Creating an “Island Space” in the Land of Colmcille
by Professor Mairéad Nic Craith
This year is a special anniversary of Colmcille (also known as Columba). Oral history suggests that Colmcille was born in Gartán in County Donegal around 521 AD. That makes this year his 1500th birthday. Although he was of royal descent, Colmcille decided to dedicate his life to Christianity and was sent to St Finnian’s monastery in County Down. While there, Colmcille secretly copied a book of psalms that Finnian had brought back from Rome. Finnian was angry that a copy had been made without his knowledge and appealed to the High King that the copy was rightfully his, but Colmcille refused to give it up. Tensions between the two monks may have served as the catalyst for the battle of Cúl Drebene where some 3,000 lives were lost. Following the dispute, Columba went into self-imposed, penitential exile, vowing to win as many as 3,000 souls for Christ. He established a new monastery on the Hebridian island of Iona where Conall, the King of Dal Riada, had granted him the site.
It is no accident that the story of Colmcille is still with us today after 1500 years. According to Hallam and Ingold (2008), traditions must be worked at to be sustained. Commemorations of Colmcille go back centuries, but a particularly important milestone occurred in 1997, when the then President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and a Minister of State in the Scottish Office, Brian Wilson, launched a new initiative commemorating the saint. Mary Robinson spoke about “creating an island space … in which Ireland and Scotland can share what they have in common.” (https://www.president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/signatures-on-our-own-frequency-the-sabhal-mor-ostaig-lecture-by-president) Since then a number of acts of commemoration have occurred. This blog focuses on three of these, with reference to mapping.
The first map, Tír Cholmcille (2003), conceptualised by Roy Pedersen was designed to challenge the way we look at the lands of Ireland and Scotland. We have become so used to looking at maps in a particular way that we forget there are other ways of seeing the world. As Dennis Woods (1992) says of the power of maps, “from their inception, it has been essential that states appear as facts of nature, as real enduring things”. Tír Cholmcille, which can be viewed at https://colmcille.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Colmcille-Map.pdf, puts Ireland and Scotland on one single map. Although there is no change in geography, the map is a radical change in perspective. A change in angle on the map encourages people to look again at the image they have of the two countries and the physical connection between them.
The second map is entitled Slí Cholmcille. The route that together landscapes and communities in Ireland and Scotland which are associated with Colmcille and can be viewed here: https://colmcille.net/st-columba-trail/. The route begins in Ireland, the land of Colmcille’s birth, and ends in Scotland, the land where he is buried. En route, one travels across many islands, beginning with Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal. There is a legend associated with Colmcille on Tory island, suggesting that the island’s ruler initially denied Colmcille permission to build a monastery there. Colmcille sought a compromise and proposed that he only required as much land as would be covered by his cloak. Thinking that he could hardly refuse such a small piece of land, the ruler agreed. However, when Colmcille threw down his cloak, it magically expanded until it covered the entire island. The furious ruler set his vicious dog on Colmcille. When the saint saw the beast coming, he blessed him and asked him to die, which the dog duly did!! When the ruler saw this, he repented and granted permission for Colmcille’s monastery.
The third example is a story map entitled Columba’s Scotland. This was designed by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) in 2021. HES commissioned poetry about places associated with the saint which can be viewed at https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/ae1235fda91c489e83a414a0d580d4fb.
Scottish islands which feature on the story map, include Eileach an Naoimh, where tradition holds that Columba’s mother is buried. Iona is the island that is most strongly associated with the saint; following a successful £3.75 million appeal, the the Iona Community’s residential and guest accommodation next to the Abbey was re-opened this summer.
All three maps have profound implications for Irish and Scottish communities. In re-imagining the geography of Ireland and Scotland, Tir Cholmcille draws attention to the proximity of these countries to one another. Although legend has it that Colmcille left Ireland and headed to Scotland as a penance for his misdeeds, the map may tell another story. Perhaps Colmcille didn’t necessarily perceive Ireland and Scotland as separate entities and, rather than leaving Ireland, was simple moving northwards from one Gaelic community to another that in need of Christianisation.. The re-orientation of the map draws attention to the shared Gaelic culture, which is particularly strong in the islands. The partnership between Bòrd na Gàidhlig in Scotland and Foras na Gaeilge in Ireland, which has supported these initiatives, has strived to deepen connections between the Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic language communities. The Gaelic dimension has been enhanced with the presentation of placenames in the original Gaelic rather than in an English translation that served to disconnect many islanders from the land and placelore.
The Gaelic connection has been especially visible in the Colmcille 1500 celebrations. In June, Maolcholaim Scott reported that a special programme in Manx Gaelic was designed to celebrate the anniversary of Colmcille’s birth: https://colmcille.net/sharing-gaelic-culture-laa-columb-killey-in-the-isle-of-man/ Gaelic celebrations on the Isle of Man included a choral anthem entitled Y Folliaght (The Secret) that profiles the sea journey of Colmcille and the marvellous sights and sounds that he witnessed. A recording of the anthem can be played back at: https://www.culturevannin.im/watchlisten/audioarchive/y-folliaght
The re-mapping of the Colmcille story (as well as the 1500 celebrations) have given Scottish islands an opportunity to come centre-stage. The centrality of islands in the Columba narrative is important since we tend to think of islands as edge places – a tendency that is reinforced by the power of maps to interpret in “a scientific manner”. Maps affirm states, and states affirm maps. Doreen Massey (1994) calls this the politics of location. We have come into a mind-set that assumes a core and a periphery, a centre and an edge – and you can’t have one without the other, but the islands are always seen as at the “edge”, but this is not the case in relation to islands in the Colmcille narrative.
Although most closely associated with Iona, Colmcille is connected with many Scottish islands. In Canna, the archivists put together a series of sounds and images of places that are linked with the saint for a video which can be viewed here: https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/the-feast-day-of-st-columba. While there is no absolute historical evidence, John Lorne Campbell (from Canna) argues persuasively that Canna was the summer home of Columba, and that it is the mysterious island of “Hinba” or “Himba” that is mentioned in the Columban diaries. The video highlights the archaeological connections of Canna and St Colmcille, and the soundtrack features Gaelic music.
It would be impossible to establish concrete historical evidence for every aspect of Colmcille’s life, but there is also a sense in which the facts do not matter (Nic Craith 2013). Whether the character of Colmcille is historical or semi-fictional is irrelevant for the purpose of tradition-bearing, although most people believe in his historical reality. The ‘history’ of Colmcille continues to be regenerated and remade, and his significance for island place-making has become layered. In “How Myths Die”, Lévi-Strauss (1974) argues against the disappearance of myths. They can be transformed, exhausted even, but they do not disappear. Instead, they can be recreated or re-actived
In the case of Columba, one is dealing with a ‘truth story’ rather than a true version of events (a distinction I first heard from John Bell at Greenbelt, a Christian arts festival, in Cheltenham). It is a story that resonates with Scottish communities (see Ian Bradley) https://www.dailyadvent.com/gb/news/140d401e921f7b8c01a6e0ba65129a9a-Celebrating-St-Columba-our-grumpy-but-muchlauded-saint-who-was-born-1500-years-ago) Although not the patron saint of either Ireland or Scotland, Colmcille’s popularity was such that his relics were carried in front of the Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn. There is a sense in which Colmcille is the real patron of the Gaels of Dal Riada. His 1500th anniversary has generated many creative initiatives, from poetry to music to art. Accompanying this blog is the image of a new icon that was commissioned from iconographer Pavel Lupu. This beautiful (copyright) image is yet another example of the continuing tradition of a popular saint.
Hallam, Elizabeth and Ingold, Tim (2008) “Creativity and Cultural Improvisation: An Introduction”. In: Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold eds, Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, Routledge.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1974) “How Myths Die”, New Literary History, 5(2), pp. 269-81.
Massey, Doreen (1994) Space, Place and Gender, Polity Press.
Nic Craith, Mairead (2013) “Living Heritage and Religious Traditions: Reinterpreting Columba/Colmcille in the UK City of Culture”, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, 22(1), pp 42-58.
Woods, Dennis (1992) The Power of Maps, Guilford Press.