“God thee bless, thou loved Iona.”

THE DEATH OF COLUMBA.

Saxon stranger, thou did’st wisely,
Sunder’d for a little space
From that motley stream of people
Drifting by this holy place;
With the furnace and the funnel
Through the long sea’s glancing arm,
Let them hurry back to Oban,
Where the tourist loves to swarm.
Here, upon this hump of granite,
Sit with me a quiet while,
And I’ll tell thee how Columba
Died upon this old grey isle.

I.

‘Twas in May, a breezy morning,
When the sky was fresh and bright,
And the broad blue ocean shimmer’d
With a thousand gems of light.
On the green and grassy Machar,
Where the fields are spredden wide,
And the crags in quaint confusion
Jut into the Western tide:
Here his troop of godly people,
In stout labour’s garb array’d,
Blithe their fruitful task were plying
With the hoe and with the spade.
“I will go and bless my people,”
Quoth the father, “ere I die,
But the strength is slow to follow
Where the wish is swift to fly;
I am old and feeble, Diarmid,
Yoke the oxen, be not slow,
I will go and bless my people,
Ere from earth my spirit go.”
On his ox-drawn wain he mounted,
Faithful Diarmid by his side;
Soon they reach’d the grassy Machar,
Soft and smooth, Iona’s pride:
“I am come to bless my people,
Faithful fraters, ere I die;
I had wish’d to die at Easter,
But I would not mar your joy,
Now the Master plainly calls me,
Gladly I obey his call;
I am ripe, I feel the sickle,
Take my blessing ere I fall.”
But they heard his words with weeping,
And their tears fell on the dew,
And their eyes were dimmed with sorrow,
For they knew his words were true.
Then he stood up on the waggon,
And his prayerful hands he hove,
And he spake and bless’d the people
With the blessing of his love:
“God be with you, faithful fraters,
With you now, and evermore;
Keep you from the touch of evil,
On your souls his Spirit pour;
God be with you, fellow-workmen,
And from loved Iona’s shore
Keep the blighting breath of demons,
Keep the viper’s venom’d store!”
Thus he spake, and turn’d the oxen
Townwards; sad they went, and slow,
And the people, fix’d in sorrow,
Stood, and saw the father go.

Street of the Dead, Iona.
Street of the Dead, Iona.

II.

List me further, Saxon stranger,
Note it nicely, by the causeway
On the left hand, where thou came
With the motley tourist people,
Stands a cross of figured fame.
Even now thine eye may see it,
Near the nunnery, slim and grey;—
From the waggon there Columba
Lighted on that tearful day,
And he sat beneath the shadow
Of that cross, upon a stone,
Brooding on his speedy passage
To the land where grief is none;
When, behold, the mare, the white one
That was wont the milk to bear
From the dairy to the cloister,
Stood before him meekly there,
Stood, and softly came up to him,
And with move of gentlest grace
O’er the shoulder of Columba
Thrust her piteous-pleading face,
Look’d upon him as a friend looks
On a friend that goes away,
Sunder’d from the land that loves him
By wide seas of briny spray.
“Fie upon thee for thy manners!”
Diarmid cried with lifted rod,
“Wilt thou with untimely fondness
Vex the prayerful man of God?”
“Not so, Diarmid,” cried Columba;
“Dost thou see the speechful eyne
Of the fond and faithful creature
Sorrow’d with the swelling brine?
God hath taught the mute unreasoning
What thou fail’st to understand,
That this day I pass for ever
From Iona’s shelly strand.
Have my blessing, gentle creature,
God doth bless both man and beast;
From hard yoke, when I shall leave thee,
Be thy faithful neck released.”
Thus he spoke, and quickly rising
With what feeble strength remain’d,
Leaning on stout Diarmid’s shoulder,
A green hillock’s top he gained.
There, or here where we are sitting,
Whence his eye might measure well
Both the cloister and the chapel,
And his pure and prayerful cell.
There he stood, and high uplifting
Hands whence flowed a healing grace,
Breathed his latest voice of blessing
To protect the sacred place,—
Spake such words as prophets utter
When the veil of flesh is rent,
And the present fades from vision,
On the germing future bent:
“God thee bless, thou loved Iona,
Though thou art a little spot,
Though thy rocks are grey and treeless,
Thine shalt be a boastful lot;
Thou shalt be a sign for nations;
Nurtured on thy sacred breast,
Thou shalt send on holy mission
Men to teach both East and West;
Peers and potentates shall own thee,
Monarchs of wide-sceptre’d sway
Dying shall beseech the honour
To be tomb’d beneath thy clay;
God’s dear saints shall love to name thee,
And from many a storied land
Men of clerkly fame shall pilgrim
To Iona’s little strand.”

Sunrise over Mull, from Iona.
Sunrise over Mull, from Iona.

III.

Thus the old man spake his blessing;
Then, where most he loved to dwell,
Through the well-known porch he enter’d
To his pure and prayerful cell;
And then took the holy psalter—
‘Twas his wont when he would pray—
Bound with three stout clasps of silver,
From the casket where it lay;
There he read with fixed devoutness,
And with craft full fair and fine,
On the smooth and polish’d vellum
Copied forth the sacred line,
Till he came to where the kingly
Singer sings in faithful mood,
How the younglings of the lion
Oft may roam in vain for food,
But who fear the Lord shall never
Live and lack their proper good.
Here he stopped, and said, “My latest
Now is written; what remains
I bequeath to faithful Beathan
To complete with pious pains.”
Then he rose, and in the chapel
Conned the pious vesper song
Inly to himself, for feeble
Now the voice that once was strong;
Hence with silent step returning
To his pure and prayerful cell,
On the round smooth stone he laid him
Which for pallet served him well.
Here some while he lay; then rising,
To a trusty brother said:
“Brother, take my parting message,
Be my last words wisely weigh’d.
‘Tis an age of brawl and battle;
Men who seek not God to please,
With wild sweep of lawless passion
Waste the land and scourge the seas.
Not like them be ye; be loving,
Peaceful, patient, truthful, bold,
But in service of your Master
Use no steel and seek no gold.”
Thus he spake; but now there sounded
Through the night the holy bell
That to Lord’s-day matins gather’d
Every monk from every cell.
Eager at the sound, Columba
In the way foresped the rest,
And before the altar kneeling,
Pray’d with hands on holy breast.
Diarmid followed; but a marvel Flow’d
upon his wondering eyne,—
All the windows shone with glorious
Light of angels in the shrine.
Diarmid enter’d; all was darkness.
“Father!” But no answer came.
“Father! art thou here, Columba ?”
Nothing answer’d to the name.
Soon the troop of monks came hurrying,
Each man with a wandering light,
For great fear had come upon them,
And a sense of strange affright.
“Diarmid! Diarmid! is the father
With thee? Art thou here alone ?”
And they turn’d their lights and found him
On the pavement lying prone.
And with gentle hands they raised him,
And he mildly look’d around,
And he raised his arm to bless them,
But it dropped upon the ground;
And his breathless body rested
On the arms that held him dear,
And his dead face look’d upon them
With a light serene and clear;
And they said that holy angels
Surely hover’d round his head,
For alive no loveliest ever
Look’d so lovely as this dead.

Stranger, thou hast heard my story,
Thank thee for thy patient ear;
We are pleased to stir the sleeping
Memory of old greatness here.
I have used no gloss, no varnish,
To make fair things fairer look;
As the record stands, I give it,
In the old monks’ Latin book.
Keep it in thy heart, and love it,
Where a good thing loves to dwell;
It may help thee in thy dying,
If thou care to use it well.

— John Stuart Blackie, Lays of the Highlands and Islands (1872).

I Do Not Compare the Disciple with the Master

Engraving of the ruins of Iona Abbey from Archaeologia Scotica, Volume I, Edinburgh (1792).
Engraving of the ruins of Iona Abbey from Archaeologia Scotica, Volume I, Edinburgh (1792).

Baithen was a man of tender soul, of whom we would fain speak at greater length, if it were not needful to circumscribe the wide and confused records of Celtic hagiography. Columba compared him to St John the Evangelist; he said that his beloved disciple resembled him who was the beloved disciple of Christ, by his exquisite purity, his penetrating simplicity, and his love of perfection. And Columba was not alone in doing justice to the man who, after having been his chief lieutenant in his work, was to become his first successor. One day, in an assembly of learned monks, probably held in Ireland, Fintan, a very learned and very wise man, and also one of the twelve companions of Columba’s exile, was questioned upon the qualities of Baithen. “Know,” he answered, “that there is no one on this side of the Alps who is equal to him in knowledge of the Scriptures, and in the greatness of his learning.” “What!” said his questioners — “not even his master, Columba?” “I do not compare the disciple with the master,” answered Fintan. “Columba is not to be compared with philosophers and learned men, but with patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. The Holy Ghost reigns in him; he has been chosen by God for the good of all. He is a sage among all sages, a king among kings, an anchorite with anchorites, a monk of monks; and in order to bring himself to the level even of laymen, he knows how to be poor of heart among the poor; thanks to the apostolic charity which inspires him, he can rejoice with the joyful, and weep with the unfortunate. And amid all the gifts which God’s generosity has lavished on him, the true humility of Christ is so royally rooted in his soul, that it seems to have been born with him.” It is added that all the learned hearers assented unanimously to this enthusiastic eulogium. Charles Forbes René, comte de Montalembert, The Conversion of England, Being a Sequel to the Monks of the West, Volume 1, Edinburgh (1872).

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 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.

Next after Colum Cille Himself

Iona Abbey.
Iona Abbey.

9. F. QUINTO IDUS IUNII.

BAOITHIN, abbot of I-Coluim-Cille, next after Colum Cille himself; and Tech Baoithin in Cinel Conaill was his chief church, for he was of the race of Conall Gulban. It was to this Baoithin it was permitted to see the three grand chairs in heaven empty, awaiting some of the saints of Erin, viz., a chair of gold, and a chair of silver, and a chair of glass, and he told Colum Cille at I the vision which was shown unto him; for he used to be always along with Colum Cille, for they were close in consanguinity and friendship, i.e., they were the sons of two brothers. It was then Colum Cille gave the interpretation to him of the thing which he had seen, for he was a famous prophet, so that he said then: The chair of gold which thou hast seen is the chair of Ciáran, son of the carpenter, the reward of his sanctity, and hospitality, and charity. The chair of silver which thou hast seen is thine own chair, for the brightness and effulgence of thy piety. The chair of glass is my own chair, for although I am pure and bright, I am brittle and fragile, in consequence of the battles which were fought on my account. So that it was after this he (Colum Cille) resolved upon the celebrated abstinence, i.e., to take nettle pottage as food for the future, without dripping or fat whatever, so that the impression of his ribs through his woollen tunic was seen in the sandy beach, which is by the side of I when he used to lie on it at night.

Now, Baoithin was four years in the abbacy at I after the death of Colum Cille, for it was from among the men of Erin the abbot of I was chosen; and he was most frequently chosen from the men of Cinel Conaill. When he used to eat food, he was wont to say, “Deus in adjutorium meum intende,” between every two morsels. When he used to be gathering corn along with the monks he held one hand up beseeching God, and another hand gathering the corn. Baoithin resigned his soul to heaven after the four years aforesaid, on the same day of the month that Colum Cille went to Heaven A.D. 600.

Martyrology of Donegal, A Calendar of the Saints of Ireland, by Michael O’Clery, James Henthorn Todd, William Reeves (Bp. of Down, Connor and Dromore).

All Affrighted and Adrad

Sound of Iona.
Sound of Iona.

Another time when Columcille was in lona, holy Baithin set out for that foresaid isle. Columcille warned him that in the middle of the night tofore a terrible beast had come into the harbor betwixt lona and the isle that he was bound for; and that all that should go past that harbor should be in sore peril from her.

Baithin replied, “I and the monster are in God’s hand,” saith he.

“Go,” saith Columcille, “with God’s blessing and mine. Thy stout faith shall save thee from that beast.”

Then went Baithin into his ship. And he had not been long travelling on the sea when they met the beast. Then were they all affrighted and adrad that were in the boat, save only Baithin. And he lifted his hands and eyes to Heaven and prayed God fervently to save him from the danger whereas he was. When Baithin had ended that prayer, he blessed the sea and its waters, and the beast fled before him. And she hath not been seen in that place from that time.

– Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
XVII. More of the Labors of Columcille in Iona, 234;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

What Follows Let Baithene Write

Iona Abbey.

Then leaving this spot, he ascended the hill that overlooketh the monastery, and stood for some little time on its summit; and as he stood there with both hands uplifted, he blessed his monastery, saying:

Small and mean though this place is, yet it shall be held in great and unusual honour, not only by Scotic kings and people, but also by the rulers of foreign and barbarous nations, and by their subjects; the saints also even of other churches shall regard it with no common reverence.

After these words he descended the hill, and having returned to the monastery sat in his hut transcribing the Psalter, and coming to that verse of the 33d Psalm, where it is written, “They that seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good,” “Here,” said he, “at the end of the page, I must stop; and what follows let Baithene write.” The last verse he had written was very applicable to the saint, who was about to depart, and to whom eternal goods shall never be wanting; while the one that followeth is equally applicable to the father who succeeded him, the instructor of his spiritual children: “Come, ye children, and hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord;” and indeed he succeeded him, as recommended by him, not only in teaching, but also in writing.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book III, Chapter 24.

Missing the Letter “I” Alone

The Cathach of St. Columba.

QUADAM die Baitheneus, ad Sanctum accedens, ait, “Necesse habeo ut aliquis de fratribus mecum Psalterium quod scripsi percurrens emendet.”  Quo audito, Sanctus sic profatur, “Cur hanc super nos infers sine causa molestiam? nam in tuo hoc, de quo dicis, Psalterio nec una superflua reperietur litera, nec alia deesse, excepta I vocali, quae sola deest.”  Et sic, toto perlecto Psalterio, sicuti Sanctus praedixerat repertum exploratum est.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Chapter XVII.

* * *

This little story is an attestation to the fidelity with which the Ionan monks hand-copied manuscripts, often Psalters.  In the course of St. Adomnán’s Vita, St. Columba is often found writing, obviously a very central part of the monastic life on Iona.  St. Baithéne was successor to the abbacy of Iona after Columba.