An Irishman's Diary
THE Abbey of Melk sits like a benevolent sleeping giant above the little town of Melk and the Danube. To the east lies the Wachau, one of the most magnificent stretches of river scenery in Europe, and the eastern foothills of the Alps, to the west, Mauthausen and Bavaria.
This Baroque pile, a Benedictine monastery since 1089, is one of the most recognisable attractions in Austria. The Anglo-Irish writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last year, memorably described it as a “quinquereme among abbeys” in his 1977 classic A Time of Gifts, a wistful memoir of his travels by foot through Central Europe on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 when he was 18. He captures the awe of approaching Melk in the snow and seeing the Abbey rise up on its limestone bluff above the Danube valley. Most of the tourists who now visit the Abbey church (which, with all the gold, has been memorably likened to being inside a giant rapper’s mouth by AA Gill) – probably take little notice of a side altar and Baroque tomb to the left of the high altar. This is the tomb of St Coloman, an Irish martyr and the first patron saint of Austria. This year marks the millennium of his martyrdom in 1012 and his feast day of October 13th, Kolomani, will be marked with special celebrations in Melk.
How did an Irish man come to be patron saint of Austria? The story begins in the autumn of 1012 when an Irish pilgrim named Colmán (Coloman is the Germanised version of the name) was on his way to Jerusalem following the old Roman road along the Danube towards Vienna. He was on the overland pilgrimage route, an ancient path that followed the course of the Danube valley through Hungary. This had been reopened following the conversion to Christianity of King Stephen of Hungary in 997 and the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre by Caliph Al-Hakim in 1009 had provoked an upsurge in pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Coloman only made it as far as Stockerau, a town 30km to the north west of Vienna. He had unwittingly entered a war zone in what was a borderland known as the Bavarian Eastern March, a strategic frontier wedged between the Magyars or Hungarians to the east and the Moravians to the north. The Babenberg margraves, the rulers of the March, were in the process of extending their control and territory in this colonial land.
Stockerau stood on the borders of the March and was subject to frequent raiding. The locals were in no mood to welcome exotic strangers, and garbed as a pilgrim and speaking Gaelic, Coloman clearly stood out. According to a near-contemporary account, the locals suspected him of being an enemy spy and summarily lynched him from a tree (on dying for the cúpla focal see Frank McNally, An Irishman’s Diary, March 16th, 2012).
The exact circumstances of Coloman’s murder will never be known, but following his death, miracles began to take place – the dead man’s hair and nails continued to grow, the dead tree on which he was hanged began to bloom, and people were healed who came in contact with his body. News of these miracles came to the attention of Margrave Henry I at Melk. One of the powerful Babenberg dynasty who were to rule Austria from 976 to 1246, Henry recognised the power of this new saint and sent his soldiers and clerics to take the body from Stockerau to his residence at Melk which later became the famous monastery we know today.
The Austrian Babenbergs traced their descent to the Franconian Babenbergs whose fortress at Bamberg in Germany gave the dynasty its name. The patron saint of Franconia was (and still is) St Kilian, another Irish man who was martyred in 689, and whose relics lie in the cathedral of Würzburg. It is noteworthy that both Henry I’s father and brother were both buried in the same cathedral where Kilian’s relics were kept. By promoting the new Irish martyr Coloman as a dynastic and regional patron for the region that would become known as Austria, Henry may have hoped to shape a spiritual landscape for this new land that drew on common cultural traditions of Bavaria and Franconia where there was a strong tradition of veneration to Irish missionary and martyr saints such as St Kilian.
The new cult of St Coloman became a vehicle for the Babenberg margraves, which they were keen to latch on to from the beginning in order to cement their new power base in the Eastern March and to bring cohesion to this frontier region. In time, Coloman came to be venerated as the patron saint of the historical core of Austria, Österreich ob und unter der Enns, from 1244 until 1663. Today Coloman is the patron saint for convicts who are hanged, passengers, and livestock as well as being one of the many ironies of history. As an eminent Austrian historian remarked, “It might seem particularly ironic today that the first Patron of Austria had fallen victim to Austrian xenophobia; something which nobody could have foreseen”.
Coloman’s feast day this Saturday will be celebrated in Melk, the millennium anniversary of the death of the unfortunate Irish pilgrim who became Austria’s first patron saint.
Dr Alexander O’Hara is a historian in the Institut für Mittelalterforschung of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna