WE have already spoken of the pilgrimage to Rome of St. Finnian of Moville, and of the treasure that he had brought back with him from over the sea—a copy of the Scriptures translated and corrected by the hand of the great St. Jerome himself. Columba, when at Moville, must often have seen and perhaps even have handled the precious volume. In later days, so great was his desire that each of his monasteries should have its copy of the Word of God, that he would seek out and transcribe with his own hand all the most carefully written and most authentic manuscripts to be found in Ireland.
The love of these old books, regarded by the Saints of Ireland as their most precious treasure, amounted almost to a passion with Columba, so that we are hardly surprised to find him journeying to Moville to ask permission from his old master to make a copy of his rare and valuable manuscript. But he was met by an unexpected rebuff; St. Finnian guarded his treasure with a jealous eye, and feared to trust it in any hands but his own. He firmly refused the request of his old pupil, and no entreaties of Columba could move him from his decision. But the determination of Columbcille was equal to his own, and he resolved to obtain the object of his desire in spite of St. Finnian's prohibition.
He waited until all had gone to rest, and then, armed with parchment and pigments, went softly to the church, where the precious book was kept. Night after night, in spite of weary hand and eye, he laboured at his self-imposed task until the day broke, and men began to stir. To undertake the transcription of the whole book would have been an impossibility, working thus secretly in the night; he therefore confined himself to copying the Psalter. To Columba, poet as he was by nature, the psalms of the "sweet singer of Israel" were particularly clear, and the wording of the new version gave the force and the melody of the original more perfectly than any rendering up till then in use.
The lonely vigils in the church passed quickly, in spite of the weariness that assailed but could not daunt the enthusiastic scribe. One night, one of the scholars of Moville, happening to pass the door of the church, was astonished to see a bright light shining through the crevices of the door. He stooped and looked through the keyhole. Keyholes as well as keys were on a large scale in the sixth century, and he obtained a good view of the interior, and of Columba bending over the reading desk with a pile of parchment before him, copying with skilful hand the treasure of Moville. The whole chancel was shining with a brilliant light which fell directly across the page on which the writer was at work.
The young man, awestruck at the sight, crept softly away, and warned his master of what was taking place. St. Finnian knew Columba's skill in transcription. He made no move until the Psalter was completed, and his old pupil was preparing to depart. Then he accused his guest of having taken a copy of his book without his permission and against his will, and claimed the work as his rightful property.
This was to touch Columba in a tender spot. His nocturnal labours had cost him many weary vigils, but he had borne the weariness gladly for the sake of the prize—to give up the fruit of so much toil was more than could be expected of him. He flatly refused to yield to Finnian's claim. The old man was determined; Columba was firm; neither would give way. It was agreed in the end to appeal to the King at Tara, and to hold his judgment as final. Diarmaid might be considered as a fit judge in such a matter. The friend and patron of the great monastery of Clonmacnoise, founded by Ciaran in his presence and with his help, the King was looked upon by all the Saints of Ireland as their friend. Moreover, he was Columba's own cousin, and had treated him on a former occasion with reverence and consideration. Columba himself had no doubt that the judgment would be in his favour, and went readily at Finnian's suggestion to lay the matter before him.
But Diarmaid's position on the throne was more secure than it had been in former days. He may have thought that he had less reason to fear the enmity of the Hy-Nialls of Tir-Connell. He had heard much of the sanctity of Columba, and may have supposed that in spite of his high lineage he would be ready to bear with patience an adverse judgment. He may have been actuated by the old enmity between the two branches of the family; or he may have decided according to his own conscience as he thought right and just. Be that as it may, the judgment came as a thunderclap to Columbcille.
"To every cow," said the King, "belongs its own calf." Since the copy of Columba was the "son-book" of the manuscript of Moville, it belonged by rights to its mother, and therefore to Finnian.
Columba's indignation knew no bounds. The judgment was unfair and unjust, he declared; Diarmaid should bear the penalty. With dashing eyes and burning heart he turned his back on King and courtiers, and strode from the royal presence.
He was now a man with a grievance, who considered that he had been most unjustly treated, but the resentment which was as yet but smouldering in his heart was soon to be fanned into a flame.
It came to pass that Diarmaid made a great feast at Court and invited all the princes and nobles of Erin to attend. Games were held for several days in the green meadows of Tara, that the young athletes might show their skill in wrestling. Now brawling and quarrelling at these royal games had been strictly forbidden by the King on account of the serious accidents that had happened on former occasions. But the blood of young Ireland was hot and undisciplined, and in a moment of anger, Curnan, the heir of the Prince of Connaught, struck the son of the King's steward and felled him to the ground. The act was altogether unpremeditated, but the blow had struck the lad in a vital spot; when they tried to raise him, they found that he was dead. Young Curnan dared not face the wrath of Diarmaid, and fled for protection to Columba, who was his kinsman.
It was an acknowledged thing that an abbot or the founder of a religious house had the right to give sanctuary even to great criminals, and the claim was universally respected. But Diarmaid was very angry and sent messengers who dragged the boy from the very presence of Columba and`put him to death on the spot.
This fresh insult was more than Columbcille could bear. The rights of the Church had been violated in his person. His own people, the Hy-Nialls of the north, should judge between him and Diarmaid, he declared, and set forth on his journey northwards, breathing vengeance as he went. The King himself was not a little apprehensive as to what might be the results of his arbitrary action; he stationed guards on all the roads that led northwards, and even tried to detain the fugitive in prison. But Columbcille successfully evaded the traps that had been set to catch him, and by a lonely path across the mountains went his way to Tir-Connell. As he journeyed he sang a song of confidence in the God in whom he trusted to protect the right.
I am alone upon the mountain
Do Thou, O God, protect my path.
Then shall I have no fear,
Though six thousand men were against me.
What protection shall guard thee from death?
The Son of Mary shall cause thee to prosper.
The King who has made our bodies
He it is in whom I believe.
My Lord is Christ the Son of God,
Christ, the Son of Mary, the great abbot,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
So singing he went speedily and in safety to his own country, where he recounted his wrongs to the men of his own race.
Aedh, Prince of Connaught, the father of the lad who had been so cruelly put to death, was already preparing for vengeance. The chiefs of Tir-Connell joined him, hot in Columba's cause. The men who gathered to avenge the insult made a formidable army, and Diarmaid on his side lost no time in gathering his forces for battle.
The encounter took place at Cuil-dreimhne, between Balbulbin Mountain and the sea, and the fight was long and bloody. Columba, say some of the old writers, was himself present, and prayed with outstretched arms for the victory of his people.
Three thousand of Diarmaid's men fell on the field of battle, while the losses of the Hy-Nialls of the north, such was the efficacy of the prayers of Columbcille, were comparatively slight. The victory was complete, but Diarmaid was not the man to take his defeat meekly.
He appealed to the Church to judge the conduct of Columba. Did it seem right and good, he asked, that a priest and an abbot, the founder of religious houses, and one who had dedicated his life to the service of Christ, should have provoked a bloody war which had been the death of thousands of innocent men? The churchmen looked grave. The case thus stated did not promise well for Columba.
He was the friend of all: the zeal and fervour of his life, the charity and generosity of his heart were known throughout the length and breadth of Erin. There was but one weak point in that noble nature—the haughty spirit that had come to him with the hot blood of the Hy-Nialls; and certainly he had been sorely tried by circumstances. Yet—the fact was incontestable—his conduct as an abbot and as a priest was open to the gravest censure. He was ordered to appear before an ecclesiastical council which was summoned to meet at Teilte in the heart of the King's domains to hear the judgment that should be pronounced upon him by the Saints of Erin.
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.