Wandering Irish 'outsider' stumbled upon site for Swiss city of St Gallen

Thu, Mar 15, 2012, 00:00

WEARING GREY felt slippers, the visitors pad along the polished parquet floor, pass through the heavy door and shudder in the cold library air. Moments later, the chill is forgotten as all stare, dumbstruck, at the sight above.

The ceiling of the abbey library in St Gallen is, quite simply, awe-inspiring: an explosion of stucco wrapped around striking religious imagery. Lining the walls, from floor to ceiling, are hundreds of precious books, while in glass cases there is a selection of priceless manuscripts, hundreds of which are more than a millennium old.

For centuries St Gallen’s abbey has been a seat of culture and learning in Europe, but neither the abbey nor the Swiss city itself would exist if an Irish man named Gall hadn’t tripped here 1,400 years ago.

Gall had come to this region as one of 12 disciples of St Columbanus and in AD 612 struck out on his own, following the Steinach river through deep forests until, legend has it, he stumbled on an exposed root and fell into a rosebush.

What for some would have been just a painful accident was, for Gall, divine intervention. He ended his wandering, built a hermitage on the spot and continued his ascetic life of prayer and contemplation until he is said to have died here aged 95 on October 15th, 640.

Today a statue of Gall keeps watch over the pretty city an hour east of Zürich that grew out of his original settlement. This year St Gallen is celebrating its founder’s famous stumble by declaring 2012 the “Gallusjahr” or “St Gall Year”.

“Gall is ever-present here. Every time we mention our city we use his name and every schoolchild learns his story,” says Canisius Braun, state secretary for the canton. For city residents, he says, St Gall is their St Patrick.

“We’ve always had connections to Ireland through St Gall but we hope this anniversary year will be a chance to make new contacts.”

A Unesco world heritage site, the abbey library, Switzerland’s oldest, was built in the late 18th century, shortly before the Benedictine abbey was dissolved in 1805 and transferred to state control. Its collection is as perfect as the building housing it, and many of its manuscripts were written by Irish monks here.

Among its treasures are early written records of Christian and Irish prayers, including a 12-page illuminated eighth-century gospel from Ireland that is older than the Book of Kells.

Though no works survive by Gall himself, the library holds three separate lives of Gall, as well as hundreds of religious texts, hymns, prayers and poems arising from the huge cult around him.

There is also a ninth-century manuscript describing Ireland as a “country far superior to Britain, both in the breadth of its position and the mildness of its climate”.

One curiosity contained in the library’s life of St Columcille is the first written record of a Loch Ness monster sighting, reportedly by the Irish monk himself.

“My favourite manuscript,” says chief librarian Prof Ernst Tremp, “is a very moving description of the end of the monastery on Iona and the heroic Irish monks who stayed there to face their death at the hands of the Vikings.”

The city has organised a busy year of St Gall events, and there is a new biography claiming, somewhat controversially, that the saint wasn’t Irish at all, but from Alsace.

Dublin tour operator Map is organising special trips to the city during the “St Gall Year”.

This week, a new play, Gallus, Der Fremde (Gall, The Stranger), presents a modern take on the legend. In the play, fictional radio programme guests come together to discuss the life and influence of St Gall and the effects of “outsiders” on societies.

As the evening wears on, the guests grapple with news of another outsider, an immigrant called Ibrahim in modern-day St Gallen, who may have been the victim of a far-right attack.

It is a provocative piece in a country where an ongoing immigration debate often has a xenophobic edge thanks to the populist Swiss People’s Party, the country’s largest political party.

“Whether Gallus actually came from Ireland is irrelevant; what’s important is that our roots are always foreign,” says Arnim Halter, the play’s director.

“What’s important is that this man provided the foundation on which we have built our city and our society and which, to this day, influences how we think.”

This week we celebrate our most famous immigrant, Patrick, and our thoughts turn to our new emigrants. But spare a thought, too, for another emigrant and his cradle of Irish culture, far from home, at the heart of Europe.


Tomorrow: Ruadhán Mac Cormaic on the Irish in France – from brandy to the resistance