26 September is the feast day of an important early saint - Colman founder of Lann-Elo (Lynally, County Offaly). The genealogy of Saint Colman links him to both the family of Saint MacNissi of Connor and also to Saint Columba of Iona. Indeed, he features twice in the Life of Columba by Saint Adamnan. Saint Colman has a reputation as a great monastic scholar and his name is associated with a number of important early writings. I hope to explore some of these works in future posts. Below is an account of his life from Volume 9 of Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints. For a more recent comprehensive account please read the paper by Dr Rory Masterson on the website of the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society here. Dr Masterson suggests that Colman may be the author of the earliest hymn to Saint Patrick, Audite omnes amantes, which is traditionally ascribed to Saint Secundinus. Canon O'Hanlon begins his account with a summary of the commemorations of Saint Colman in the early Irish calendars:
St. Colman Eala or Elo, Abbot of Lann Elo, now Lynally, King's County
[Sixth and Seventh Centuries]
...From a very early period this pious coenobiarch was venerated in the Irish Church. At the vi. of the October Kalends, or 26th of September, we find entered in the published Martyrology of Tallagh, a festival to honour Colman of Lainn Ela. It is also found recorded in the Book of Leinster copy. At the 26th of September, the Feilire of St. OEngus commemorates St. Colman of Lann Ela with a distinguished eulogy:
"Colman of Lann Ela, with perfection
of high readings, so that he is
splendid (and) praiseworthy, the great John
of Ireland's sons!"
To this a commentator has appended explanatory notes relating to his pedigree and to his place:
"Colman Ela, son of Beogna, son of Mochta, son of Cuinned, of Land Ela." Then is added in Latin, that Ela was the name of a woman who lived there before St. Colman, or Ela was the proper name of a river near to his church. Then we have the Scriptural verse: "Colman ela dixit exsurgam diluculo, confitebor Domino, quia non est inane sperare in Domino." In a second note there is a repetition of the conjecture regarding the local nomenclature. In Irish there is an added note, thus translated into English: "A John was he, i.e., like is he unto John for wisdom and virginity."
Several Manuscript Acts of this holy man are extant. In Dublin, Trinity College Library and Marsh's Library have Manuscript Lives. There is a Vita S. Colmani Ela, among the Franciscan Records, Dublin. This is the Life, we have chiefly consulted in compiling the present memoir, but it abounds with fables. Among the manuscripts belonging to the Burgundian Library at Bruxelles, there is an Irish Life of St. Colman Elo, transcribed by Brother Michael O'Clery. There is also a Latin Life of St. Colman Elo among the Burgundian Library Manuscripts, Bruxelles. The Bodleian Library at Oxford, has Manuscript Lives of St. Colman. At the 26th of September, Colgan intended to publish the Acts of this holy Abbot...
This saint's parents belonged to Meath and were of a noble race. They were known as the family of Mocusailni. St. Colman was the son of Beognai, sometimes written Beagni. He belonged to the race of Eochaidh, Eocho Mairedha, son to Muireadh. and he sprang from the descendants of Heremon. His mother was Mor, daughter to Feidhlimidh, and sister of St. Columba, according to the O'Clerys. Feidhlemidh was twenty-second in descent from Fedhlim Saillne, the head of the Dal-Selli, and -from whom this Colman derived his tribe name, Mac-U-Sailni, but from a nearer progenitor. In some cases, our saint is called Colmanus Episcopus Mac-U-Sailne, or Mocusailni from his tribe name. He is called also Columbanus Filius Beogni, from his father Beogna. ..
We are told in the Franciscan Life, that when distinguished for holiness, Colman built a monastery, but it is not stated where, and in it he desired to spend his days in heavenly contemplation. Afterwards he left it in charge of four disciples. He requested them to remain there, and such injunction they fulfilled, although suffering from dire want. The total privation of food at last caused their death. It is related, that he restored dead persons to life, and among these was a youth who afterwards devoted himself to the saint's service, in which he continued to his old age. His intervention also restored peace to hostile clans. When travelling one day in a chariot, Colman came to a river, called Dabhall or Dabul, which at the time had been swollen to a torrent, yet he drove forward and passed it in safety. Again, he visited the cell of a holy virgin, named Lasara, and there an incredible miracle is recorded as having taken place.
At Connor, it is stated, St. Colman Ela made some stay. In such a manner were his virtues and miracles manifested, that in following ages he was honoured and esteemed as second patron of that city... After some time, giving his blessing to that people, Colman Eala left Connor, it is said, and came into his own ancestral country of Meath, It seems likely, that he had there established for himself a mission, and a character for great sanctity, before he resolved on visiting his near relative St. Columba in the Island of Iona. In Adamnan's Life there are two distinct accounts of our saint having been on a voyage to that Island, and again of having departed from it, on the very year of St. Columba's death. ...the great Abbot of that place being one day in his church, and having the gift of second sight, broke forth in a joyous exclamation : "Columbanus, the son of Beognai, who started on his voyage to us, is now imperilled in the turbulent waters of Brecan's Charybdis ; but sitting on the prow of his ship and lifting both his hands to Heaven, he blesses the formidable waves. Nor doth the Lord thus affright him, as if he dreaded shipwreck, but to cause him more fervently to pray, and that he may come providentially to us having escaped that danger." … The "Vita Sanctissimi Colmani Ela" adds to the foregoing account, that when Colman and his brethren safely arrived in Iona, the monks on that Island greatly rejoiced, and Columba said to him, " Brother Colman, do not feel dissatisfied, that you go not to teach distant nations, but return again to Hybernia, the land of your birth, and feed your nation by word and example with the grace given you by God. For of necessity, I have been brought hither, but I beseech you not to absent yourself and deprive your land of your teaching." Having received such admonition, Colman returned with a favouring wind to Ireland.
In the order of narrative as contained in the Franciscan Life, we read after St. Colman's return to Ireland from Iona, that a great convention was held, and it was attended by Aedh Slaine and Aedh the son of Ainmirech, as also by St. Columcille, St. Kynecus and St. Colman. It is stated, that our saint returned to the County of Meath about the year 590, and attended a meeting at which St. Columkille, St. Cannich, and the monarch of Ireland were present. All received our saint with great joy. St. Columkille proposed a motion, that they should give Colman a proper place to found a monastery for his disciples. When all the nobles and clergy had agreed to this resolution, Aedus, the son of Slane, Prince of Meath, proffered a large forest in the southern part of his dominions called Fidh-Elo, in the territory of Fergall. This Colman accepted, and then foretold, that there should be his place of resurrection. It was declared likewise, from that place he should take his name. Then accompanied by Lasrianus the minister of St. Columba, Colman went to the place, and they selected a site for the religious foundation. In the middle of that forest, and in a place well watered, and encompassed with fair fields, Colman raised the famous monastery of Land or Lann-Elo. There in after time a great number of holy disciples served the Lord with fidelity...
At last, Colman was favoured with a foreknowledge of his approaching dissolution, which he ardently wished for, so that he might resign his soul into the hands of his Redeemer. He felt a great desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ. Then he went to Clonard, that his petition might be preferred before the relics of St. Finian. When he had come to that monastery, and while the monks were asleep, he went to the church in which their founder had been buried, and knocking at the door, he cried out : " O holy Finian, open thy church to me." Immediately either the holy Patron or an Angel came and opened the door, when our saint said : " I beseech you, O Finian, to pray the Lord for me, that I may depart from life this very year and go to Him." Then Finian replied :" The Lord hath heard your prayers ; for this very year you shall ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven. When both saints had fraternally saluted each other, Colman returned to his brethren. As the time of his decease now approached, the miraculous sign of a fiery cross appeared in the heavens. This the monks interpreted to mean, that their holy superior was destined soon to close his career upon earth. They were in a state of desolation and grief, when he said to them : " Fear not, my children, because this is the sign of my passage from this life.''
When in his infirmity, the day of his departure approached, St. Kartaius, also called Mochuda, who lived in Rathen,and other monks in the adjoining country, came to visit him. On their arrival, St. Colman said to them : "Know, my brothers, that I have preferred my prayers to God, and have obtained from Him, that whosoever shall pray to me in his last moments shall have life eternal, and whosoever shall observe religiously the day of my departure shall obtain mercy." Saying these words, his spirit passed into the keeping of Angels who brought it to the mansions of everlasting happiness.
It is generally held, that St. Colman Eala died on the 26th of September, a.d. 610, in the fifty-sixth year of his age. Such is the year assigned for it by the Annals of Ulster and of the Four Masters, while Tigernach has a.d. 611. After the death of St. Colman, one of his monks, who served those building his church, was murdered by certain robbers, but when his body had been brought for interment, some of his religious brothers laid the crozier of their founder over his remains, when he immediately arose living and unharmed. When the sacred remains of St. Colman had crumbled to dust and only his bones remained in the grave, the holy man appeared in a vision to some of his brethren, desiring that his relics should be raised from earth to be deposited in a shrine. Accordingly this command was complied with ; a suitable shrine was prepared, and into it the remains were transferred with great solemnity and honour. The clergy and people assembled on this occasion in great numbers. In the seventeenth century the staff of St. Colman Eala was still to be found.
This holy Abbot is commemorated in our Irish Calendars, at the present day. We have already seen, that he had been commemorated in the Martyrology of Tallagh and in the Festilogy of Oengus. At the 26th of September, Marianus O'Gorman records the festival of St. Colman Ela with an eulogy " beautiful Colman Ela, whom I meet protecting me like a bush." He is also recorded in the Martyrology of Donegal, at the same date, as Colman Eala, Abbot of Lann Elo, in Fir-Ceall, in West Meath. St. Colman Elo had an Office of Nine Lessons.
Like so many other Irish religious, this holy Abbot founded a monastery and school for other men who aspired to perfection, and as their superior his life led among them was so perfect a model of all virtues, that they needed no other rule for their guidance. In his countenance, as in his training and habits, in his speech, as in his whole behaviour, his disciples saw what they were to embrace, and what they were to avoid, in order to acquire the theory and practice of their holy state. His monastery, to which many resorted from all parts, attracted by the fame of his sanctity, and desiring to consecrate themselves to the love and service of God, observing his conduct and discipline, continued to flourish long after his time, under a succession of devout superiors and their monks habituated to regular rules.