Conference will discuss relevance of St Columban for the present century

Opinion: Patron saint of all who seek a united Europe was the first to use the phrase ‘we Irish’

Pat Cox: said the values that Columban promoted were essential to the wellbeing and stability of contemporary European society. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill Photographer: Dara Mac Donaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Pat Cox: said the values that Columban promoted were essential to the wellbeing and stability of contemporary European society. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill Photographer: Dara Mac Donaill / THE IRISH TIMES


In AD 590, St Columban and his 12 companions sailed from Bangor, Co Down. During the next 20 years he established monasteries in eastern Gaul at Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaine.

Because he challenged the king and bishops he was expelled from Luxeuil in AD 610 and was brought to Nantes to be deported back to Ireland. Soon after setting sail, a freak storm pushed the ship ashore.

The captain was convinced that his holy passenger caused the storm so he refused to take Columban on board. Once freed, Columban and his companions turned north, passing near modern-day Paris and travelled east as far as the Rhine.

He spent a short time in Bregenz in modern-day Austria before crossing the Alps and travelling to Milan and, finally, to Bobbio. He died in Bobbio, northern Italy in AD 615.

His achievements and legacy in Europe are monumental.

Influential figure
St Columban is, arguably, the most important Irish person to have lived in continental Europe. Robert Schuman, an architect of the European Union, told a conference on Columban in Luxeuil in July 1950 that Columban was the patron saint of all those who seek to build a United Europe.

On April 27th, 2004, on the eve of the accession of 10 new member states, Pat Cox, then president of the European Parliament, made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Columban in Bobbio. He said that the values which Columban promoted are crucial for the wellbeing of contemporary European society.

Between now and 2015, there will be several conferences in France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy highlighting his legacy in shaping early medieval Europe.

A seminar on The Relevance of St Columban in the 21st Century will be held at St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Navan from from August 30th to September 1st next.

Dr Damian Bracken, a senior lecturer in history at University College Cork, will speak on the Ireland that gave birth to Columban. According to Columban’s biographer, Jonas of Susa, the sixth century in Ireland was “the spiritual spring time of a people who had only recently received the Christian faith”.

Prof Jean Michel Picard, from the School of Languages and Literature at University College Dublin, will speak on the Europe that Columban encountered when he arrived in eastern Gaul.

In a world where civil and ecclesiastical authority are often seen as remote and sometimes dysfunctional, Columban’s willingness to challenge secular and ecclesiastical authority has a contemporary relevance.

Columban does not dismiss or reject ecclesiastical authority. In fact, he recognised that Rome was the spring and source of Irish Christianity. Nevertheless Columban had no problem advising or even admonishing someone he considered “senior” to himself, namely Pope Boniface IV..

Profound respect
The Rev Dr Johnston McMaster of the Irish School of Ecumenism will speak on what Columban might say to leaders in the political, economic and religious spheres today.

Columban had a profound respect for the natural world so the lecture on Columban and Creation will try to highlight how his attitude can help contemporary Christians protect and restore creation.

Dr Clare Stancliffe will talk about Columban spirituality.

The conference will end with an ecumenical service presided over by the Most Rev Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough.

Columban was the first person to use the phrase “we Irish” in a letter to Pope Gregory the Great. Since all Irish people are heirs to Columban’s legacy, I hope that, during the next two years, scholars, the Government, artists, musicians and the media will explore the life and influence of St Columban in early medieval Europe and his relevance in the and his relevance in the 21st century.

Fr Seán McDonagh is a Columban priest and eco theologian who worked in
the Philippines for two decades. He has written
nine books, most of them on
environmental issues

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