Uncovering Columbanus

An interdisciplinary team of researchers are making exciting discoveries about St Columbanus, writes Greg Daly

It was a strange moment in the European parliament two years ago when President Michael D. Higgins related how, in 1950, the-then Taoiseach John A. Costello travelled with Sean McBride to the French town of Luxeuil-Les-Bains to officially celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the birth of St Columbanus.

“It was Columbanus who with St Gall and others established centres of learning, manuscript illumination, monasteries and communities across Europe from the North of Ireland to Bobbio, where Columbanus actually died,” he said, explaining that the real purpose of the meeting in Luxeuil-Les-Bains was not made public at the time.

“It was declared to be ecclesiastical in purpose; after all, the papal nuncio to France, Monsignor Roncalli, later to be Pope John XXIII, was present, as was the Bishop of Bobbio,” he said, as were 20,000 ordinary pilgrims from all across Europe.

However, he said, research has since revealed that the meeting of politicians at Luxeuil “was really organised so as to facilitate a meeting of Robert Schuman, Foreign Minister of France, with like-minded others from a number of European countries anxious to test his great idea for the coming together of the countries of Europe. “Schuman,” he continued, “reached back to recall the early monastic perigrinatio and declared Columbanus to be ‘the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe’.”


Considering how the saint, who was born in in 543 and left Ireland around 590, establishing numerous monasteries in what are now France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, could be so feted by the ‘Father of Europe’, it seems all the more strange, says NUI Galway lecturer Conor Newman, that “Columbanus is not as well known in Ireland as on the continent, and is frequently confused with Colmcille”.

NUIG’s Moore Institute is taking steps to rectify that, and in February it was reported that students from the university working on a dig in Bobbio, Italy, were among those who had discovered a millennium-old church which would have been part of the saint’s most famous monastery.

“The project that we started in Galway is now five years old,” explains Mr Newman, who says that when the Moore Institute set up ‘Columbanus’ Life and Legacy’, “We set ourselves a couple of targets. One was to make that come 2015 we would have something new to bring to the table about Columbanus.”

Prior to the excavations, perhaps the biggest development in the field in recent years would have involved the 1990 discovery of the Clonmore Shrine in Co. Armagh. Strikingly similar to another metal relinquary found decades earlier in a sarcophagous in the crypt of the Bobbio’s Basilica of St Columbanus, Mr Newman says the shrines seem to have been made as a pair, with one being “modelled on the other”, and the Clonmore shrine being “more sophisticated”. Given the uniqueness of the pieces, however, claims about their origins can only be tentative.

Initially an Irish project, other institutions joined ‘Columbanus, Life and Legacy’, to a point where it’s become a truly international enterprise with 22 different institutions  involved in the work, funding field schools in Cleenish, Annegray, and Bobbio, each site being linked with Columbanus in different ways.

“Cleenish at Lower Lough Erne was, we think, the monastery where he received his first formal education,” according to Mr Newman, continuing, “from there he went to Bangor, from where in about 590 he left for the continent.”

Irish, Italian, and French students have worked at Cleenish over the last two years, he explains, the first season doing geophysical surveys, and the second year continuing geophysics work and starting on excavation.

Work has been going on for four seasons at Columbanus’ first continental foundation in Annegray at Auzerre in the Vosges Mountains, where Irish, French, and Croatian students have been lucky enough to work on a “greenfield site”, which hasn’t been built on over the centuries.

The developments at Bobbio have been especially exciting, he says, explaining that over early attempts at geophysics “hadn’t worked out brilliantly because it’s a town”, such that it was “like taking an x-ray of a square inch”. Things changed once excavation began, though, with students having had four weeks of excavation in one summer.  

The Diocese of Piacenza gave permission for excavations to begin within the Basilica of St Columbanus itself, a thriving church where regular Masses are held. “We fenced off part of the church, opened a cutting four metres by four metres, and have dug down about two metres.”


Explaining that “the deeper you go, the older you get”, he said that so far “we’ve got back to about 1000 AD”. Although this postdates Columbanus’ time in Bobbio for 400 years, it is exciting and informative in its own right, he says.

The level can be dated by how the students have been finding “little pieces of stucco, wall painting, and sculpted stone, all of which can be dated by their decorative nature to the Romanesque period”. This period, he says, was marked by a tendency to elaborate decoration especially around doors, and it seems that at Bobbio they’ve discovered traces of an Italian version of what was a European trend.

Bobbio was made an episcopal see in 1014, but Mr Newman points out that we shouldn’t automatically assume that the newly discovered church was the local cathedral. Bobbio, after all, was “a monastic town with a sizeable population”, and large monasteries could have several churches and were typically spread out. “It could be the church that was the episcopal see”, he says, continuing, “it would fit the bill, but we can’t be certain.” The diocese, he says, is “very interested” in the discoveries, and has been “impressed by how much local and public interest the dig has generated”.

When asked what the various bodies involved in the project hoped to learn from the dig, Mr Newman said: “We started out thinking it would be great to be at the 7th Century levels from Columbanus’ time,” but now he says that while “the plan is to keep digging”, he’s in no hurry to find the first monastic level.

“We’ll get there eventually,” he says, explaining that Bobbio was “a thriving town in later periods” and that there’s much to be learned from that. Columbanus died within a year of arriving in Bobbio, he says, such that “his footprint in Bobbio is more reputational than material”.

“From an academic point of view,” he adds, “that’s every bit as interesting as what happened next. We’re not rushing to get back to the start – this is the story of one man’s legacy.”


*The ‘Columbanus, Life and Legacy’ project is hosting a conference on the saint and ‘Identity in Early Medieval Europe’ in Bangor on May 22-24. Details on www.columbanus2015.eu