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St. Colman

Irish Times 8th October 1904, p9 (abridged)
We drove through a rocky defile for about three miles, where large boulders on either side of the roadway were apparently so lightly poised it seemed as if a strong puff of wind might dislodge them and send them down on our path.
“Now, we must get out here. I believe the oratory is somewhere there,” and my friend waved her hand to include a three mile circuit.
“Let us have tea first,” I mildly suggested. So we sat on the grassy fence and produced our tea pasket. Then we rose like giants refreshed, first giving the old man a cup of powerful tea to “cut the drouth.” We made for the nearest Galway wall, and patiently made a gap to get through, my conscientious friend building it up when we had got through. You see galway walls are made of large loose stones with the daylight visible through them; this is done purposely so that the wind can pass through them, an ordinary wall would offer too much resistance to the winds from sea and mountain which alternate and prevail in these parts. I have heard the “Galway Blazers,” when pursuing the crafty fox, take the fences at a flying leap, but I do not believe any one else could perform such a feat. Crossing the extensive field of “praties,” we came to the conclusion there was no church or ruin within two miles, so back we plodded, took down and re-built the wall again, but when this was repeated in a wheat field, and once more in a field of turnips my ardour began to abate and I even murmured “some other day perhaps.” Just then we heard a man’s voice, “If ’tis lookin’ for St. Colman’s Church, yez are all wrong. You’d never find it. Hould on a bit and I’ll show ye the way,” and putting the scythe with which he was at work against a wall, he told us to follow him. We coinjointly deprecated taking him from his work, but he replied with Irish politeness, “I am only working for myself so ’tis no odds.” Leading the way we followed through fields of tangled mountain grass and bog myrtle, through purple heather and rushes; it was slow work, as the growth hid the stones, which were truly a trap to the unwary. After slips and stumbles, we stopped to take breath in a hazel coppice; on emerging from thence our guide, pointing to the slop of the mountain, said “There it is before you now,” but it was some time ere we could distinguish the tiny grey ruined church from the back ground of the limestone rock.
“Here we are,” we exclaimed simultaneously. Such an out of the world spot even in these days of hurry and bustle and sight seeing; not a sound but the murmur of a mountain stream; here indeed it might truly be said, “Grim silence held her solitary sway.” We stopped at the stone covered holy well of the old-world saint; in a niche placed by some pilgrims we found two scallop shells. On a hot August day one need not be reminded to “drink deep of the wave.” Hanging down in luxuriance from the roof were flourishing fronds of the Asplenium Tricomanes and Scolopendrium Vulgare ferns.
The present day followers of the saintly St. Colman Macduagh who carry away stones and plants from his hermitage, and who marvel at the legendary powers of fasting credited to the ascetic, seem to overlook entirely his abstemiousness from all drink save that of his mountain well. We climbed about amongst the fallen masonry till we stood in the oratory itself, which consists of one side wall and the two gables.
The Reverend J. Fahey in his interesting work on the ruins in the Diocese of Kilmacduagh says:-
It must have been previous to A.D. 597 when St. Colman entered on his seven years’ retirement here. At this time the now treeless Burrin hills were clothed with dense forests, so that the spot chosen by the Saint for solitude and contemplation was doubly more different of discovery than at present.

The existing ruin shows signs of restoration, as is supposed in the eleventh century, which is indicated by the difference in the masonry. Like all those of that period, the church is very small, being only 16 feet long, by 12 broad. Dr. Petrie has observed that these tiny churches were merely erected for the private devotion of the founders, for in the immediate vicinity of these oratories is usually found a cave or cell which served as habitation for the hermit. We saw St. Colman’s grotto about 30 feet above the church in the mountain side. We can hardly fancy this being the above for seven years of the recluse, for the grotto is only 15 feet by 5; it is, however high enough for a tall man to stand upright in, and doubtless the hermit’s contemplation was chiefly out of doors where his eyes would wander to the blue heavens, where his spirit loved to soar, and at night-fall would gaze on “the ocean hung on high, bespangled with those isles of light so wildly, beautifully bright.” Ah, if that old rugged peak of Ceanaille could tell us all it saw of the good man’s life at its foot, how much more interesting would it be than the stories invented by later day monks, and accredited to him as showing the miraculous powers they supposed St. Colman to be possessed of. Here is one:-
The saint lived here quite alone save for one youthful disciple, and the story is, that after the long Lenten fast – which, doubtless, the mountain air must have aggravated – there was nothing to be found in the scanty larder of the hermitage save a little wild fowl and the usual herbs wherewith to celebrate the approaching high festival. The Saint urged that God could provide a dinner if He thought fit. Now, it came to pass that the King of Connaught was staying at his palace at Kinvarra for the Easter festivities, but he had no idea that his saintly kinsman was only five miles distant in his retreat. So the legend goes on to tell that as his Majesty King Quain (sic.) was about to seat himself at his sumptuous repast, his aspiration was that so rich a banquet might be set before some true servants of God who needed it.
With this thought, the dishes were speedily whipped off the table by invisible hands! King Quain and his followers mounted their steeds and followed the dinner, when lo! it was placed before St. Colman and his hungry disciple. The arrival of the King of Connaught and his cortege caused considerable alarm to the hermit and his disciple. Then St. Colman, raising his hand, commanded the horsemen to remain where they were, and move they could not till the Saint had finished his repast, and prayed for their release.
The smooth limestone plateau upon which the horsemen’s progress was stayed is full of small round holes which the faithful believe to be the hoof marks of King Quain’s (sic.) horses. This spot was from its appearance at one time the bottom of the lake, and the supposed hoof marks are apparently water-worn holes, but of this we did not hint to our simple guide.

Author:

B.A., M.A.(Archaeology); Regional Tour Guide; Dip. Radio Media Tech; H.Dip. Computer Science.

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