June 21 is the commemoration of one of the abbots of Durrow, the most famous of the monasteries of Saint Columcille in Ireland. Like many of the Irish abbots, Corbmac Ua Liathain was an aristocrat, related to one of the Munster royal families. In his account of Saint Corbmac's life, Canon O'Hanlon also brings us to the Orkney and Shetland islands on an interesting historical excursion.
ST. CORBMAC UA LIATHAIN, ABBOT OF DEARMAGH, NOW DURROW, KING'S COUNTY.
For sake of the comfortless manger, and the still harder cross, our ascetics have loved the unplastered cell, or the exposed cave. In the east, it was customary, during the five first centuries of Christianity, to find a number of separate cells, inhabited by single hermits or anchorites. Such monastic institutions are called laura, by early ecclesiastical writers. They seem, too, as having been contradistinguished from the coenobia, which were convents or monasteries, where the monks lived together, in one building, under the rule of a superior. Such varieties of monasticism were probably known, but with many modifications of practice, in our early Irish Church, and the present holy man appears to have lived as an anchoret, at least for a time, while he was also superior over a flourishing monastery.
Veneration was paid to Cormac H. Liathain, in Dermaigh, at the 21st of June, according to the Martyrology of Tallagh. He is also mentioned, in terms of commendation, in the Feilire of St. Oengus, at the same date. On this, too, are some remarks of a scholiast. His pedigree is given, in the Book of Lecan. He was son of Dima, son to Coman, son of Cudumaig, son to Congal, son of Cairbre, son to Sionach, son of Eochaidh Liathain. The pedigree of Mac Firbis is incorrect, however, in making his grandfather, Daire Cerb. Eochaidh Liathain or Liathenach was a Munster chief, the sixth in descent, from Oilill Olum, King of Munster, a.d. 234. Eochaidh Liathain was uncle to Crimthainn Mor, who ruled as monarch of Ireland, from 366 to 378. From Eochaidh Liathain, who flourished about the middle of the fourth century, the territory of Ui Liathain, in the south-west of the county of Cork, was named. This ancient territory is now nearly represented, by the baronies of Barrymore and Kinnatalloon; and it was not, as has been represented, in the barony of Decies, county of Waterford. By his great master, St. Columkille, this Corbmac is styled, "Offspring of Liathan,” in allusion to his remote descent.
This saint, whose festival is celebrated, at this date, was born, probably, about or after the beginning of the sixth century. Of his early career, however, we have few or no records. From his youth, Corbmac seems to have embraced a religious life. He was a disciple of the great St. Columkille, at least, during the chief incidents of his career. This celebrated saint was a person of great enterprise and daring. He had almost a passionate love for maritime exploration. He ventured his life on the high seas and sailed over trackless wastes of water, to spread the faith of Jesus Christ among the pagans. This occurred apparently after he had entered into the religious state, but in what part of Ireland is not stated. His first voyage proved to be a failure, and after a vain effort to find a distant land in the Atlantic Ocean, it seems he was obliged to return after great toil had been endured to his native country. But, a second time, he had resolved on another voyage. Desirous of discovering a desert land, he set out from that territory called Erris Domno, near the River Moy, and now known as Erris, without asking leave from the Abbot underwhom he lived. Owing to this act of disobedience, Cormac did not find the land he sought. St. Columba had an intimation of this adventure, and he prophesied Cormac's failure. He tried this nautical voyage no less than three times, yet always to be disappointed. Probably he was in quest of St. Brendan's Land of Promise.
It is more than likely, that Cormac Ua Liathain had early attached himself to the rule and discipline of that great master of monasticism, whose fame had become extended throughout Ireland, about the middle of the sixth century. The place, with which our saint was connected, is now known as Durrow, a parish partly in the barony of Moycashel, in the barony of Ballycowen, King's County. Anciently, this agreeable site was denominated Druim-cain, or "the beautiful ridge." Afterwards, it was known as Dairmagh, and there St. Columcille established a famous religious institute, in which he appears to have dwelt for some time, probably about the year 553. Durrow was among the earliest and most important, yet not the most enduring, of Columkille's Irish foundations. An old Irish Life calls it the "abbey-church." It also mentions the name of Colman Mor, the second son of King Diarmait, in connexion with it. This establishment was one of the three places in Erin most dear to St. Columba, and even he had visions of what occurred there, while absent from it. In an Irish poem attributed to him, the great cenobiarch celebrates the beauty and agreeable accessories of its situation. It seems probable, that St. Cormac became Abbot of Durrow, by appointment of St. Columba. His energetic and courageous character peculiarly endeared him to the holy founder. There is an ancient Irish poem, which professes to have been composed by St. Columkille, on the occasion of his leaving Durrow, for the last time. Thus, it refers to the seven disciples, who remained after him, to guide and govern his community. Among these Cormac, the son of Dima, is first named, while all are alluded to in terms of the highest eulogy. According to a gloss on a copy of the Martyrology of Marianus O'Gorman, and belonging to the O'Clerys, this St. Corbmac was an anchorite.31 Moreover, the glossographer states he was a bishop, but we are not informed over what See he had been placed. Again, he is said to have founded a monastery, yet history appears to be silent, as to its name and site.
Afterwards, Cormac appears to have relinquished his charge in Durrow, at least for a time, and to have gone on a visit to St. Columba, at Iona. There is an account of his having been present, with three other celebrated Irish Saints, and all holy founders of monasteries, who sailed with him from Scotia or Ireland. These are named as Comgellus Mocu Aridi, Cainnechus, Mocu-Dalon, and Brendenuss Mocu Alti. All of these are noticed, as having visited the great Caledonian Apostle, in the Island of Hinba and as having assisted there in the church, while St. Columba consecrated in the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
After this visit, it seems likely, that Cormac took charge of a mission to the Orkney Islanders, who were then pagans. He had been recommended to the king or chief of these people, in the presence of King Brudeus, while St. Columba had been staying in Drum Alban. Brudeus held hostages of the Orkney ruler—who seems to have been subordinate to him—at that time. Then Columba stated, that Cormac and some companions had sailed away in quest of a desert in the ocean, and that if they happened after their long voyage to touch at the Orkneys, he desired a guarantee, that they should there receive no injury. St. Columkille had a foreknowledge, likewise, that after a long and toilsome navigation, Cormac should be driven to the Orkneys through stress of weather. This event actually took place, accordingly, while Cormac and his companions received protection from the Orkney king, when they landed on his shores.
In early times, it is stated, that the Fir-Galeoin — a tribe of the Firbolgs — inhabited those Islands, and that subsequently the Picts became possessors. Their occupation continued probably, until the close of the sixth century. With these appear to have been some Irish fathers, called Papae, who are supposed to have followed the rule of St. Columkille; nor is it at all unlikely, that St. Cormac Ua Liathain had there formed a first establishment, and had thus helped to introduce Christianity. However, he does not seem to have remained long in this field of labour, nor to have left behind him any Culdee missionaries. Afterwards, the Papae were found in part possession with the Peti or Picts, when the Northmen formed their settlements in those Islands. The Orkney and Shetland Islands were invaded by the celebrated Norwegian King Harold Harfager, or the Fair Haired, in 876, and they were subjected to his rule. On returning to Norway, he left Ronald or Rognovald, Count of Merca, as their administrator. There are yet many curious legends and ballads, recited in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and which some writers suppose to be of Scandinavian origin. In 920, Sigurd, the brother of Ronald, became Orcadian King. The secular history of the Orkneys is traced, through the Earldoms of the respective lines of the Norse Angus, Stratherne, and Clair. The antiquarian remains found in the Orkney and Shetland Islands are very interesting…
Under the influence of Olaf, the first Christian King of Norway, it is thought, that Christianity had been introduced among those northern islanders. In 996, Sigurd, who married the daughter of Malcolm II., King of Scotland, succeeded to the rule of the Orkneys, and to some territories on the north coasts of Scotland; but, this warlike Jarl fell in the celebrated battle of Clontarf, fought against Bryan Boroimhe, King of Ireland, a.d. 1014. Einar and Torfin, the sons of Sigurd, were his successors, and the latter was a renowned sea-rover. Those who followed them were redoubtable foes, and loved to indulge in maritime adventures, epecially against the British shores. Swein Aslief was a distinguished Orkney Viking of the twelfth century, and his life was full of adventure. About the year 1325, the male line of Ronald's descendants failed in the person of Magnus V. The succession of the Scandinavian Jarls is carried down to its close, when a new current of possessors and events had place. The Orkney and Zetland Islands became subject to the crown of Norway, until they were annexed to the kingdom of Scotland, in the year 1468.
In an ancient Irish poem yet preserved, there is a Dialogue between Columcille and Cormac in Hy, after escaping from the Coire Brecain. According to the allusions in it, we are to infer, that at this time Cormac had returned from a voyage —probably his third great maritime enterprise— which lasted for two years and a month, during which time he had been wandering from port to port, and over the wide ocean. He had reached, likewise, regions of intense cold. It also conveys an intimation, that Cormac had greatly desired to end his days, in the distant imaged land of his long search. In a spirit of self-sacrifice, he seems to have desired, that his labours should be crowned with a successful result, so that he might become an exile from Erinn. However, St. Columcille predicts, that his last days must terminate in Durrow, where his kindred of the Clann Colman should protect him. There is also a glowing description of the church and establishment of Durrow, as a "devout city with a hundred crosses." On Ellanmore Island in the parish of North Knapdaill, deanery of Kintyre, stood an ancient church, dedicated to St. Charmaig or Cormac, of which several ruins still exist. There, too, is shown M'Cormac's grave, but whatever connexion our saint had with the place—and probably during his lifetime he may have lived there—it does not appear to be probable, that he was there buried. It is likely, St. Cormac Ua Liathain conformed to St. Columkille's request, and returned to Durrow; where, according to tradition, the close of his life was religiously spent. A curious object of art, called the Crozier of Durrow, still exists; but, unfortunately, only as a fragment. It is considered to be the oldest of its kind we now possess, and that it belonged to the great St. Columkille himself, the founder of the church at Durrow. It was presented by him to St. Cormac, his dear friend and successor in that monastery. St. Cormac Ua Liathain died most probably, towards the close of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century. Besides this account, the Martyrology of Donegal, records him at the same date, as Corbmac Ua Liathain, Abbot of Dearmagh. Under the head of Darmhagh, Duald Mac Firbis enters Cormac Ua Liathan, abbot of Darmhagh, bishop, anno Christies at June 21st. Not many miles away from Durrow, and north-west of the brewery of Frankfort, in the King's County, there was a holy well, called St. Cormac's Well. It may have been dedicated to the present saint. In the parish of Kilcormick, barony of Gorey, and county of Wexford, there is a St. Cormac's well, and here a patron was formerly held, on the 22nd of June. Possibly, the present saint was patron of that parish, as no other person bearing the name is to be found in our Calendars, at the date just given. The church of St. Charmaig or M'Charraaig—identified with St. Cormac Ua Laithian—in the parish of North Knapdale, Scotland, belonged to the monks of Kilwinning, in Ayrshire.
Brief as are the notices of this holy and enterprising saint, they throw notwithstanding a considerable light on the history, manners and pursuits of our countrymen, in that remote age when he lived. The traces which remain, regarding our Irish saints, are oftentimes very few and fragmentary; but, nevertheless, they are remarkably interesting and suggestive. Personal danger was disregarded by St. Corbmac and by his brave companions of the sea, when there was a probability of reaching the great western world beyond the Atlantic —then in Ireland well known to exist—and to gain souls for Christ, their chief impelling motive. How much nobler and more heroic such purpose and action, than were those adopted by the avaricious and cruel despoilers in many succeeding centuries, when the native races of America were subjected to the shocking brutalities of European adventurers and conquerors, whose crimes must be held in horror and detestation by every true Christian and friend of humanity! History ever preserves and contrasts the differences between real and false glory, as also between the virtues and vices of men.
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