Towards Alba of the Ravens

Drawing from H. D. M. Spence-Jones' The Church of England, A History for the People, London, c. 1897.
Drawing from H. D. M. Spence-Jones’ The Church of England, A History for the People, London, c. 1897.

This is a poem of Columkille’s, or at least ascribed to him. It is in very irregular metre, or rather changes its metre several times. The literal translation of the first few verses is as follows:–

Delightful to be on Ben Edar (the Hill of Howth) before going over the sea, white, white; the dashing of the wave against its face, the bareness of its shore and its border.

Delightful to be on Ben Edar after coming over the white-bosomed sea, to be rowing one’s little coracle, ochone! on the swift-waved shore.

How rapid the speed of my coracle, and its back turned to Derry! It is misery to me, my errand over the high-sea, travelling towards Alba of the ravens.

My foot in my musical little coracle, my heart pitiable, sorrowful. Weak is the man that cannot lead. Blind totally is every ignorant one.

There is a grey eye that looks back upon Erin, but it shall not see during life the men of Erin nor her women.

My sight over the brine I stretch, from the planking of stout oak. Large is the tear of my soft grey eye, when I look back towards Erin, etc.

Part of this poem may very well be Columkille’s own, but part is as evidently not his. The end of it was probably written by one of the monks of Derry, whose monastery, in after times, almost equalled in fame that of Iona itself.

The verse about the soft grey eye is found in the Leabhar na h’Uidhre in the preface to the Amra of Columkille which shows its antiquity.

Moleesha was the Saint who imposed it as a penalty upon Columkille that he should go into exile and there convert as many souls as there were men slain in the battle of Cooldrevna [Cúl Dreimhne] fought on his account.

Columcille Sang.
(From the Irish.)

Delightful it is on Ben-Édar to rest
Before going over the white, white sea;
The dash of the wave as it launches its crest
On the wind-beaten shore is delight to me.

Delightful it is on Ben-Édar to rest
When safely come over the white sea foam;
The coracle cleaving her way to the West
Through the sport of the waves as she beats for home.

Too swiftly my coracle flies on her way,
From Derry I mournfully turned her prow;
I grieve at the errand which sends me to-day
To the land of the ravens, to Alba, now.

In my good little coracle, tuneful and light,
I have planted my foot, but my heart is sore,
For blind are the ignorant, blind as the night,
And weak is the man who shall lead no more.

How swiftly we travel, there is a grey eye
Looks back upon Erin, but it no more
Shall see, while the stars shall endure in the sky,
Her women, her men, or her stainless shore.

From the plank of the oak where in sorrow I lie
I am straining my sight through the water and wind;
And large is the tear from the soft grey eye
Looking back on the land that it leaves behind.

To Erin alone is my memory given,
To Meath and to Munster my wild thoughts flow,
To the shores of Moy-linny, the plains of Loch Levin,
And the beautiful land the Ultonians know.

In the East there is many a warrior tall,
But many a sickness and plague and care,
And many a heart that is hardened to all,
With scantness of raiment and food, to bear

But ah! in the West how the apple is fair,
How many a tanist, how many a king,
How many a sloe does the thorn-tree bear,
In the acorned oaks how the young birds sing!

Melodious her clerics, melodious her birds,
Her children are gentle, her seniors wise;
Her men are illustrious, truthful in words,
Her women have virtues for love to prize.

And Brendan the truthful is there in the West,
And Colom, descendant of Crivhan is he;
And there in the West shall be Baithin the blest,
And there in the West shall Adamnan be.

Go carry my words to the men that I name,
Unto Comgall the priest of eternal life,
And carry my thoughts upon wings of flame
To the king of Emania the bold in strife.

I give thee my blessing to carry from here,
Take this benediction over the sea,
One seven-fold half upon Erin the dear,
One half upon Alba the same to be.

To the nobles that gem the bright Isle of the Gael
Carry this benediction over the sea;
And bid them not credit Moleesha’s tale,
And bid them not credit his words of me.

Were it not for the word of Moleesha’s mouth,
At the cross of Ahamlish that sorrowful day,
I now should be warding from north and from south,
Disease and distemper from Erin away.

Oh, carry my blessing away to the West,
For my heart in my bosom is broken, I fail;
Should death of a sudden now pierce my breast,
I should die of the love that I bear the Gael.

The Gael, oh! the Gael, how the sound of that name
When I speak it can banish my ruth and my rue;
Belovèd is Cuimin of fair-haired fame,
Beloved are Cainneach and Comgall too.

And, oh! were the tributes of Alba mine,
From shore unto centre, from centre to sea,
The site of one house, to be marked by a line,
In the midst of fair Derry were dearer to me.

That spot is the dearest on Erin’s ground,
For the treasures that peace and that purity lend;
For the hosts of bright angels that circle it round,
Protecting its borders from end to end.

That spot is the dearest on Erin’s ground,
For its peace and its beauty I gave it my love;
Each leaf of the oaks around Derry is found
To be crowded with angels from heaven above.

My Derry, my Derry, my little oak grove,
My dwelling, my home, and my own little cell;
May God the Eternal, in heaven above,
Send woe to thy foes and defend thee well.

Belovèd are Durrow and Derry to me,
And Drumhome of the fruits of the rich ripe hue
Belovèd Raphoe in its purity,
And Surd and Cenannas, I love them too.

And dear to my heart in the western land,
Is the thought of Loch Foyle where the cool waves pour,
And the Bay of Drumcliff on Cúlcinné’s strand,
Delightful the form of its sloping shore.

Delightful it is, and the salt salt main,
Where the sea-birds scream o’er the water blue,
On my coming from Derry afar in pain,
How quiet it is, and delightful too.

— Douglas Hyde (ed.), The Three Sorrows of Storytelling and Ballads of St. Columkille, London, 1895.

I Stretch My Eye Across the Brine

198. Then Columcille and his household departed from Erin, and this is the number they were: twenty bishops, two score priests, thirty deacons, and two score sons of learning that had not yet the rank of priest or deacon, as the poet, even Dallan Forgaill, hath said in this quatrain:

Forty priests their number.
Twenty bishops, lofty their virtue,
For psalmody, without doubting.
Thirty deacons, fifty boys.

199. And these folk were full of wisdom and knowledge and the graces of the Holy Ghost. And the years of Columcille at that time were two and two score. And other fourteen and twenty years of his life he spent in Alba in pilgrimage and exile.

200. Then went Columcille and his household into their ship. And there he made his quatrain:

My foot in my tuneful coracle;
My sad heart tearful
A man without guidance is weak;
Blind all those without knowledge.

201. And he bade farewell to Erin then, and they put out into the ocean and the great deep. And Columcille kept gazing backward on Erin till the sea hid it from him. And heavy and sorrowful was he in that hour. And it was thus he made this quatrain below:

I stretch my eye across the brine,
From the firm oaken planks;
Many the tears of my soft grey eye
As I look back upon Erin.

There is a grey eye
That will look back upon Erin;
Never again will it see
The men of Erin or women.

At dawn and at eve I lament;
Alas for the journey I go
This is my name–I tell a secret–
‘Back to Erin’.

– Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
XIV. Of the Exile of Columcille from Erin, 198-201; compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

I Would Not Speak Falsehood

View from atop Dunadd, (Scottish Gaelic Dún Add, 'fort on the [River] Add'), an Iron Age and later hillfort near Kilmartin in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and believed to be the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.
View from atop Dunadd, (Scottish Gaelic Dún Add, ‘fort on the [River] Add’), an Iron Age and later hillfort near Kilmartin in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and believed to be the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.
On a time that Columcille was in Alba, he sent holy Baithin on certain errands to Aedan son of Gabhran. Aedan inquired of him who that man was, to wit, Columcille, of the which the folk of the Western World gave such great report.

“He is a good man,” saith Baithin, “for he hath not broken his virginity, and he hath done naught, small or great, in vain-glory, and never hath he spoken falsehood.” Then Aedan bethought him how he might confute that. And he brought Columcille to him. And he let seat his own daughter Coinchenn in a chair in the presence of Columcille, and she with royal robes upon her.

“Beautiful is the maiden,” saith Aedan.
“She is in sooth,” saith Columcille.
“Were it pleasing to thee to lie with her?” saith Aedan.
“It were pleasing,” saith Columcille.

“Hearest thou him of whom it hath been said that never hath he broken his virginity, and he saying he were fain to be lying with a maiden!” saith Aedan.

“I would not speak falsehood,” saith Columcille. “And know thou, O Aedan, there is none in the world that is without the desire to sin. Natheless he that leaveth that desire, for God’s sake, shall be crowned in the Kingdom of God. And wit thou well, I would not lie with the damsel for the lordship of the world, albeit for the lust of the fleshly body that is about me, it is indeed my desire.”

If now Columcille had said at that time that he had no wish to lie with the damsel, Aedan had laid that against him as a lie, according to the word he had himself spoken, to wit, that save the human body of Jesu Christ, there hath none put on flesh that doth not have desire toward sin.

— Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
XVII. More of the Labors of Columcille in Iona, 241;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Curious Pan-Celtic Flag

Pan-Celtic flag of unknown provenance; a collage of the supposed "seven modern Celtic nations"; the flags of Galicia, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall, with a super-imposed triskelion.
Pan-Celtic flag of unknown provenance; a collage (perhaps more properly a gyronny) of the supposed “seven modern Celtic nations”; the flags of Galicia, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall, with a super-imposed triskelion.

Flags of the Modern “Celtic” Nations

Pictish Battle Scene on Aberlemno II

Detail of reverse side of Aberlemno Stone II; Class II Pictish Stone; battle scene.

Relics Taken in Flight

The Monymusk Reliquary is an VIII Century Scottish reliquary made of wood and metal characterised by an Insular fusion of Gaelic and Pictish design and Anglo-Saxon metalworking, probably by Ionan monks. It has been said to be the Brecbennoch of St. Columba (modern Gaelic Breac Bannoch or “embossed peaked-thing”), a sacred battle ensign of the Scottish army, used for saintly assistance.

The shrine of Colum Cille and his other halidoms arrived in Ireland, having been taken in flight to escape the foreigners.

— Chronicon Scotorum, Annal CS878.

An Untimely Death

The Annals of the Four Masters record the dies natalis of St. Columba in the year 592, cheating the blessed man out of five whole years of his earthly life (though I am certain from my study of St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ that Columba would have been more than happy to give them up). St. Columba died on 9 June 597.

* * *

M592.2

Colum Cille, son of Feidhlimidh, apostle of Alba, head of the piety of the most part of Ireland and Alba, next after Patrick, died in his own church in Hy, in Alba, after the thirty fifth year of his pilgrimage, on Sunday night precisely, the 9th day of June. Seventy seven years was his whole age when he resigned his spirit to heaven, as is said in this quatrain:

  1. Three years without light
    was Colum in his Duibh-regles;
    He went to the angels from his body,
    after seven years and seventy.

Dallan Forgaill composed this on the death of Colum Cille:

  1. Like the cure of a physician without light,
    like the separation of marrow from the bone,
    Like a song to a harp without the ceis,
    are we after being deprived of our noble.

Annals of the Four Masters, M592.2.

The Dove Is Flown to Scotland

As a result of the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne referred to in the last post, St. Columba was exiled to Alba where he established himself at Hy, the Iouan Isle, now called Iona.

* * *

Colum Cille went to Scotland, where he afterwards founded a church, which was named from him.

Annals of the Four Masters, M557.3.

A Queer Occurrence in Alba

A woman was cast up on the shore of Alba this year. Her length [was] 192 feet; the length of her plaits 16 [feet]; the length of the fingers of her hand 6 feet; the length of her nose 6 [feet]; her body as white as a swan or the foam of a wave.

— Annals of Inisfallen, AI906.2.

* * *

Interestingly, other Irish Annals record a similar fantastic event. What possibly could have happened for a learned scribe to record such an unbelievable occurrence? A whale perhaps?

Glamis Manse Stone

The front of the Glamis Manse Stone with an intricately carved Celtic cross.

The Glamis Manse Stone, also known as Glamis 2, is a Class II Pictish stone at the village of Glamis, Angus, Scotland. Dating from the IX Century, it is located outside the Manse, close to the parish church. It is inscribed on one side with a Celtic cross and on the other with a variety of Pictish symbols.

The stone is a cross-slab 9 ft. 1 in. high, 4 ft. 11 in. wide and 9.4 inches thick. The slab is pedimented and carved on the cross face in relief, and the rear face bears incised symbols. It falls into John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson’s classification system as a Class II stone.

The cross face bears a Celtic cross carved in relief with ogee armpits. It has an incised ring and the shaft and roundel are decorated with knotwork interlace designs, with the arms and portion above the roundel holding zoomorphic interlaces. The cross is surrounded by incised symbols and figural representations. In the lower left-hand quadrant is depiction of two bearded, long-haired men apparently fighting with axes. Above them is what appears to be a cauldron with human legs dangling out of it. The lower right-hand quadrant holds what appears to be either a deer or a hound’s head, similar to symbols found on the Monifieth 2 stone, above a triple disc symbol. The top right quadrant holds a centaur holding a pair of axes. The top left quadrant holds what has been interpreted as a lion.

Since at least the XIV Century, tradition has identified the Glamis Manse Stone as the tombstone of King Malcolm II of Scots who died 25 November 1034.

A plate depicting the Glamis Manse Stone and describing it as the tombstone of King Malcolm II of Scots.

The reverse side of the slab bears three incised symbols: a serpent above a fish, with a mirror at the bottom.

The reverse side of the Glamis Manse Stone.

Folio 291 Verso

Folio 291 verso from the Book of Kells; St. John the Evangelist.