Monday, 9 June 2008

St Columba and the Irish legacy

The Australian calendar celebrates the feast of St Columba today, a legacy of our Irish heritage.

Now I'm going to outrage many by saying that the Irish heritage is not, in my view, one much to be prized!

It is, as Thomas Day has pointed out in his wonderful book, the reason Why Catholics Can't Sing. Day points to the heritage of illegal hedge masses, where singing would have bought the attention of the police; and the association of good music and ritual with the hated English. He suggests that this heritage is why many think the low mass is the norm, and prefer it to the sung mass.

And because of the penal laws, Irish Catholicism was cut off from developments on the continent, resulting in an intellectual impoverishment and anti-intellectualism that seems surprisingly difficult to entirely discard, at least in the transplanted cultures the Irish influenced.

We should of course be grateful for the many Irish priests and religious who taught and maintained the faith, and transmitted it to us.

On the other hand, in my view its providential that in Australia today, so many other nations have contributed their diversity to our Church: around a third of Australian catholics today were born overseas, with Italy the largest single source country.

Because let's face it, the Irish were trouble right from the very beginning. Their foundations in Iona and elsewhere in Scotland (courtesy if St Columba) persisted in celebrating Easter at the wrong time and other quaint local customs, causing endless friction with the Romanised English, until the Synod of Whitby in 664AD. And even then, the Monastery of Iona didn't comply until more than fifty years later.

Monk missionaries from Ireland also caused endless conflict on the Continent, as their rather more extremely ascetic rule competed with the Rule of St Benedict for several centuries until the latter triumphed under the reforms of the Carolingian Empire.

The Irish influence of course is best known for its fighting spirit (the reason for so many Irish convicts). In fact, Columba's mission to Scotland was the penance for a quarrel over the right to a psalter with St Finnian in 560, which resulted in a battle with several deaths. The future saint agreed to go and convert as many people as had died in lieu of excommunication. He did so, then returned to Ireland, and died in 597 after establishing several reformed monasteries back in his native Ireland.

So I guess this feast day does remind us that even the most grievous sins can be atoned for....and that not all cultures are equal!

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