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Pilgrimages & Holy Sites

Although not unique to that religion, pilgrimage has been at the heart of Christianity since its foundation. In Europe pilgrimage probably had its greatest importance in the Middle Ages. Some of those pilgrimages are well known, such as the journeys to the shrine of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury, to St Francis’s Assisi, to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella, to the Eternal City of Rome, and more adventurously to the various shrines in the Holy Land. The most famous pilgrimage in honour of Colmcille was to his great monastic foundation on Iona. Medieval literature has many examples from Ireland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, of famous people – particularly clerics and kings – making pilgrimages to Iona, often as the first leg on a journey that would eventually take them onwards to Rome, the Holy Land or some such place.

One story in Manus Ó Domhnaill’s life of the saint of 1532 combines references to two pilgrimages, one to Rome and another in Derry. The clearly fictional story opens with an invitation from Pope Gregory the Great for Colmcille to come to Rome. After he had spent some time there:

the pope gave important gifts to Colmcille, that is that, whichever of his own foundations Colmcille would appoint as a pilgrimage destination for everyone, there should be the same indulgence there as for a pilgrimage to Rome. And, although he himself was in Scotland, the place that Colmcille gave that honour to was Derry.

It has been suggested that the unexpectedly irregular line of Magazine Street and the adjacent city walls in Derry is possibly a reflection of that pilgrimage route surviving into the seventeenth-century plantation city of Londonderry.

There is still a small pilgrimage route (in Irish a turas) at Churchtown in the Gartan area of Co. Donegal, where the saint is said to have been born and grew up. This appears to be the much reduced remains of an originally much larger medieval pilgrimage, which possibly began and ended in Kilmacrenan. In between, it wound its way around a number of sites associated with the saint’s birth and childhood which are scattered over an area of roughly 10 sq. km. According to Manus Ó Domhnaill, Kilmacrenan was formerly known as Doire Eithne (‘the oakwood of Eithne’) from Colmcille’s mother’s name, although there has been some discussion that this Eithne was really a local pre-Christian sovereignty goddess. Although there is no definite historical proof that the saint was born in the area, there is a cumulative, geographical logic that makes it likely.

Manus Ó Domhnaill gives us very precise details about these sites as they were known to him in the 16th century, seemingly depicting an integrated landscape which, as it were, itself narrated the story of the saint’s birth and young life – its set-piece monuments laid out in a chronological and geographical order similar in some ways to the Catholic ‘stations of the cross’; effectively, this was the medieval equivalent of a ‘theme-park’. The circular pilgrimage seems to have started and finished at Kilmacrenan (originally Doire Eithne). The next site was the semi-secret location where Eithne, first experienced the labour pains of Colmcille’s birth and where what is still believed to be the miraculous Gartan Clay is found. Next was the birth site at Ráith Cnó (actually two conflicting sites, as there seems to have been some confusion between sites at both Churchtown and nearby Lacknacoo). Another nearby site was the flagstone Leac na Geanmnaidheachta (‘Stone of Chastity’) on the island in Lough Akibbon where Colmcille was accustomed to go and play as a child. The next site on the circuit was at Templedouglas where he was baptized. This was followed by the Cédimthecht Choluimcille (the ‘First Walk of Colmcille’), the place where he took his first walking steps as a child. There were other minor Columban sites in the vicinity with their own stories about the saint, and then we come back to Kilmacrenan his mother’s place and where he himself was said to have been fostered. It is, of course, very unlikely that knowledge could have been preserved of where such normal events would have taken place in the early life of what was, despite his undoubted aristocracy and later fame, still a relatively ordinary boy at the beginning of the sixth century. These beliefs testify more to a later desire by his devotees to provide real locations for the drama of the saint’s life, and to associate what were probably already ancient sites in the landscape with an important local hero.

Gleann Cholm Cille in southwest Donegal is another site of Columban pilgrimage (turas) which survives to the present day. It is not clear, however, how far back that tradition goes. The turas should be made (principally) on the saint’s feastday, 9 June. There are 15 (different authorities cite different numbers) or so stations – stretched out over about 5 Kilometres – at which appropriate tasks must be performed and/or particular prayers recited. These stations may represent the alleged sites of some of the incidents of the saint’s life as recounted in the medieval literature. They consist of a variety of features, including: cross-slabs, cairns of stones, small enclosures, an erratic boulder, a ruined building, a well, and even a Neolithic court tomb. The designs on the cross–slabs suggest that the circuit can be divided into two different series: a western group dated to the sixth or early seventh century and a more accomplished group assigned variously to the eighth or ninth century. However, art historical dates for the decoration on these slabs cannot tell us when the practice of the turas commenced.

There must have been many pilgrimage sites and routes also in Scotland which have since faded away. For instance St Colm Fairs, held on 9 June, were recorded in the 19th century in at least half a dozen Scottish towns. In addition, various ancient sites, holy wells and unusual landscape features in Scotland, but more especially in Ireland, are associated in legend and folklore with the saint.

Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Project, Dublin

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