Brian Lacey, Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy. Dublin: The Columba Press. June, 2013. ISBN: 9781-85607-879-5. 7 + 224 pp.
There is hardly need to stress the historical importance of the figure & cult of St. Columba, long renowned as one of the three patron saints of Ireland who, alongside Brigid and Patrick, was elevated to such a position in the late seventh century AD. Like his co-patrons, his religious and cultural legacy continues to the present day. Brian Lacey, author of the latest book on the subject notes that of the three however, Columba offers us something almost unique. Patrick, whilst also a historical person nevertheless hailed from outside Ireland and the historical figure of Brigid, if there ever was a real person behind the myths and motifs remains out of reach in hazy obscurity. Columba (aka Colm Cille), the later of all three, offers us one of the earliest detectable insular Irish historical personages.
A few weeks ago, a short article in the Irish Times caught my eye. Entitled ‘Historic’ ordination of deacons in Sligo, it was a brief notice concerning newly ordained permanent deacons in the modern Irish diocese of Elphin. Two comments were of particular interest to me:
Bishop of Elphin, Christopher Jones described the occasion as “truly joyous” and historic, pointing out that it was almost 1,500 years “almost back to the time of St Patrick himself” since a similar ordination had taken place in the diocese.
Newly ordained William Gacquin said the last recorded reference to a deacon in diocesan records was when one baptised St Ciaran in the parish of Fuerty, Co Roscommon, in the sixth century.
(McDonagh, M. Irish Times, December 10, 2012)
Such comments provide a fascinating example of the extent to which early Irish hagiography is still influencing modern ecclesiastical identity and ‘history’. Whilst no doubt wishing to stress the historical nature of the proceedings, the referencing of the above episode in such a manner relies on an uncritical acceptance of antiquarian translations of later medieval Lives of St. Patrick. Divorced from its original setting, the episode is not only portrayed by modern-day ecclesiastics as historical fact, but also attempts to equate the modern-day concept of a permanent deacon with that of the early medieval ecclesiastical grade. In doing so, it not only fails to appreciate the original ecclesiastical milieu in which it was written; but inadvertently underplays the actual historical and archaeological importance of the original ecclesiastical site of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon. Continue reading →