Europe’s forgotten founding fathers

Europe’s forgotten founding fathers St Columbanus and Gall in a boat on Lake Constance.
An Irish saint championed the idea of Europe in the Dark Ages and inspired today’s European movement, writes Greg Daly


At a time when Europe’s future is uncertain and nationalist currents are on the rise, it’s worth reflecting on the ideas that first underpinned the European movement, according to Dr Alexander O’Hara.

An honourary fellow of St Andrew’s University in Scotland, and one of Europe’s leading experts on St Columbanus, Dr O’Hara is this week giving the 2018 European Cultural Heritage Lecture on ‘Making Europe: Columbanus, Robert Schuman, and the Idea of Europe’.

Mentioned by both Pope Francis and the Taoiseach in their papal visit speeches at Dublin Castle and twice during the Pope’s homily at Mass in the Phoenix Park, St Columbanus has been called the first European, recognising a common European identity while at the same time clearly identifying as Irish.

“Columbanus has a very strong sense of Irish identity,” says Dr O’Hara. “He’s the first person to write about Irish identity, he’s the first Irish person that we have a body of literary work from, so even on that point of view he’s very important in terms of Irish identity.”

Born in the mid-6th Century, Columbanus spent several decades at Bangor Abbey in Co. Down, before seeking permission to travel to the continent, where he dealt with a succession of kings and founded monasteries at Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaine, before founding the monastery of Bregenz on Lake Constance in what are now the Austrian Alps, eventually founding his last community in Bobbio in Lombardy.

At the same time, Dr O’Hara explains, the self-consciously Irish missionary had a clear sense of Europe as a distinct place with its own cultural identity, rather than a merely geographical or physical concept.

“He does have a sense of the whole of Europe.  He just mentions the term twice in addressing two Popes, but still it’s quite significant given the period,” he explains. “It really fits in to Schuman’s thing, that European supranationality kind of fits on top of national identity, and is complementary to it; it’s not in competition with it.”

Robert Schuman, the visionary statesman whose May 9, 1950 speech proposing a European Coal and Steel Community is recognised to this day as the charter document of the modern European movement, famously referred to Columbanus in July 1950 as an “illustrious Irishman” who “willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time”.

“He is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe,” he said.

The Irish saint’s achievements were all the more striking given he was working in the shifting world of the early medieval period in the centuries after the fall of Rome, Dr O’Hara points out.

“One of the impressive things about Columbanus is that he was dealing in quite a complicated political world, quite a fragmented world, where these ethnic groups were really coming to the fore: he’s dealing with the Franks, he’s dealing with the Lombards,” he says.


A common language – Latin – contributed immeasurably to this, Dr O’Hara says, as, he thinks, does the fact that the monk seems to have been able to lay claim to royal blood.

“It’s also really interesting that new research suggests, I think very convincingly, that Columbanus was from the royal dynasty of the Ui Barriche in southern Leinster. That’s quite convincing, because one of the Ui Barriche kings retires to Bangor Abbey in the mid-6th Century,” he says.

“There were close ties with Bangor and there was a kind of game of thrones going on in southern Leinster at this time where it may have been politically expedient for him to get out of Leinster,” he continues. “But that can also explain why Columbanus was so confident in terms of dealing with kings at this kind of level.”

It’s sometimes observed that one of the hallmarks of Catholic thinking is that it can prefer a both/and approach to an either/or one, and for Dr O’Hara it’s clear that the saint was capable of straddling unlikely boundaries.

“What puzzled me, dealing in this area for the last few years, is that there’s certainly a kind of revisionist trend in scholarship where they’re trying to minimise Columbanus’ influence or impact. The argument basically goes that he was an immigrant and an outsider – they’re basically trying to minimise his agency, saying that he was at the hands of the king,” he says.

While the monk would indeed have been an immigrant, Dr O’Hara explains, this wouldn’t have stopped him from being an important and influential figure, given his noble background and facility with the common tongue of the era.

“What I’ve tried to do, I suppose, in my work, is to see that it’s not either Irish or Frankish, but there’s a kind of complementarity there,” he says.

Another revisionist trend in scholarship around Columbanus is to downplay the notion of him as a missionary, Dr O’Hara says. The thesis in its essentials, he says, is that “Columbanus wasn’t a real missionary because he didn’t go past the limes of the former Roman empire and didn’t try to convert the heathen,

like say the Slavs – he’d a chance to go to the Slavs, and didn’t, and so wasn’t a real missionary”.

Looking carefully at Col-umbanus’ writings and the evidence from his monastic foundations, however, strongly points to him as almost a modern figure, a missionary within notionally Christian lands.

“Columbanus established five monasteries, three in Burgundy, one in Bregenz which was short-lived and didn’t last very long, and then the final one was in Bobbio,” he says. “I basically found out that there’s common patterns in terms of the topography, where they’re located. They’re often at the convergence of three roads. They’re often in association with thermal or healing springs. Then they’re often at ancient pagan cult places.

“That’s another thing that’s often been downplayed in a sense,” he notes. “Annegray is fascinating because there was a Roman fort there anyway. It’s at the convergence of three roads, and you also have a Diana bas relief, possibly from a shrine to the goddess Diana, who was often associated with hunting and forests.

“What’s really interesting is if we compare the archaeology of what was found there with how Columbanus writes about witchcraft, magic and people going to the woods and celebrating basically pagan feasts. It was still a world of syncretic religion, still a world where you had baptised Christians but they were still going to the woods: they still had these cultural practices which in his eyes would have been deemed pagan.”

This crops up, he says, in the Penitential of St Columbanus, the saint’s systematic manual of penances for those confessing sins, in which he makes it clear that Christians ought not to be feasting at pagan sites in the forests.


If one were to talk of a patron saint of European unity, St Columbanus might then seem to be an obvious candidate, but one might wonder nowadays, in the aftermath of the famous refusal to explicitly cite Europe’s Christian heritage in the abortive European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty, why anyone would have thought the movement to European unity should expect such patronage.

“I knew very little about Robert Schuman until 2015, where I was taking a train from Vienna across Austria to Luxeuil for the 14th Centenary celebrations,” Dr O’Hara admits. “That was at the height of the migration crisis. The train was packed with refugees, who were all trying to get to Germany and to Sweden. There was a sense that this was really historic.”

It was only when he got to Luxeuil for the conference to mark 1,400 years since Columbanus’ death that he learned more about the conference that marked 1,400 years since his birth, he says.

“When I got to Luxeuil I just heard much more about Schuman’s involvement in the 1950 congress, and all the political wheeling and dealing that was going on around that time, and how basically at this academic congress to mark the 14th centenary of Columbanus’ birth, Schuman was making alliances and it was a very high profile political event,” he says. “That really led me to think more about the idea of Europe.”

He’d long been aware of how the concept of Europe occurs in Columbanus’ writings, he says, but had no sense of how significant Catholic thinking had been to many of the founders of the European project.

“The idea of Europe was something obviously in Columbanus’ writings that crops up, but I’d no idea of how influenced Schuman was by the neo-Thomistic movement, Jacques Maritain, Catholic Social Teaching, so that’s something that I’ve tried to bring in for this lecture,” he says.

“For me personally a lot of it is new. The stuff about the connection with Sean McBride and the Con Cremin memorandum –  that’s new, but that’s not my own research,” he says, pointing to various behind the scenes aspects of the conference, as well as how John A. Costello made reference at the conference to Columbanus and a Europe united under Christian values with Sean MacBride saying: “If we remove from Europe her Christian civilization, what remains will not be very important.”


Reiterating how little he had known about the Christian Democrat roots of the European movement, he observes that it’s not really given the attention it deserves and says he was glad to hear President Higgins referring to it and to the Columbanus conference at Luxeuil when he spoke at Strasbourg in 2015.

“You really don’t hear much about it,” he says. “Recently I was reading Tony Judt’s massive tome Postwar, and that’s not in there at all. There’s very very little about Christian Democracy. Certainly, Schuman hardly ever turns up.”

Part of the reason why Schuman is less well known than he should be may come down to his Christian humanism having become somehow unfashionable, he says. “I personally learned a lot from Alan Fimister’s book Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe. He says in a sense part of why Schuman is not really known is because some of his unfashionable ideas, and particularly his Faith and the faith element was such an important part of his life.”

There was also the fact that unlike Europe’s other key founding visionary Jean Monnet, Schuman was a deeply unassuming visionary who refrained from writing his memoirs and even burned many of his personal papers.

“One of his closest friends wrote a biography of him, but it’s often dismissed as hagiography,” Dr O’Hara says. “But certainly, when he retired he basically collected some of the political speeches he gave into this For Europe, and his political philosophy really comes across strongly in that, his reading of Jacques Maritain, he was very well versed in Thomas Aquinas, so this is something that I’m trying to get across in the lecture.”

The lecture inevitably touches on topical issues, and Dr O’Hara says he was delighted to hear Pope Francis alluding to Columbanus when in Ireland. Indeed, speaking in Rome in 2015 at the invitation of Emma Madigan, Ireland’s then ambassador to the Holy See, he says he mentioned Pope Francis’s talk to the European Parliament the previous year.

“That was stirring stuff,” he says. “The whole EU thing can be quite complicated, but Fimister’s thesis is that in ways the impulse from the beginning was these Christian democrat politicians, all from kind of contested areas in Europe – Lorraine in Schuman’s case, the Rhineland for (Konrad) Adenauer, Trentino for (Alcide) di Gasperi.

“They’re all devout Christians, they’re all reading the same stuff, they’re all particularly influenced by the papal social teaching, and see economic integration as one step to something more.”

Since then, of course, other visions of Europe have come into play, and different concepts of Europe, ranging from utopian federalism to economic minimalism have been introduced, but the roots of the project nonetheless remain Christian humanist ones, praised by a succession of Popes and with Pope Francis having pointed to when warning that a Europe that forgets the visions of its founders is a Europe in danger of losing its soul.

In Ireland, meanwhile, Columbanus himself is often forgotten, perhaps overshadowed by his namesake Columba – also known to us as Colmcille – but possibly simply because he saw his mission on the continent as taking him away from Ireland and entailing leaving Ireland behind.

“We have his very moving letter for which he writes in Nantes back to his community in France, and it’s a beautiful document. He’s just devastated because he thinks he’s going to be sent back to Ireland. He really has the sense that he’s gone for life,” Dr O’Hara says.

Dr Alexander O’Hara can be heard speaking on ‘Making Europe: Columbanus, Robert Schuman, and the Idea of Europe’ at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on November 15 at 6pm. Tickets are available here.