IIAS been commented over the years that the memory of St Patrick suffered a decline in the Gaelic socity of Ireland for many centuries. This view is based on the fact that so few Irishmen seemed to have borne the name of Patrick until the great military leader Patrick Sarsfield brought it into favour, 12 centuries after the death of Patrick.
Historians have suggested that the alleged eclipse of Patrick was because he was not Irish. A more likely reason is the sheer eminence of those who followed him. Three, in particular, fall into that category. Bridget, the Mary of the Gaels; Columcille, or Columba, the Apostle of Scotland; and Columbanus.
Columbanus was one of the earliest, and destined to be the greatest of the Celtic missionaries on the Continent. He was of a noble Leinster family and was a product of the famous schools of Bangor, Co Down. He arrived in France about 575, accompanied, as so often was the case with missions. by 12 others, on the model of the Apostles.
He laboured for 30 years and left the image of a determined, fearless, perhaps even arrogant, defender of faith and morals, He had no initial authority, yet he denounced kings for their loose morals and bishops for their complacency. More than once he was the subject of complaints to the Holy See. Yet he survived to visit Rome about 600. When he did, all the bells of the city rang out and it seemed more like a Roman Triumph than the visit of an Abbot to the Supreme Pontiff.
The real reason why he survived so many attacks was that he was regarded as the leading figure in the Celtic Church. At the time it was feared that the centre of Christendom might pass into the hands of the Celts. His visit to Rome. therefore, and his submission to the Supreme Pontiff is one of the most significant events, not only in the history of Ireland, but in the history of the Church.
On this visit he dedicated Ireland to the Universal Church. and laid to rest any fear that the Celtic Church was a threat to Rome. He also institutea the long tradition of devotion to the Papacy which is characteristic of the Irish Church. The extraordinary response of the Irish people to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 was clear evidence of the strength of that tradition.
Columbanus founded his first monastery at Annegray in 575. The interest it aroused compelled him to expand and in 590 he built the more famous abbey at Luxeuil, and two years later, another at Fontaines. In 610 the king of Burgundy, incensed at Colambanus's criticism of his way of life, banished Irish monks from the territory.
In his wanderings, he founded one monastery after another, while his disciples were active on their own account.. From this remarkable missionary effort arose over 100 monasteries in France and Switzerland.
The two greatest monuments to the mission of Columbanus were St Gall in Switzerland founded by his companion Gall and Bobbio in Italy, founded by Columbanus himself. Bobbio was in its time probably the most famous abbey in Europe. It flourished for 12 centuries until Napoleon closed it in 1802. Its great library was divided among various libraries in Europe.
The lasting influence of Columbanus can be gauged from the fact that in Northeast Italy alone, there are 34 parishes dedicated to him. In the USA, Bishop Edward J. Galvin, horn in 1882, on the feast day of Columbanus, November 23, founded the Columban Missionary Society in 1916, followed in 1922 by the Missionary Sisters of Si C:olumban.
Finally, when the greatest of the lay organisations of Ireland was set up, there was prolonged discussion as to the patron to whom it should be dedicated. Given the long list of illustrious Irishmen available for such selection, it is of special interest that they chose this outstanding missioner in foreign fields, So arose the Knights of Columbanus.