Kenny takes saintly trip to tomb of St Columbanus before meeting Italian PM

On taking office, the taoiseach made a promise which he fulfilled yesterday


Time to mend a few fences of the holy variety? The last time Taoiseach Enda Kenny was out here, he was busy explaining just why he had closed down Ireland’s Embassy to the Holy See. Meanwhile, back home, he finds himself at loggerheads with sections of the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy over the Government’s proposed limited abortion legislation.

Yet, there he was yesterday, like the best boy in the class enjoying every moment of a visit to the tomb of Saint Columbanus, the man whose curriculum definitely proves that the Irish, or at least the Irish monks of the early church, did indeed “save civilisation”.

Bobbio is a small, remote, very picturesque place high in the hills above Piacenza in the region of Emilia Romagna. It is the sort of place that is just waiting for an intent Irish monk with severe attitudes and a committment to the gospel to commandeer it.

Which is just what Columbanus did and which is why the Irish have been coming here for years to pay homage to the Irish saint.

The Taoiseach offered his own tribute to the sixth-century monk who founded a religious community here in 614 when he suggested that he could be seen as a truly European figure.

“As a former teacher myself, I am well aware of the history and tradition of educators, missionaries and saints from Ireland. I am well aware of the history and the origins of Columbanus. Back in the sixth century, he was writing in a letter to Pope Gregory the Great about ‘Totius Europae’ – I suppose politicians today might look back on that with interest. . . It is also indicative of the fact that Ireland made an enormous, disproportionate contribution beyond our own shores.

“If we can learn from this, if we can learn what co-operation and collaboration can actually achieve, it would be much better for our future . . .”

Council meeting
In truth, the Taoiseach was not in Italy to take a walk down the memory lane of early Irish church history. He was there for a pre-European Council meeting last night with Italian prime minister Enrico Letta. However, not long after taking office, he made a promise to Fr Tommy Murphy, an old school friend from St Gerard’s, Castlebar, who happens to have been superior general of the Columbanus Fathers worldwide for most of the last five years.

That promise was simple enough. If ever the chance came to stop by at Bobbio, while passing through Italy, then the Taoiseach would oblige. Given that the fathers are preparing to celebrate in 2015 the 1,400th anniversary of Columbanus’ death, yesterday was as good a day as any.

So it was that the Taoiseach went up and down Bobbio, visiting the town museum, the tomb of Columbanus himself and the handsome Ponte Vecchio over the river Trebbia.

In a scene that had its moments of the Fellinesque, as Mr Kenny made his way around the almost empty town (the tourist season is not what it used to be), he was man-to-man marked by the local mayor and the parish priest throughout. Still, it made a change from what was awaiting him – namely Irish presidency talk about youth unemployment, digital markets and EU-USA negotiations et al.

Talking about his Italian counterpart, the Taoiseach welcomed the recent appointment of Mr Letta, saying: “He came through a very fragile process to become prime minister and obviously a lot of commentators would have asked how long is this going to last.

“But he has actually managed to stabilise things . . . He has been good in the way he has set out a round of contacts with the senior EU partners . . . The fundamental point, too, is that he takes over where [prime minister] Monti left off because Europe needs a strong Italy.”