Seachd bliadhna roimh ’n bhràth,
Thig muir airEirinn ré aon tràth,
’S thar Ile ghuirm ghlais,
Ach snàmhaidh I Choluim Chléirich!
Seven years before that awful day, When time shall be no more, A dreadful deluge shall o’ersweep Hibernia’s mossy shore.
The green-clad Isla, too, shall sink; While, with the great and good, Columba’s happier isle shall rear Her towers above the flood.
Gaelic proverb; periphrastic translation by Dr. John Smith, Minister of Campbeltown, given in his Life of St. Columba (1798).
Seven years before the Day of Doom (conflagration, destruction), The sea shall come over Erin in one watch (time, season, period), And over Islay, green, grassy (blue-green), But float will Iona (Hy) of Columba the cleric.
These are the three prayers of Patrick, as they were delivered to us by the Hibernians, entreating that all should be received on the day of judgment, if we should repent even in the last days of our life.
That he should not be shut up in hell.
That barbarian nations should never have the rule over us.
That no one shall conquer us, that is the Scots, before seven years previous to the day of judgment, because seven years before the judgment we shall be destroyed in the sea, this is the third.
Tírechán’s Collections Concerning St. Patrick, from the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52), translated in Sir William Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches, Vol. 1, Dublin: William Curry, Jun. and Co., 1827, p. 386.
BRECBANNOCH. Between the years 1204 and 1211, King William the Lion granted to the monks of Arbroath “custodiam de Brechbennoche,” and “cum predicta Brachbennoche terram de Forglint datam Deo et sancto Columbe et le Brachbennache,” on the tenure “faciendo inde servicium quod michi in exercitu debetur de terra ilia cum predicta Brachbennache.” This grant is recited in the charter of Arbroath, passed by the same king in 1211-1214; and substantially repeated in a confirmation by King Alexander II. in 1214-1218. In 1314 the convent grants to Malcolm of Monimusk “totam terram nostram de Forglen que pertinet ad Bracbennach cum omnibus pertinenciis suis una cum jure patronatus ecclesie ejusdem terre. . . . Dictus vero Malcolmus et heredes sui facient in exercitu domini Regis nomine nostro servicium pro dicta terra quod pertinet ad Bracbennach quociens opus fuerit.” From the Monimusks the lands of Forglen, with the custody of the Bracbennach, passed by inheritance to the Urrys and the Frasers, in the latter of which families they were found in 1388. In 1411 they were surrendered to the convent, and about 1420 they were conferred on Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum. In 1847 [sic; perhaps 1478?] they had passed to his grandson, who held them of the abbot and convent by service of ward and relief, “ferendi vexillum de Brekbennach in exercitu Regis,” and the payment of the annual rent of 40 shillings. In 1481 Alexander Irvine did homage for these lands and purtenances to the abbot, who “dixit et constituit ut tenentes regalitatis dicti monasterii de Aberbrothoc ubicumque existentes cum dicto Alexandro ad exercitum domini nostri Regis sub le Brecbennoch videlicet sub vexillo dictorum abbatis et conventus meabunt et equitabunt cum requisiti fuerint per dictum dominum abbatem et conventum dicti monasterii et suos successores pro defensione Regis et regni.” In 1483 Alexander Irvine had a charter of the lands of Forgone, the the advowson of the church “faciendo in exercitu domini nostri Regis servicium de le Brekbannach debitum et consuetum.” And lastly, in 1494 it was found that Alexander Irvine was the lawful heir of Alexander Irvine of Drum, his father, in the lands of Forglen, with the advowson of the church, held as above. From these notices we learn that this reliquary was a banner, and held so sacred in the beginning of the thirteenth century that it was named in the dedication clause of the earliest charter. Also, that it was coupled with St. Columba’s name, not because the abbey of Arbroath was under his invocation, for it was under that of St. Thomas of Canterbury; nor because he was patron saint of the parish, for St. Adamnan was reputed to be so; but, as we may conceive, because this banner was in some way connected with St. Columba s history, either by use or blessing. Possibly it was like the Vexillum Sancti Cuthberti, so fatal to the Scots at Neville’s Cross.
Ther did appeare to Johne Fossour, the Prior of the Abbey at Durham, a vision commanding him to take the holie Corporax Cloth, which was within the corporax, wherewith Saint Cuthbert did cover the chalice, when he used to say masse, and to put the same hole relique, like unto a Banner, upon a spare point.
The name Brecbannach seems to be formed from breac beannaighthe, “maculosum benedictum,” and denoted something like the bratacha breac-mergeada, pallia maculatorum vexillorum, which were carried in the battle of Magh Rath. The Brecbannach probably served a double purpose, being, like the Banner of Cuthbert, “shewed and carried in the abbey on festivall and principall daies,” and also “presented and carried to any battle, as occasion should serve.” Whence King William obtained the reliquary is not stated. Probably it had been kept in the parish of Forglen by the hereditary tenants of the church lands. Between 1172 and 1180 the king granted to the Canons of Holyrood the rights, tithes, and obventions of four churches in Cantyre, which had previously been enjoyed by the abbey of Hy; and his grant of this reliquary, with its appurtenances, to Arbroath, may have been a transfer of a like nature.
— Dr. William Reeves in the Introduction to his translation of St. Adomnán’s Life of Saint Columba, 1874.
Another time also, while the blessed man was living in the Iouan island (Hy, now lona), he made this known to the assembled brethren with very great earnestness, saying, “To-day I wish to go alone to the western plain of this island; let none of you therefore follow me.” They obeyed, and he went alone, as he desired. But a brother, who was cunning, and of a prying disposition, proceeded by another road, and secretly placed himself on the summit of a certain little hill which overlooked the plain, because he was very anxious to learn the blessed man’s motive for going out alone. While the spy on the top of the hill was looking upon him as he stood on a mound in the plain, with arms extended upwards, and eyes raised to heaven in prayer, then, strange to tell, behold a wonderful scene presented itself, which that brother, as I think not without the leave of God, witnessed with his own eyes from his place on the neighbouring hill, that the saint’s name and the reverence due to him might afterwards, even against his wishes, be more widely diffused among the people, through the vision thus vouchsafed. For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly country, clad in white robes and flying with wonderful speed, began to stand around the saint whilst he prayed; and after a short converse with the blessed man, that heavenly host, as if feeling itself detected, flew speedily back again to the highest heavens. The blessed man himself also, after his meeting with the angels, returned to the monastery, and calling the brethren together a second time, asked, with no little chiding and reproof, which of them was guilty of violating his command. When all were declaring they did not know at all of the matter, the brother, conscious of his inexcusable transgression, and no longer able to conceal his guilt, fell on his knees before the saint in the midst of the assembled brethren, and humbly craved forgiveness. The saint, taking him aside, commanded him under heavy threats, as he knelt, never, during the life of the blessed man, to disclose to any person even the least part of the secret regarding the angels’ visit. It was, therefore, after the saint’s departure from the body that the brother related that manifestation of the heavenly host, and solemnly attested its truth. Whence, even to this day, the place where the angels assembled is called by a name that beareth witness to the event that took place in it; this may be said to be in Latin “Colliculus Angelorum” and is in Scotic Cnoc Angel (now called Sithean Mor). Hence, therefore, we must notice, and even carefully inquire, into the fact how great and of what kind these sweet visits of angels to this blessed man were, which took place mostly during the winter nights, when he was in watching and prayer in lonely places while others slept. These were no doubt very numerous, and could in no way come to the knowledge of other men. Though some of these which happened by night or by day might perhaps be discovered by one means or another, these must have been very few compared with the angelic visions, which, of course, could be known by nobody. The same observation applies in the same way to other bright apparitions hitherto investigated by few, which shall be afterwards described.
Of the manner in which St. Columba overcame Broichan the Druid and sailed against the wind.
On a certain day after the events recorded in the foregoing chapters, Broichan, whilst conversing with the saint, said to him: “Tell me, Columba, when dost thou propose to set sail?” The saint replied, “I intend to begin my voyage after three days, if God permits me, and preserves my life.” Broichan said, “On the contrary, thou shalt not be able, for I can make the winds unfavourable to thy voyage, and cause a great darkness to envelop you in its shade.” Upon this the saint observed: “The almighty power of God ruleth all things, and in His name and under His guiding providence all our movements are directed.” What more need I say? That same day, the saint, accompanied by a large number of followers, went to the long lake of the river Nesa (Loch Ness), as he had determined. Then the Druids began to exult, seeing that it had become very dark, and that the wind was very violent and contrary. Nor should we wonder, that God sometimes allows them, with the aid of evil spirits, to raise tempests and agitate the sea. For thus legions of demons once met in the midst of the sea the holy bishop Germanus, whilst on his voyage through the Gallican channel to Britain, whither he was going from zeal for the salvation of souls, and exposed him to great dangers, by raising a violent storm and causing great darkness whilst it was yet day. But all these things were dissipated by the prayers of St. Germanus more rapidly than his words were uttered, and the darkness passed away.
Our Columba, therefore, seeing that the sea was violently agitated, and that the wind was most unfavourable for his voyage, called on Christ the Lord and embarked in his small boat; and whilst the sailors hesitated, he the more confidently ordered them to raise the sails against the wind. No sooner was this order executed, while the whole crowd was looking on, than the vessel ran against the wind with extraordinary speed. And after a short time, the wind, which hitherto had been against them, veered round to help them on their voyage, to the intense astonishment of all. And thus throughout the remainder of that day the light breeze continued most favourable, and the skiff of blessed man was carried safely to the wished-for haven.
Let the reader therefore consider how great and eminent this venerable man must have been, upon whom God Almighty, for the purpose of manifesting His illustrious name before a heathen people, bestowed the gift of working such miracles as those we have recorded.
— Vita Columbæ, Lib. II., Cap. xxxv.
Our Colum’s bark was in the bay,
But sore our oarsmen were dismayed,
The Druid Brochan barred our way,
And shouted to his gods for aid;
And swore by earth and sea and sun
No Christian hound should sail upon
The lake that he forbade.
His old grey hair hung loose and long
About his shoulders bowed with age,
He poured to heaven the piercing song
(Men said) of some old Pictish sage.
His eyeballs gleamed unearthly fire,
And, as his song rose ever higher,
He shook with palsied rage.
I swear his mountain demon heard,
Who knew not that our Saint was nigh,
Nor that a bearer of the Word
Was come beneath his own wild sky,
Where, king of all men’s hopes and fears,
Himself, they said, a thousand years,
Had ruled as God on high.
He heard, I swear, his priest’s distress,
And launched himself in one black cloud
Upon the bosom of Loch Ness,
While Pict and Scot in terror bowed,
And like a fiery thunder-snake
Came tearing down the long dark lake,
We heard him roar aloud.
Upon the wings of one wild storm,
Rushing with furious haste, he came;
I hardly saw his dragon form,
Through sheets and tongues of forkèd flame.
Unceasing thunder crashed behind
The rushing of the mighty wind,
Men trembled at his name.
But through the howling of the gale
More shrill arose the Druid’s cry,
“Now wretched Christian wilt thou sail?
Down on thy knees, adore and die,
And thinkest thou to cope with me?
Ye Picts and Scots, at last ye see
I am his master, I.”
And all men on their faces fell,
Only St. Colum, meek and pale,
Rising against the Druid’s spell,
Passed in the teeth of that wild gale,
Down to his bark, nor blenched with fear,
But bade us cross ourselves and rear
His mast and span his sail.
We strained the aching mast on high,
The raving sail we scarcely reared,
The screaming cordage lashed the sky,
We trembled while the Pagans jeered,
For there was never human oar
Could push that wind-caught bark from shore,
When such a tempest neared.
While Colum signed the cross above
Our floundering boat with outstretched hand,
The howling whirlwind burst and drove
Enormous breakers roods on land.
Yet, lo, our vessel put about,
And through the storm went up their shout,
“His boat has left the land.”
There in the teeth of that great wind,
Through blinding clouds of driving spray,
They saw us sail and leave behind
Themselves and their accursèd bay.
Our boat sailed on with even keel,
The billows could not make us reel,
The tempest could not stay.
Old Brochan cursed his powerless god,
His starting eyeballs wild with fear,
His demon, like a monstrous clod,
Dropped in the lake to disappear.
But far and wide the word went forth
That Christ was victor in the north,
And Colum was His seer.
— Douglas Hyde (ed.), The Three Sorrows of Storytelling and Ballads of St. Columkille, London, 1895.
Brandubh was killed on the morrow, and demons carried off his soul into the air. And Maedhog [abbot of Ferns] heard the wail of his soul as it was undergoing pain, while he was with the reapers. And he went into the air, and began to battle with the demons. And they passed over Hy; and Columkille heard them while he was writing; and he stuck the style [graib, graphium] into his cloak, and went to the battle to the aid of Maedhog, in defence of Brandubh’s soul. And the battle passed over Rome, and the style fell out of Columkille s cloak, and dropped in front of Gregory, who took it up in his hand. Columkille followed the soul of Brandubh to heaven. When he reached it, the congregation of heaven were at Celebration, namely, Te decet hymnus, and Benedic anima mea, and Laudate pueri Dominum; and this is the beginning of the Celebration of heaven. Columbkille did the same as the people of heaven. And they brought Brandubh’s soul back to his body again. Columbkille tarried with Gregory; and brought away Gregory’s brooch [dealc] with him, and it is the hereditary brooch [delg aidechta, literally testamentary brooch, being an heirloom in Hy, as the clog an eadhachta, or testamentary boll, was in Armagh] of the coarb of Columkille to this day. And he left his style with Gregory. ”
Lib. Lecan, fol. 183 a., quoted in Reeves’ Life of St. Columba, 1874.
The legend is transferred from the Irish original in Manus O’Donnell’s Life:
By reason of that curse and of the promise that Columcille had made them that whoever misprized them, he would cut off his life, it befell that Brandubh came not further into Leth Cuinn, and in that same hosting was slain, and devils bare his soul up into the air with them, and they were tormenting it there.
And in that time Maedhog was with the reapers that were cutting corn for him. And he heard the cry of the soul in torment, and by the power of God he went up into the air after the demons. And he was battling with them for the soul of Brandubh.
And they came above Iona of Columcille in Alba. Columcille was writing at that time, and an angel of God revealed the thing to him. And he grieved for the soul in torment, albeit he it was himself that had obtained from God that the life of Brandubh should be cut off because he had not taken the counsel of the holy men of his household forementioned touching the making of peace with Leth Cuinn. And he fastened his cloak with his brooch, and leaped into the air to aid Maedhog to save the soul of Brandubh from the demons. And they were struggling thus until they came above Rome. The brooch of Columcille fell out of his mantle, and dropped to the ground before Pope Gregory. Gregory lifted it and recognized it. Soon the devils rose passing high into the air, fleeing before Columcille. Columcille followed them and went higher above into the ether, so that he heard the singing of the heavenly household. And these were the first words of the psalms they were singing in praise of the Lord: “Te decet u.,” and “Benedic a. m.,” and “Laudate pueri.”
And Columcille caused his holy men and monks to recite them at the beginning of their office and singing from that time on. And Columcille obtained from God that the soul of Brandubh, that was all that time in torment from the demons, should be restored to his body again, and that he should repent of his crime, and be a good servant to God and to Columcille thenceforth, and should receive the sacrament from the hands of Maedhog Ferna in the hour of his death as he had promised him.
Columcille went to Gregory for his brooch. But the Pope kept it for himself and left his own brooch to Columcille afterward. And right marvelous were to Gregory the height of gifts, and the wealth of graces, and the multitude of miracles that God granted Columcille to do in that time. And afterward Columcille went back to Iona, and there he left that brooch of Pope Gregory’s to his successor in Iona in witness and in sign of these great miracles.
By virtue of his prayer, and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he healed several persons suffering under various diseases; and he alone, by the assistance of God, expelled from this our island, which now has the primacy, innumerable hosts of malignant spirits, whom he saw with his bodily eyes assailing himself, and beginning to bring deadly distempers on his monastic brotherhood. Partly by mortification, and partly by a bold resistance, he subdued, with the help of Christ, the furious rage of wild beasts. The surging waves, also, at times rolling mountains high in a great tempest, became quickly at his prayer quiet and smooth, and his ship, in which he then happened to be, reached the desired haven in a perfect calm.
When returning from the country of the Picts, where he had been for some days, he hoisted his sail when the breeze was against him to confound the Druids, and made as rapid a voyage as if the wind had been favourable. On other occasions, also, contrary winds were at his prayers changed into fair. In that same country, he took a white stone from the river, and blessed it for the working of certain cures, and that stone, contrary to nature, floated like an apple when placed in water. This divine miracle was wrought in the presence of King Brude and his household. In the same country, also, he performed a still greater miracle, by raising to life the dead child of an humble believer, and restoring him in life and vigour to his father and mother. At another time, while the blessed man was yet a young deacon in Hibernia, residing with the holy bishop Findbarr, the wine required for the Sacred Mysteries failed, and he changed by his prayer pure water into true wine. An immense blaze of heavenly light was on many and wholly distinct occasions seen by some of the brethren to surround him in the light of day, as well as in the darkness of the night. He was also favoured with the sweet and most delightful society of bright hosts of the holy angels. He often saw, by the revelation of the Holy Ghost, the souls of some just men carried by angels to the highest heavens. And the reprobates too he very frequently beheld carried to hell by demons. He very often foretold the future deserts, sometimes joyful, and sometimes sad, of many persons while they were still living in mortal flesh. In the dreadful crash of wars he obtained from God, by the virtue of prayer, that some kings should be conquered, and others come off victorious. And such a grace as this he enjoyed, not only while alive in this world, but even after his departure from the flesh, as God, from whom all the saints derive their honour, has made him still a victorious and most valiant champion in battle.
King Alexander, then lying in Kiararey-sound, dreamed a dream, and thought three men came to him. He thought one of them was in royal robes, but very stern, ruddy in countenance, somewhat thick, and of middling size. Another seemed of a slender make, but active, and of all men the most engaging, and majestic. The third again, was of very great stature, but his features were distorted, and of all the rest he was the most unsightly. They addressed their speech to the King, and enquired whether he meant to invade the Hebrides. Alexander thought he answered that he certainly proposed to subject the islands. The Genius of the vision bade him go back; and told him no other measure would turn out to his advantage. The King related his dream; and many advised him to return. But the King would not; and a little after he was seized with a disorder, and died. The Scottish army then broke up; and they removed the King’s body to Scotland. The Hebridians say that the men whom the King saw in his sleep were St Olave King of Norway, St Magnus Earl of Orkney, and St Columba.
— The Norwegian Account of Haco’s Expedition Against Scotland,
Rev. James Johnstone, A.M., pp. 10-13.
Huius talis honorificentiae viro honorabili ab Omnipotente caelitus collatae etiam unum proferemus exemplum, quod Ossualdo regnatori Saxonico, pridie quam contra Catlonem Britonum regem fortissimum praeliaretur, ostensum erat. Nam cum idem Ossualdus rex esset in procinctu belli castra metatus, quadam die in suo papilione supra pulvillum dormiens, sanctum Columbam in visu videt forma coruscantem angelica; cuius alta proceritas vertice nubes tangere videbatur.
The bishop (Mel) being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognise what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop. “This virgin alone in Ireland”, said Mel, “will hold the Episcopal ordination.” While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.
— From an anonymous Life of St. Brigid, Bethu Brigte, Chapter XIX.
* * *
Now, I must admit, this passage is a very hard one for me. Unlike many, I take literally and historically many of the early Lives of Irish and Scottish saints. In most cases, I see no reason not to. For example, in St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, there is not a single episode that I find fantastic or chiefly allegorical; I read it as a recounting of true events in the lives of Columba and those who, through his intercession, were saved. So the notion that St. Brigid received true episcopal ordination at the hands of St. Mel is a frightening prospect, as it is an act the Church now believes Herself unable to work.
At this time in Scotia and Alba, under the Columban monastic system, while there were bishops, they do not seem to have reigned over towns or dioceses and it was the great abbots and abbesses who had the primacy.
Now we are told in this passage that, not only did St. Brigid receive the outward signs of episcopal ordination, but that there was an heavenly approbation in the column of fire that rose from her head. Further, Bishop Mel refers to the holy virgin as having received the order of a bishop.
So, what does this mean? Is the passage simply an hyperbolic burst of enthusiasm on the part of the writer (or those who passed on the story)? Did the event occur? If it did, what spiritual effect might it have had on this woman? Was she indeed consecrated bishop?
Today in the post, I received from Leonard’s Book Restoration Station a copy of The Life of St. Columba which I had the bindery do up with hard boards covered with a fine deep red dyed calfskin, the traditional five raised ridges along the spine, a black applied leather label for the title, lovely marbled endpapers, and matching head and tail bands. The binding and materials are excellent. The only flaw, and it’s a minor one, is that the fada (accute accent mark) in the author’s name is pointing in the wrong direction. I did make a point of the inclusion of the fada, but I guess it’s unreasonable to expect the bookbinder to be an expert in Gaelic orthography. An accent mark is just an accent mark, I suppose.
I had the book finely rebound as I intend for this volume to see daily use for the rest of my life, as a means of knowing better, and meditating upon, the life of my great patron Colum Cille — the Dove of the Church — St. Columba. It certainly seems sturdy enough for the task. I would recommend the bindery to others. Their prices are very fair and the work was completed in several weeks.