.

Columbanus left Neustria in 611 AD for the court of King Theodebert of Austrasia. At Metz he received an honourable welcome, and then proceeding to Mainz, he embarked upon the Rhine in order to reach the Suevi and Alamanni, to whom he wished to preach the Gospel. Ascending the river and its tributaries, the Aar and the Limmat, he came to the Lake of Zürich. Tuggen was chosen as a centre from which to evangelize, but the work was not successful. In despair he resolved to pass on by way of Arbon to Bregenz on Lake Constance, where there were still some traces of Christianity. Here the saint found an oratory dedicated to St. Aurelia, into which the people had brought three brass images of their tutelary deities. He commanded Saint Gall, who knew the language, to preach to the inhabitants, and many were converted. The images were destroyed, and Columbanus blessed the little church, placing the relics of St. Aurelia beneath the altar. A monastery was erected, and the brethren forthwith observed their regular life.

Columbanus is reported to have performed a miracle in Bregenz: The townpeople had placed a large vessel in the town center, filled with beer. They told Columbanus it was intended as a sacrifice to their god Wodan, whom they identified with Roman Mercury. Angrily, Columbanus breathed on the vessel, which broke asunder with a loud noise, spilling the beer.

After about a year, in consequence of another rising against the community, Columbanus resolved to cross the Alps into Italy. An additional reason for his departure was the fact that the arms of Thierry had prevailed against Theodebert, and thus the country on the banks of the Upper Rhine had become the property of his enemy.

On his arrival at Milan in 612, Columbanus met with a kindly welcome from Lombard King Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda. He immediately began to confute the Arians and wrote a treatise against their teaching, which has been lost. At the request of the king, he wrote a letter to Pope Boniface on the debated subject of “The Three Chapters”. These writings were considered to favour Nestorianism. The letter opens with all apology that a “foolish Scot” should be charged to write for a Lombard king, and expresses the most affectionate and impassioned devotion to the Holy See: “We Irish, though dwelling at the far ends of the earth, are ….. bound [devincti] to the Chair of Peter, and although Rome is great and renowned, through that Chair alone is she looked on as great and illustrious among us … On account of the two Apostles of Christ, you [the pope] are almost celestial, and Rome is the head of the whole world, and of the Churches”.  He declares the pope to be: “his Lord and Father in Christ”, “The Chosen Watchman”, “The Prelate most dear to all the Faithful”, “The most beautiful Head of all the Churches of the whole of Europe”, “Pastor of Pastors”, “The Highest”, “The First”, “The First Pastor, set higher than all mortals”, “Raised near into all the Celestial Beings”, “Prince of the Leaders”, “His Father”, “His immediate Patron”, “The Steersman”, “The Pilot of the Spiritual Ship”.

It was necessary that, in Italy, Columbanus should have a settled abode, so the king gave him a tract of land called Bobbio, between Milan and Genoa, near the River Trebbia, situated in a defile of the Apennines. On his way there he taught the Faith in a town which is called San Colombano to this day. At Bobbio the saint repaired the half-ruined church of St. Peter, and erected his celebrated abbey, which for centuries was stronghold of orthodoxy in Northern Italy (and in part the model for the great monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose).  Columbanus died at Bobbio

Among his principal miracles were: (1) procuring of food for a sick monk and curing the wife of his benefactor; (2) escape from hurt when surrounded by wolves; (3) obedience of a bear which evacuated a cave at his biddings; (4) producing a spring of water near his cave; (5) repletion of the Luxeuil granary when empty; (6) multiplication of bread and beer for his community; (7) curing of the sick monks, who rose from their beds at his request to reap the harvest; (8) giving sight to a blind man at Orleans; (9) taming a bear, and yoking it to a plough. He shared with other saints a great love for God’s creatures. As he walked in the woods, the birds would alight upon his shoulder that he might caress them and the squirrels would run down from the trees and nestle in the folds of his cowl.

A number of works by Columbanus survive, including a monastic rule (the Regula monachorum), a number of letters, and some poetr. These provide some of the earliest evidence for Irish knowledge of Latin. His Rule was approved of by the Council of Mâcon in 627 AD, but it was destined before the close of the century to be superseded by that of St. Benedict. For several centuries the two rules were observed conjointly in some of the greater monasteries.

The example set by Columbanus  was the prototype of Irish missionary enterprise towards the countries of Europe, eagerly followed up from England and Ireland by such men as Saints Killian, Virgilius, Donatus, Wilfrid, Willibrord, Swithbert, Boniface, and Ursicinus of Saint-Ursanne.

His body has been preserved in the abbey church at Bobbio, and many miracles are said to have been wrought there through his intercession. In 1482 the relics were placed in a new shrine and laid beneath the altar of the crypt. The sacristy at Bobbio possesses a portion of the skull of the saint, his knife, wooden cup, bell, and an ancient water vessel, formerly containing sacred relics  given to him by Saint Gregory.

St. Columbanus is named in the Roman Martyrology on 23rd November, but his feast is kept by the Benedictines and throughout Ireland on 24th November.

The main source for Columbanus’s life is recorded by Jonas of Bobbio, an Italian monk who entered the monastery in Bobbio in 618, three years after the saint’s death; Jonas wrote the life c. 643. This author lived during the abbacy of Attala, Columbanus’s immediate successor, and his informants had been companions of the saint.

Saint Gall / Gallen / Gallus, patron saint of St Gallen, Switzerland


Saint Gall / Gallen / Gallus (c. 550 – c. 646 AD) and his elder brother Saint Deicolus were among  the 12 companions of Saint Columbanus on his mission from Ireland to the continent.

In 610 AD, he accompanied Columbanus on his voyage up the Rhine River to Bregenz but when in 612 Columbanus traveled on to Italy from Bregenz, Gall had to remain behind due to illness and was nursed at Arbon. He remained in Swabia, where, with several companions, he led the life of a hermit in the forests southwest of Lake Constance, near the source of the river Steinach in cells.

He died around 646–650 in Arbon, and after his death a small church was erected which developed into the Abbey of St. Gall, the nucleus of the Canton of St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland. The monastery was freed from its dependence of the bishop of Constance and Emperor Louis the Pious made it an imperial institution. The Abbey of St. Gall and especially its celebrated scriptorium played an illustrious part in religious and intellectual history until it was secularized in 1798.

A series of fantastically embroidered Lives of Saint Gall were circulated from as early as the C9th  Prominent was the story in which Gall delivered Fridiburga from the demon by which she was possessed. Fridiburga was the betrothed of Sigebert II, King of the Franks, who had granted an estate at Arbon (which belonged to the royal treasury) to Gall so that he might found a monastery there. Another popular story about Gall has it that, at the command of the saint, a bear brought wood to feed the fire which Gall and his companions had kindled in the forest.

The fragmentary oldest Life was recast in the C9th by two monks of Reichenau, enlarged in 816–824 by the celebrated Wettinus, and about 833–884 by Walafrid Strabo, who also revised a book of the miracles of the saint.  This is mentioned in Robertson Davies‘ book The Manticore, where he interprets the legend in Jungian psychological terms. In the final scene of the novel where David Staunton is celebrating Christmas with Lizelloti Fitziputli, Magnus Eisengrim, and Dunstan Ramsay he is given a gingerbread bear. Ramsay explains that Saint Gall made a pact of peace with a bear who was terrorizing the citizens of the nearby village. They would feed him gingerbread and he would refrain from eating them. The parable is a Jungian exhortation to make peace with one’s dark side.

Saint Gall’s Feast Day is 16th October.

Saint Kilian of Würzburg

Saint Kilian and his two martyred companions are prominently represented among the statues lining the famous Saint’s Bridge across the Main River.

Saint Kilian / Killian / Cillian / Chillian of Würzburg was born in Mullagh (Co Cavan) in the mid-C7th AD. He is the subject of several biographies.

Kilian travelled from Ireland with eleven companions to Thuringia and eastern Franconia (nowadays the northern part of Bavaria). In Würzburg he converted much of the population to Christianity, including the local ruler, Duke Gozbert. Kilian told the Duke that he was in violation of sacred scripture by being married to his brother’s widow, Duchess Geilana (whom Kilian had failed to convert to Christianity). She was furious, and dispatched her own loyal troops to where the Christians were meeting; Kilian was beheaded, along with two of his companions, Saint Totnan and Saint Colman / Colonan / Kolonat. It is difficult to fix the date with precision, as Duke Gozbert and Duchess Geilana are only known of through a these two somewhat imprecise Church records.

The elevation of the relics of the three martyrs was performed by Burchard, the first Bishop of Würzburg. The skulls of the three martyrs were inlayed with precious stones, carefully preserved to this day. A glass case containing the skulls is paraded through the streets before large crowds, and put on display in the town’s cathedral, Sankt-Kiliansdom, on St Kilian’s Day8th July.

St Kilian’s Feast Day is also celebrated in the parish of Tuosist (Co. Kerry) where he is believed to have resided before travelling to Germany. A church and Holy Well are named after him and traditionally visited by crowds for a Pattern of prayers followed by evening social events.

Saint Kilian is one of the patron saints for sufferers of rheumatism.

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