Yesterday morning’s Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster yesterday, mentioned the Feast of Saint Columbanus. The speaker described him as “a bit of a stirrer”. Which set the tone for the lunchtime celebration of Columbanus organised by the Ullans Academy in an East Belfast hotel and featuring speeches from academy president Dr Ian Adamson, Lord Bannside and the Irish President.
For anyone having trouble keeping up, as far as I can tell, the Ullans Academy is very much on the liberal wing of the innumerable organisations that represent and promote the Ulster Scots language and its culture. They point to shared culture and history, from Scotland and through Ireland. They’re not hung up on equality or parity, and are interested in inclusion rather than exclusion.
Tuesday lunchtime’s event – one of a regular series – brought together people from all sections of the community, for the most part mixing easily with each other. Presidents, preachers, politicians, ex-paramilitaries, community workers, teachers, school children (from Ashfield Girls School and St Joseph’s College), political advisors and the odd blogger. MLAs, councillors and candidates from a number of parties across the political spectrum. Lord Bannside and Baroness Paisley sitting at the same table as the Irish President and her husband “the lovely Martin”. But no sign of the culture minister Nelson McCausland.
Columbanus died on this day in 615 AD. Big celebrations are predicted in Italy – where he’s buried – in 2015. As someone who hasn’t spent much time in Bangor, I hadn’t realised that he’d had spent time there and was a local hero. Ian Adamson has written a twelve page booklet summarising the life and impact of Columbanus. He quipped: “I’ve dumbed down this brochure so the academics can read it!” before going on to claim that Columbanus was “probably the greatest of all the Irish saints, in that he re-evangelised Europe at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.”
Local artist and lecturer Ian Fleming had been commissioned to produce a piece of art to give to the two special guest speakers. At first refusing to produce two copies of the same work, he instead created two interlocking jigsaw pieces that can be lifted out of their frames and locked together. Columbanus means “white dove” and it’s present on the two pieces, locked in a cage of “decommissioned” barbed wire. The Belfast Lough coastline and Bangor are also represented on Lord Bannside’s half of the jigsaw.
I’m not sure that Ian Adamson’s hope that Ian Paisley and Mary McAleese “will come together very frequently so that they can slot each other’s pictures together” will come true.
You can listen to the full set of speeches if you want to hear what went on. Alternatively, most of the speakers’ text is below.
Ian Adamson gave a potted history, highlighting Columbanus’ roots in Ireland.
Columbanus after great tribulation travelling throughout Europe re-established Christian virtue throughout that whole land. It’s mainly due to him I think that Christian virtue did survive in Western Europe. So he’s one of the founders of Western civilisation.
By the time he left it, Bangor was a great university and the scholars who were trained in Bangor constituted some of his best disciples. Three of them were English. The whole of Bangor’s thought was centred on a form of praise – a continual praise to God – which was based on the temple praise in Jerusalem.
Columbanus is not thought of so much in Ulster or Ireland. He came from Leinster– which wasn’t his fault – but he came up to Bangor and it was there that he trained after a period in County Fermanagh.
He was a very special person and represents a lot of what we need to consider as shared history, the shared past Unless we can share our history of the past we will not be able to share the future.
His introduction finished with a deliberate and stretched comparison between Columbanus and Paisley.
This is a special day – his feast day – and we’re absolutely delighted not only to have her Excellency here today who is so interested in Columbanus and will be speaking about him in a few minutes, but also Doctor Paisley. Columbanus was a very complex character. One of the great scholars of his work said “he’s a character so complex, and so contrary, humble and haughty, harsh and yet very tender, pedantic and impetuous by turns, but her had as his unifying pattern the ambition of spreading the gospel of Christ in Western Europe. All his activities were subordinate to this one aim, and with the self sacrifice that can seem close to assertion he worked out his whole salvation by the wondrous pathway he knew. He was a missionary only through circumstance, a monk by vocation, a contemplative and wise man, but driven to action by the political world around him. He was a pilgrim on the road to paradise.
And therefore it’s a particular pleasure that we have with us today a second Columbanus. I’ll not say which of those characteristics characterise our next speaker! But a very special person – perhaps the most significant political person in the whole of the end of the twentieth century we’ve just come through, and he has a particular interest in Columbanus and the old Celtic church. I speak of course of Dr Ian Paisley, now known as Lord Bannside although Eileen took the name Paisley away from him. But I think they can forgive her for that. Ladies and gentlemen, Lord Bannside.
Lord Bannside started his short contribution by describing Columbanus as a “great saint” who “took a stand against things which were common in many of the churches of which he did not agree with and which he spoke out against”.
I think that this audience today and the fact that the president of the Irish Republic is with us and her husband – and she needs a husband – I think it’s interesting as it does send out a message and that message is clear that we need to go back to our history books and we need to learn some of the things we haven’t learned. Many times in Irish history the emphasis has been upon those who have wanted to make that emphasis. But there are other things about Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland that we need to learn. And the one we come to think about today – Columbanus – we come to think of him today. And what a man he was.
He didn’t go with the times. He didn’t say I will visit the Pope and get my orders and then I will do what he says. In fact, strange to relate, he had some very hot things to say about one of the then Popes. Things I wouldn’t even dare to say!
But he was an independent man. Why? Because those that know the truth, the truth shall set them free. And his writings and his teachings, but best of all his example was a witness to the apostolic gospel that came to us through the presentation of God’s son and ended on the dark and cruel cross, the tree of Calvary, that we who are sinners might know forgiveness and peace and life everlasting. That was his message and he delivered that message.
And it’s interesting today, after all this time, we’re coming back to that message. There’s a very famous poem, some lines that he wrote.
So Satan acts to tire the brain,
And by temptation souls are slain.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
Stand firm in mind ‘gainst Satan’s guile.
Protect yourselves with virtue’s foil.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
Strong faith and zeal will victory gain.
The old foe breaks his lance in vain.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
The King of virtues vowed a prize
For him who wins, for him who tries.
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
And that’s what he did. He echoed Christ. And here we are after all this time. And these echoes come with great fire and vigour today to us all. And in the silence we should utter the same prayer that was in the poem of this great man.
Beginning her speech which at times wandered away from the published draft on the Irish President’s website, Mary McAleese reckoned “it’s a strange company when we have Lord Bannside quoting a Pope and Columbanus, and Sammy Douglas quoting Saint Augustine. I feel in a very strange place today but in absolutely the right place!”
And I want to thank Dr Ian Adamson and the Ullans Academy for inviting Martin and I to join you here today to mark the feast of St Columbanus, celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on this day [the 23rd] by tradition or throughout Ireland by tradition on the 24th of November. So it’s very fitting that we gather on this day, particularly in what is a slowly but surely reconciling contemporary Ireland, where the most raw of historical divisions have actually been between Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians. It’s important I think that we ask ourselves: is there anything about this man, born fifteen hundred and seventy years ago, that could help us – this man who was the great pilgrim, the great journeyer – is there anything about him that could help us on the journey that we’re all on together this day?
There’s nothing new about turning to that far off millennium that he came from for inspiration. We do it all the time. We’re always turning back to Saint Patrick, by far Ireland’s most influential immigrant. He was the stranger who came among us and who left that huge indelible imprint on Ireland so much so that he became the patron saint of Ireland. Columbanus could justifiably claim to be Ireland’s most influential emigrant, the man from this country who went out to the world. Of course born here, raised here, educated here. But he left his imprint not just here in Ireland but throughout Europe. Though I have to say it’s not really a fair deal in my view that Patrick who didn’t come from here ends up being the patron saint of Ireland and Columbanus ends up being the patron saint of motorcyclists. It doesn’t seem like a very fair deal to me. If he was alive today he’d be straight down to the Equal Opportunities Commission I’m sure. And he might – given this gathering – take encouragement from the fact that he would have cross-community support.
I was going to skirt rather delicately over Columbanus’ fidelity to the Pope. For obvious reasons it might arouse passions in some quarters, but thankfully Lord Bannside skirted over that anyway for me. And I was also going to skirt over the fact that he was also a man well known to protest at times to Popes. But again Lord Bannside took that and hit it right on the chin. So here is a man that we can all – no matter what our tradition, no matter our faith perspective – here is an Irish man that we can be proud of. He was an adventurous man, a courageous man, a man of faith, set out on a journey, long before the days of Ryanair, long before the days of Skype and email, when to set out from Bangor and to end up in Bobbio by way of a long, long journey through Europe, it was very much a journey into the unknown. If he had a donkey that would be the height of his technological equipment for the journey. Why did he do that? As we heard, it was because he had an all-consuming passion. That passion was an absolutely ferocious fire inside him that was lit by the idea of how love could transform life: the great commandment to love one another.
That Europe he travelled through was a mess. Probably an even bigger mess than certain Europe’s we’re more familiar with. It was riven with political tensions, rivalries, corruption, decadence, depraved leadership, conflict … you name it. The Europe that he travelled through had any amount of evidence of the messes that human beings are capable of. It was a very dangerous place. He was exposed to danger more often than I’m sure he had anticipated. And on that road that took him from Bangor through England, France and to his final destination – the place that he eventually died – in Bobbio in Italy. There was no guarantee that he would arrive safe and intact in any of those places he set out for because he was a sign of contradiction. He was a man who wanted to turn people to the same passion that he had, to look at the world through different eyes.
Today the physical and the intellectual legacy of that very arduous itinerary is seen in the monasteries he founded and the towns and the cities that are named after them, and of course the place-names that honour his memory all over continental Europe. But the intellectual legacy is the one I think we can be very, very proud of. Because in a dark Europe and a very grim Europe, that lacked any kind of a unified and life-enhancing vision for how people could and should relate to each other. Here comes this man Columbanus. He was a light, he was a civilising influence, he was a man accustomed to scholarship, accustomed to being prayerful, accustomed to silence, nor afraid in the least of silence. And he was a man who had a message to people to tell them how they could relate humanly to each other. And how if they related in that loving way they would release into their lives and into the civic space and the political space a whole new power.
It’s described very beautifully – and I see that you use the phrase Ian in your book – someone has described him as “creating a contagion of holiness”. It’s a beautiful phrase. His own words are inscribed on the wall of the Columbanus chapel in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome which I recommend anyone who’s in Rome go to see. And in that basilica the words that are written are very important: ‘si tollis libertatem tollis dignitatem’ – if you take away human freedom you destroy human dignity. Or where human dignity flourishes, it flourishes because of freedom. And these words are probably to familiar to some of your ears because these words written by Columbanus a millennium ago are of course to be found in the first Article of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Taken straight from Columbanus: “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected.”
Here we are today, the inheritors of his vision, fellow inhabitants and sister inhabitants of his homeland, citizens of the European Union, probably itself the greatest, most ambitious peace process the world has ever undertaken. We are co-partners with each another in another very important peace process: the one that effects us mostly and most immediately on this island, and one that could yet vindicate Columbanus’ faith in the transcendent power of love. The European Union’s motto is ‘in varietate unitas’, unity in diversity, a powerful and very appropriate summary of where we are all at as peace-makers, striving to create here a place that acknowledges people of very different perspectives, acknowledges them as neighbours, as friends. So a place where differences of faith or politics should not and will not in the future inspire either fear or hatred or contempt or distrust but would rather be the very test the Columbanus in us. Are we able to respond to those differences with respect for difference, with love for the person. Are we truly able to love our neighbour as ourselves, differences and all.
We are really very privileged to live in this time when a thousand years almost after Columbanus we begin to feel the power at work in our own lives, our own relationships, of the release into the civic space and into the political space of a new way of relating to each other, a more loving way. We willingly now acknowledge the mosaic nature of our own identity and the mosaic nature of our history.
We also do something very important more often than not now. Sammy alluded to it and Ian alluded to it. And that is the way in which we now track back through history not using it in the way we were accustomed to, to ransack it for ammunition to hurl at each other, but looking at it now with different eyes to see what have we overlooked, where was the shared history that we could have created a common platform out of. Where were we able and where are we able to position ourselves so that we begin to look at the world through the same eyes. Maybe one of the reasons why Columbanus is not as he should be as the patron saint of Europe is precisely because we were discordant in our voices. We weren’t unified in our admiration and respect for him, seeing ourselves – all of us – as his successors and his inheritors whether we’re Irish, British, Northern Irish, Ulster Scots, Gaelic, European, whatever our identity, whatever our mixed identity or our fused identities in this Ireland, in this island we now inhabit. We now inhabit a world that is determined to be free of labelling people in order to be distrustful, labelling in order to be contentious. Now we pledge ourselves to, and through, this man whom we gather in honour of this day, a world absent of the threat of sectarianism, absent of threat of racism, secure in the knowledge that on this island there are no favourites. Everyone is a cherished child of the island. And that was the message Columbanus had. It was a message to all leaders, all key influencers of his day, that that is how people should be treated. That all of those that were in public position, they lived and existed to serve that image of the individual human person, as a person to be respected with innate human dignity. But he also had a message for each of us as individuals. That not only are we entitled to our human dignity but each one of us in everything that we do and everything that we say and everything that we plan, we are the sacred custodians of the dignity of every other human being. And that places us in a very, very special relationship one to the other.
Many times since the millenniums since Columbanus made that extraordinary journey and became the European intellectual and spiritual colossus that he is today, many times in the meanwhile his message of the transcendent power of love and the dignity of the human person has come very close to obliteration on our planet, on our continent and here in our own island. But what’s great about being here today is the evidence that in this room and is abroad, on the streets of this city and right across this island, the peace-loving people of Northern Ireland, of Ireland, of the European Union, they are once again carrying that torch of Columbanus. They’re continuing that journey, from Bangor to Bobbio, from dark to light, from hate to love, from despair to hope.
I just like to think that we who have the benefit of fifteen hundred years of rather humbling hindsight now, unlike Columbanus who couldn’t see the future that we can look back on now. He believed that it could be a great future, he probably didn’t realise how long it was going to take for his words to really take hold of people’s hearts. We have the benefit now of fifteen hundred years of very humbling hindsight. We have the benefit of a direct limited experience of the devastating consequences of violence and intercommunal violence and now we have charge of the plant of peace. It’s ours. It’s been grown by our hands. It’s been grown by our hearts. And we have planted this extraordinary story now in the history of this island. I think we have done something that Columbanus would be very, very proud of. But I think our job is to ensure that we bring it to full flowering and full fruition in a much shorter time-frame than the millennium and a half since the man in whose name we gather today. I think that would be the best thing we could do, to pledge ourselves as he did to live with the same passion, the same enthusiasm, to live every single day as if it was its last. Every single day dedicated and devoted to building up friendship between human beings, to making people understand that if you love one another, difficult though it may be, good things happen, wonderful things happen, miraculous things happen. That’s the message of Columbanus that we gather to celebrate this day. Enjoy each other’s company, the vary fact that we are around these tables is itself proof of the miracle.