St Columbanus is widely regarded as the first of the great Irish Christian missionaries to Europe. Unlike his predecessor and (almost) namesake, Columba of Iona, Columbanus undertook exile for life as he set off to bring the particularly Irish form of monasticism to the continent.
He was born in Leinster, perhaps somewhere about the year 550, and his adventurous life took him across southern Europe to die eventually in 615 in Bobbio in Northern Italy. He was dominating, austere, determined, occasionally gentle. His is the earliest voice of Christian Ireland, and this is his story.
Kate Tristram lives on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) in the north of England and has long been an historian of the early Celtic church.
St Columbanus is one of the most remarkable of the Irish saints. His main significance arises from his role in initiating the vast missionary enterprise of the early Irish Church and the achievements of his monastic foundations in enhancing and preserving medieval culture.
He is frequently confused with an earlier namesake St Colum Cille (Columba), missionary in Scotland and founder of the monastery at Iona.
Columbanus whose name was initially Colm?ín, was born about 550 somewhere in the province of Leinster. It seems he had a vocation to be a monk from an early age. He spent the first period of his formation under the influence of an abbot, named Sinl?ín. Subsequently for more than twenty years he was a disciple of Comgall, abbot of the monastery and important educational centre at Bangor.
In 591 Columbanus and twelve companions set out as missionaries to the Continent. He established his first monastery in a disused Roman fort at Annagray in Gaul (now France). The monastery flourished and he set up other foundations at Funtaine and Luxeuil in the same region. He later travelled south and evangelised in the area around Bregenz on Lake Constance. Eventually he crossed the Alps and founded a monastery at Bobbio in the Appenines. This was to become one of the greatest centres of learning in the middle ages.
Columbanus was resolute in his convictions and courageous in upholding them. He clashed with the bishops in whose dioceses he established his first monasteries. Despite their opposition, he insisted on dating Easter in accordance with the practice in the Irish Church at that time. He also criticised those bishops for their involvement in political intrigues. For many years he enjoyed the support of the Merovingian overlords of the region. However, when requested by King Theuderic II to bless his two illegitimate sons he refused and he and his monks were expelled from the territory.
Columbanus died in 615. He was highly literate and left a most valuable corpus of writing, all of it in Latin. It includes letters he wrote to two different popes, Gregory the Great and Boniface IV. Just forty years after Columbanus died Jonas, an Italian monk in the monastery at Bobbio, published a biography of the founder in the hagiographical style of that time.
In this fine study Kate Tristram provides a splendid and enthralling synthesis of the published work to date on the life and times of St Columbanus.
- The Irish Catholic, 17th June, 2010