A Rethink: Colmcille’s Copying of a Psalter. By Dr M.J. Fox

We are pleased to welcome a new contributor and old friend Dr Mary Jane Fox. She has contributed to Offaly Heritage journal.

Saint Colmcille[1] is very much a part of Offaly’s history, almost exclusively due to the early monastic site of Durrow. It is not certain exactly when he founded Durrow, but the land for it was possibly gifted to him either by Aedh, a son of Bréanainn, king of southern Uí Néill kingdom of south Tethbae,[2] or Ainmuire mac Sétnai, a prince from the Cenél Conaill branch of the northern Uí Néill. In both cases it was likely to have taken place around 553.[3

There has been significant controversy over the years regarding St. Colmcille’s copying a psalter belonging to his teacher, St. Finnian of Moville. Doubt about the event itself and events subsequent to it still persist, and the mystery has never truly been solved. For something that occurred almost 1500 years ago, how would that be possible anyway? Granted, it might never be solved, but we might find ourselves a few steps closer to what happened if we reconsider what sort of evidence we are seeking and what we consider acceptable.

To briefly recap: born in 520 in Donegal,[4] much has been written about Colmcille, from his kindnesses and acts of faith to founding monasteries to a wide range of miracles, prophecies and visions. He is one of the three patron saints of Ireland, though not a contemporary of either of the other two, Saint Patrick (c. 385-461) and Saint Brigid (450/1-525). There are three principal medieval Lives about him, one written by near-contemporary, St. Adamnan (c. 624-704), another written in Middle Irish by an unidentified author in the twelfth century, and another about 400 years later in Donegal by Manus O’Donnell (c. 1490-1564),[5] chief of the O’Donnell clan. The latter believed the O’Donnells to have “a close association with Colum Cille himself” due to ancestral connections.[6] Both Adamnan and O’Donnell’s works have been carefully examined for the nature and veracity of their contributions, with consideration for time periods, contexts and environments. Writing in Latin less than one hundred years after Colmcille’s death, Adamnan divided his 55,000 word Life of Colmcille into prophecies, miracles and visions, and surely must be forgiven for making observations that were not of a twenty-first century mind. Manus O’Donnell’s work, completed in 1532, was written in Irish and amounted to almost 100,000 words; it is viewed as an interesting example of sixteenth century Gaelic Ireland’s reading preferences.[7] However, since his book at the time was considered a luxury item,[8] it is difficult to see how it would have been available for determining reading preferences, especially considering the printing press did not arrive in Ireland until after 1550, and printed copies were not available until 1918. As such, O’Donnell’s work is more understood as an admirable artifact than what O’Donnell’s original intention might have been.

St Colum Cille from a painting in Sligo gallery and museum.

The fundamental claim consists of a chain of unfortunate events:

– Colmcille was secretly copying a psalter of his former teacher, Finnian of Movilla, which was forbidden; ownership of the copy was challenged;

– the High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, made a judgement on this in favour of Finnian; Colmcille did not agree;

– two large familial groups from Colmcille’s original home territory were incensed, possibly agitated by Colmcille, and in 560 fought the High King’s army, called the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne; it was reported the king lost and 3000 of his people died; [9]

-two years later in 562, or ‘after the space of many seasons…to the same assembly that had been gathered against himself.’[10]  there was a synod on the matter held inTailtiu (Telltown), Co. Meath, in which excommunication proceedings had begun against Colmcille for his crime of copying the psalter;

– St. Brendan of Birr attended, and when he saw Colmcille arriving late to the proceedings, he greeted Colmcille deferentially and with high praise and a strong defense of him when challenged; Brendan’s defense caused the excommunication charges to be dropped, and those attending ‘honoured him with great veneration.’[11]

The rebuild of the old church at Durrow, dated to about 1730 A/D. and with reforms, including moving the High Cross inside in 2004-12.

Colmcille was unrepentant;

– Colmcille nevertheless felt compelled to leave Ireland and proselytize among the Picts, promising never to return to Ireland; it’s worth adding that Dál Riata territory – which was Irish – was located in both north Antrim and across the sound (20 km) in western Scotland. The Picts were located primarily east an north of Dál Riata.

Absence of Evidence

Unfortunately, some elements of the issue do not appear together for the first time until O’Donnell’s version in 1532. Even so, with all its elaborations, O’Donnell’s work ‘is best thought of as a sort of cross between what we would describe now as an historical novel and a collection of folk traditions.’[12] Oddly, the story of Colmcille’s illicit copying is not mentioned in O’Donnell’s Life, which can be explained by O’Donnell not wanting his illustrious ancestor to be tainted with scandal. Although the Battle of Cúl Dreimne itself is indeed mentioned in the Annals of Ulster, which largely preceded O’Donnell and did provide some detail of those involved, any stated reason for the battle is absent.[13]  In fact, with little exception, any pre-O’Donnell mention of the Battle of Cúl Dreimne all oddly omit reasons behind it.

Moreover, because parts of the Annals of Ulster and O’Donnell’s Life relied on documents which are believed to no longer exist, and we are not to accept what was reported to O’Donnell because we cannot read these works for ourselves. There is an assumption here that there are no more works to be discovered or recovered, that all there is to be found has been found, and any informed supposition is a waste of time. In the midst of it all, an evidential demand is placed on the reasons behind Cúl Dreimne with a historical precision which is not realistic.

However, to resurrect an old aphorism, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.[14] From the discovery of Troy to the discoveries at Gobekli Tepe and Cathal Hoyuk, and from the parting of the Red Sea[15] to the Great Flood,[16] the lesson of not discarding even that which seemed impossible has not been learned. This is not to suggest opening the door to wishful thinking or irresponsible guessing, but carefully considered, reasonable possibilities or likelihoods. From a recent short article on Colmcille written in 2021, the following seems to reflect the going assumption among many researchers: 

Even the medieval texts can’t be accepted at face value. Some of the most famous and entertaining stories about him – or achievements attributed to him – are evidently non-historical and derive from later religious and secular political events and a desire by his devotees to enlarge his reputation and fame.[17]

The small cross at Durrow – now in the National Museum

The message seems to be that everything should be viewed as a likely exaggeration or even falsehood, even events that are not beyond the realm of possibility. The evidentiary demand is quite high, and seeking a singular verifiable reason for the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne has been treated the same as a crying horse or a boar dying at Colmcille’s command.[18] Yet anyone who seriously studies conflict, both contemporary and historical, knows that monocausality, or one reason alone, rarely exists. There can always be a single event that triggered a call to arms, but rarely is that the only issue of substance behind any ensuing violence. There is almost always a cascade of events that are vital contributing factors. The Battle of Cúl Dreimhne has these elements of typical violent events. There have been three separate reasons forwarded for its occurrence:

  1. Colmcille’s secret copying of the psalter, and the judgement made against him by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, High King of Ireland.
  • Diarmait’s execution in 559 of Curnán, son of Áed mac Echach, the King of Connacht; Curnán apparently killed a nobleman or the son of a nobleman. The Annals of Tigernach for that year reports the killing was ‘one of the causes of the battle of Cul Dreimne’, thus implying more than one cause.[19]
  • A territorial grab by Diarmait, who was well beyond his usual territory and thus the aggressor, or objections to who would have succeeded Diarmait.[20]

This additionally disregards a method which has not only been applied to contemporary historical studies, but also when not everything can be known and verified, including conflicts and terrorist groups.[21] When applied, the best possible credible likelihood is sought, and as more evidence comes to the fore and other likelihoods are proposed, the original or initial likelihood is reconsidered, and from there it is either maintained, discarded, or more rarely, competes with the newly proposed, equally credible likelihood. Referred to as abductive reasoning,[22] it does not seem to have been deliberately applied in Irish historical studies, at least not formally, not to the degree they have been applied at the international scholarly level, and not to the degree that is possible.[23] Abductive reasoning leads us on a different route, and suggests that when 100% certainty is not possible, and there is no existent and similar corroborating evidence, there are other ways to formulate or patch together a credible likelihood.

Alternative

In the case of Colmcille and the reasons for the Battle of Cúl Dreimne, the fact that the copying of the psalter is not mentioned by Adamnan or O’Donnell does not necessarily suggest the event never happened or that the reasons offered throughout history were fabrications. Rather, we can look at the effect of Colmcille’s ‘alleged’ excommunication and its retraction: if it did happen, then in the following decades, century, and centuries, how many more instances of something like this was reported, and with excommunication as the penalty?

Resorting to excommunication in that day and age was extreme, tantamount to social abandonment, although if the accused was convincingly repentant, the excommunication strictures could be mildly relaxed. Might the ‘lesson’ of what almost happened to Colmcille have served as a warning to future scribes, especially those not quite so honoured and well-connected? Considering that Adamnan is clear there was no remorse or contrition from Colmcille, the described reversal and indeed veneration of Colmcille is somewhat remarkable…though not outside the realm of possibilities.

Another view that ties in with the above reasoning is that this event might have been deliberately covered up. Even in the opening pages of Adamnan’s Life, he explains quite clearly:

Moreover, we thought that the reader should be put in mind of this also,  that we have omitted many things concerning  this man of blessed memory for the sake of brevity, even things worthy of remembrance, and have recorded as it were just a few events out of many, lest we should weary our readers.[24]

He reiterates and expand several lines later:

In describing the life and character of this our Columba, I will in the first place, so far as I can, closely compress it in a short discourse, and at the same time set before the eyes of a reader his holy conversation…Let no one then regard me as saying anything untrue concerning this man, renowned as he was, or as one who would write doubtful or uncertain things; but be it known that I shall narrate those things which have been handed down in the consistent record of our ancestors and of faithful men who knew, and that I shall write without any ambiguity; and this either from what we have been able to find recorded in the pages of those who have gone before us, or from what we have learned on diligent inquiry, by hearing it from certain faithful ancients who told us without any hesitation.[25]

Adamnan thus was telling his readers he would compress, or edit, his descriptions, and yet reassured he would not repeat anything false. Thus on one hand we do have the report of Colmcille’s excommunication by ‘a certain synod for some venial, and so far, excusable matters, not rightly, as afterwards became clear at the last.’[26] But on the other hand there is a blatantly deliberate gap in reporting what it was about. No doubt protecting Colmcille and the church with this omission, it might be that it is not so much the accusation of copying that Adamnan was avoiding mentioning,  but the fact that Colmcille was reportedly so defiant and unrepentant, something  any ‘blessed man’ would not be expected to do.

It is remarkable how many sources don’t mention or only lightly mention Cúl Dreimne or the excommunication, although they initially might have been following Adamnan’s lead and wrote little to nothing about it, the topic eventually becoming prohibited, especially as the Church grew more powerful over time. No doubt a cautionary tale worth passing down orally to budding scribes, even though not written, the story would have easily lived on. Of course, another possibility is that it may well be O’Donnell himself was anxious to censor any stories that might cast aspersions on his claimed illustrious ancestor, and the sources he used that are no longer extant were quite deliberately hidden or discarded. A less devious explanation could be that details of the event survived because they were mentioned in letters or other lesser and informal documents which were not formally censored. The whole event begins to look more like an intentional secret than an invented tale. It seems to be a 1500 year old version of the Irish expression ‘whatever you say, say nothing…’

Closing Thoughts

The main point of this article is not a matter of being right or wrong, but that historians and archaeologists should not automatically assume their own assumptions and interpretations of uncertain events or discoveries as the only possible options. This is as true for the reasons behind the Battle of Cúl Dreimne as it is for the excommunicating synod and any other historical event. Implying that nothing is to be trusted, no past author is to be believed, especially deceased authors who are unable to defend themselves or at least explain, is an easy out, and hardly acceptably rigorous research. Only when all the realistic possibilities are outlined, weighed and considered can someone argue that one view is more credible than another, or that it competes equally with other views.

Brian Lacey’s book published by Four Courts in 2021

In addition, some degree of self-reflective sensitivity is also needed at times, as harsh and decisive judgements often overlook how difficult it can be to separate mythical and historical events from each other due to deep emotional truths that at times lay behind them. It exposes the critic as having forgotten that some people often learned more easily through parable-like stories or that reading about or believing in miracles can be all that some people had to hold on to. On another level, attempting to set the record straight in a balanced and thoughtful way is what research is all about, and this is something we all can agree on.

References

Adamnan. Prophecies, Miracles and Visions of St. Columba (columcille) First Abbot of Iona, A.d. 563-597. Frowde, Henry (transl). Oxford, Oxford University Press Warehouse, 1895. 

Annals of Tigernach. https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T100002A/

Annals of Ulster. https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T100001A/

Charles-Edwards, Thomas. Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Iocchi, Alessio. ‘The Boko Haram pluriverse.’ Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism,’ Review Essay, 2021, 1-8.

Lacey, Brian. ‘Colmcille or Columba – the founder of Durrow.’ June 5, 2021. https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2021/06/05/colmcille-or-columba-the-founder-of-durrow-by-brian-lacey/

________. (2013) Saint Columba: His Life and Legacy. Blackrock Dublin: Columba Press, 2013.

Mooney, Chris. ‘No, really there is a scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus.’ https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/12/08/no-really-there-is-a-scientific-explanation-for-the-parting-of-the-red-sea-in-exodus/

O’Donnell, Manus. The Life of Colum Cille. Brian Lacey (ed.) Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998

Trefil, James. ‘Evidence for a flood.’  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/evidence-for-a-flood-102813115/

Wright, Rev. William. ‘On the Empire of the Hittites.’ Journal of the Transactions of The Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain 21, Ordinary Meeting on January 3, 1887, (Paper read at the meeting by the author), 55-72


[1] Here the Irish spelling of his name is used. Columba is the Latin spelling.

[2] O’Donnell, 58.

[3] Adamnan. https://archive.org/stream/adamnanivitascol00adamuoft/adamnanivitascol00adamuoft_djvu.txt

[4] Brian Lacey relates that recent research has corrected Colmcille’s birth year from 521 to 520, thus “the 1500th anniversary of his birth is being commemorated from 7 December 2020 to 7 December 2021”; “Colmcille or Columba – the founder of Durrow”, June 5, 2021. https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2021/06/05/colmcille-or-columba-the-founder-of-durrow-by-brian-lacey/

[5] O’Donnell, 8.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 12-13.

[8] Ibid, 13-14.

[9] Annals of Ulster, U561.1.

[10] Adamnan, Book III, Ch. 3, 112-13.

[11] Ibid, 113; the passage ends with ‘When he had thus spoken,not ony did they desist, not daring to go further in excommunicating the Saint, but they even honoured him with great veneration.’

[12] O’Donnell, 14.

[13] Most of the Annals of Ulster were complied by one scribe in the late 1400s, with events to 1540 added by other contributors. The entries referred to are U560.3, U561.1 and U561.2.

[14] The original quote is from Rev. William Wright in 1887: ‘It is urged that the Hittites could not have been settled in Southern Palestine because there are few direct references to their southern settlements in the inscriptions. To this I reply, that the absence of evidence is not evidence.’ Rev. William Wright, ‘On the Empire of the Hittites’, Journal of the Transactions of The Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain 21, Ordinary Meeting on January 3, 1887, (Paper read at the meeting by the author), 55-72; 59.

[15] Mooney. ‘No really: There is a scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus.’ https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/12/08/no-really-there-is-a-scientific-explanation-for-the-parting-of-the-red-sea-in-exodus/

[16]Trefil. ‘Evidence for a Flood.’ https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/evidence-for-a-flood-102813115/

[17] Lacey, ‘Colmcille or Columba.’

[18] Adamnan, Book III, Ch XXIII, 133; Book II, Ch XXVI, 78.

[19] Annals of Tigernach, T559.4

[20] Thomas-Edwards, 294, 296.

[21] A recent book about a particularly vicious terrorist group applied abductive reasoning throughout to help fill in recent and distant historical gaps. A review of the book stated it was “the most accurate compilation on Boko Haram published so far.” Iocchi, 3.

[22] Accessing information on abductive reasoning or logic is replete throughout the academic community. Applied in law, medicine, business studies and a range of other disciplines, for example, a Taylor & Francis search for abductive reasoning brings more than 18,000 results.

[23] This is an example of how a method used in one discipline can be applied to others.

[24] Adamnan, Book I, Preface II, B.

[25] Ibid, B2.

[26] Ibid, Book III, Ch. III, 112.