European Communion – How a sixth-century Irish saint helped unite the continent

An Irishman’s Diary

I’m not sure why Columbanus, the sixth- century holy man whose feastday this is, should be considered the patron saint of motorcyclists.

It seems to have been the idea of an Anglican bishop, himself a biker, who thought the saint's tireless travels by foot throughout Europe made him a kindred spirit with modern lovers of the open road. In any case, motorcyclists need all the help they can get, and if Columbanus is on their case, no-one will begrudge them.

But he must also be rather busy these days with his other big portfolio, as the patron saint of a United Europe. That at least is what Robert Schuman, one of the architects of the EU, declared him to be back in 1950, at a conference in Luxeuil-les-Bains to mark the 1,400th anniversary of Columbanus's birth.

The conference was a bit late in marking it, since the saint is usually said to have been born – on the borders of modern Carlow and Wexford – in about 543AD. But then Europe had been otherwise occupied in 1943.


So had Schuman. A Luxembourg-born Lorrainer who grew to adulthood under German rule, being briefly enlisted against France in 1914, he was by the second World War a French citizen, and working for the Resistance.

In 1948, he became his country's foreign minister, determined to create political structures that would ensure France and Germany never fought again. And among those he recruited to this cause was Columbanus, whose strings of monasteries across the continent had formed what Schuman called "a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time".

The saint is thought to have been among the first people ever to write of Europe as a united entity.

Indeed, he may have inadvertently inaugurated the study of another great concept – what it means to be Irish – making him also perhaps the patron saint of summer schools, where that issue continues to be a burning one.

Back in 613AD, while explaining himself in a letter to the pope, Columbanus prefaced a comment with the immortal phrase “We Irish”.

This at a time when, as Myles na gCopaleen would have said, being Irish was "neither popular nor profitable" in the Vatican and elsewhere.

As well as his run-ins with Rome, Columbanus, like Schuman, suffered from the political complications of life on the borders between France and Germany, or Frankish Gaul as it was then. His reputed miracles included the destruction – by merely breathing on it – of a vat of beer prepared for a pagan festival.

But if that sounds like an attack on German culture, it was as nothing compared with a row he once had with the Frankish Queen Brunhilda over a cornerstone of French civilisation: the extramarital affair.

Brunhilda was happy for her grandson Theuderic, king of Burgundy, to keep a mistress: it was better than a royal marriage that might undermine her power. But the saint objected, and the row resulted in him being banished from his abbey at Luxeuil back to Ireland, or at least being escorted onto an out-bound boat at Nantes.

A bit like Theresa May's, however, Columbanus's attempts to leave mainland Europe ran into a storm, which blew the boat back. The ship's captain attributed the weather to the saint's powers and refused further transport. So Columbanus returned inland, crossed the Alps and finished his days at Bobbio in Italy, where he founded another great monastery.

In Luxeuil earlier this summer, I heard part of a very interesting talk on Columbanus’s life there.

I would have heard more of it except for the sort of earthly distractions that even saints had to deal with: in that case the closing minutes of a Super 8 GAA match between Monaghan and Kildare, which I was simultaneously watching live on iPhone, and the start of the World Cup final, which was filling the bars nearby.

But now I see that only last week, and for no such good reasons, I also missed what must have been a fascinating lecture in the Royal Irish Academy on "Columbanus, Robert Schuman, and the idea of Europe".

The speaker was Dr Alexander O'Hara from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where the EU continues to be a very vital issue. And that the man who died in 615AD is still relevant to the subject is amply attested by Dr O'Hara. His lecture was accompanied by the launch of not one but two new books he has written on Columbanus and his legacy, both now available from Oxford University Press.