The Battle Book of Colmille
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle
An ancient relic of power and mystery
One of the most legended and powerful relics of ancient Ireland was the Cathach, or battle-book of St Colmcille, who was also known as St Columba. A Cathach was really any sort of sacred or magical artifact, and great was the strife between the tribes and clans of Ireland to gain ownership of them!
The psalter or prayer book of Saint Colmcille was first copied by the Saint from another book under a miraculous light in a single night, after he had been forbidden to do so, and it is said the five fingers of his right hand blazed like five bright lamps, so fierce was his effort.
But when Finnian, the owner of the original book, heard a copy had been made without his consent, he went to King Diarmuid with accusations! Colmcille agreed to accept the judgment of the king.
The pair of them went to Tara of the Kings, and Finnian made his complaint first, saying “Colmcille copied my book without asking me, and I say that the ‘son’ of my book is mine.”
Not to be outdone, Colmcille responded “that Finnian’s book is none the worse for it, and it is not right that the divine words in that book should perish or that I, or any other, should be hindered from copying or reading them or spreading them among the people! And what's more I claim that I was entitled to copy it, for if there was profit for me in copying it I would want to give that profit to the people, without any consequent damage to Finnian or his book.”
But his clever rhetoric did him no good, and when he was told, “ to every cow her calf, so to every book its copy” by the king he flew into a rage and swore vengeance for the bad judgement and for the killing of the son of Connacht who had been under his protection.
A terrible war took place during the course of which many died, and afterwards in grief Saint Colmcille left the country for Iona in Scotland, but his Cathach remained behind.
It is the earliest manuscript that displays the magnificent illuminated writing, described as the pure milk of Irish calligraphy, which can also be seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, and a thirteenth century poem in the Book of Fenagh is among the oldest texts to speak of it. The poem specifically mentions the Cathach as a talisman that would prove decisive in battles.
After the battle I come
To thee, Caillin of miracles.
Thy protection I implore
'Gainst the demons of the angry world.
Saint Colmcille had been a prince of the O'Donnell clan of Tirconnell and it was to them that his psalter passed when he left to go to Scotland in shame, and he promised that neither tribe nor territory would go to those who opposed it. They held on to it for many centuries, and a special cumdach or shrine, or perhaps even a reliquary, was made for it by Sitric of Kells.
This magnificent box was made of cast-silver plates and a plaque with an openwork pattern of crosses. It has a pattern of iconography themed around blessings and curses, indicating that it was intended for use as a battle talisman. It was said that it had gems inserted into its cover resembling glass eyes and that whenever anyone perjured himself nearby, these eyes would roll like human eyes, and make signs of melancholy disapproval at the conduct of the liar.
The tradition associated with the relic of St Colmcille involved carrying it three times clockwise or deiseal around an army, inside its wooden box, to bring success in battle, itself a ritual stretching back into distant pagan times. Cathachs were also called “battlers” and often a single family was entrusted with their protection, being passed down from generation to generation as a sacred duty.
Only once in all that time was it lost in battle, and the O'Donnells parlayed for it just as they would a living hostage!
Tales tell that the battle book was taken to France towards the end of the 17th century by Colonel Daniel O’Donnell, where he had it refurbished and set with the O'Donnell arms. Before his death he passed the book to an Irish monastery in Flanders, from where it found its way back into the hands of Sir Neal O'Donnell of Newport in County Mayo at the start of the nineteenth century.
He later donated it to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin where it resides today after much restoration. The location of the Royal Irish Academy can be found on the map below!
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
More Tales from the Historical Cycle
On Martinmas eve, that is to say the 10th of November, it used to be the custom in many parts of Ireland to sacrifice an animal to Saint Martin of Tours! This tradition has only recently ceased, having been carried on well into living memory, as lately as the 1940s in some places. In poorer homes a goose, gander, duck or chicken was killed, whil ... [more]
It's true to say that music has a magic all to itself, for it can transport us to different places and times with the strumming of a few notes. It can make us feel angry, or sad, or happy, or any one of a myriad of other emotions. But if you were to hear the music of an occult Sidhe instrument played by one of the fairy folk under a loon's ... [more]
King Cormac Mac Airt was one of the mightiest kings of Ireland, known and well known for his wisdom, but after he lost an eye in a battle with the Déisi, he had to step down, for the solemn law was that a king must be without blemish. His son Cairbre came to him to ask his advice before in turn being crowned king. “O Cormac, grandso ... [more]
"Crom Cruach and his sub-gods twelve," Said Cormac "are but carven treene; The axe that made them, haft or helve, Had worthier of our worship been. "But He who made the tree to grow, And hid in earth the iron-stone, And made the man with mind to know The axe's use, is God alone." Anon to priests of Crom was ... [more]
Most people with an interest in Irish mythology and legends will have heard of the great tale of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which tells of the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn as he resisted and gave battle single handed to the armies of Queen Medb. What most don't know is that the ancient tale was once all but lost, for th ... [more]
One of the most legended and powerful relics of ancient Ireland was the Cathach, or battle-book of St Colmcille, who was also known as St Columba. A Cathach was really any sort of sacred or magical artifact, and great was the strife between the tribes and clans of Ireland to gain ownership of them! The psalter or prayer book of Saint Colmcille w ... [more]
Three was a sacred number to the people of ancient Ireland, bearing with it a hint of magic and the sacred, and this belief carried through to their spiritual practices, which occasionally included human sacrifice! Most cultures throughout history have at one point or another practised some form of human sacrifice, and lurid tales passed down fr ... [more]
Saint Colman was a famous Saint in early Irish Christianity, being born a prince not long after Saint Patrick brought the faith to Ireland in the first place. Despite his royal lineage however, his birth was no easy matter, for the druids had prophecised darkly that he would be a great man and surpass all others of his clan! His pregnant mother ... [more]
The old pagan times in Ireland were fraught with peril for even the mightiest warriors, with chieftains and tribes going to war often and for many reasons – pride, hatred, love and greed! And so it was with the fierce King Conall Collomrach. Little is known of his exploits, but his reign was brief and his end was violent, leaving behind only ... [more]
This now is the true tale of mighty King Cathal Mac Finguine of Munster, lord of Cork and warrior without peer. In ancient Ireland this story was told when mead was first brought out, or a prince sat to his feast, or when an inheritance was taken, and the reward for reciting this story was a white-spotted, red-eared cow, a shirt of new linen, or a ... [more]
The river in Meath which we today know as the Delvin, that very same river which flows into the Irish sea in Gormanstown, was not always called so. In the time of Kings it was called Inbher Oillbine, and this is the grim story of how it got that name. There was a prince who lived near to the mouth of the river, and his name was Ruadh Mac Righdui ... [more]
The boy who was to be Saint Colman was born in the northern kingdom of Dalriada, which held both Northern Ireland and Scotland in its power at the start of the sixth century. This was the time of the dawn of Christianity in Ireland, and it was a time when great terrors and monsters from primordial epochs still swam in the deep lakes and lazy rivers ... [more]
Most people have heard of Ireland's famous title, “The Island of Saints and Scholars”, and the reason it was so well known was because of the many fine Irish Catholic universities and colleges that preserved and spread learning throughout Europe. Of them all, there were few finer than the one in Howth, and so wonderful was its reput ... [more]
Very often here in Ireland we walk past the most astonishing buildings, carven stone high crosses, ancient temples and many similar things, but rarely do we wonder who built them. Well as it turns out, legend has it that a surprising number of them were built by a man called Gobán Saor, whose name means “Gobán the Builder,&rdquo ... [more]
I. Once upon a time there was a High King in Ireland by the name of Conn the hundred-fighter, for so many battles had he fought and won to gain his kingship. At the end of his reign was Fionn Mac Cumhaill born. Long was Conn's lineage, although I won't trouble you with the details, but he reigned at Tara of the Kings as Lord of all Irela ... [more]
In the time of High King Lugaid Luaigne, that is around the age when Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his Fianna fought in defence of the great land of Ireland, a dispute arose in the northern Kingdom among the men of the Ulaid, for instead of there being only one king of Ulster, there were two! Well, as anyone who knows anything about kings will tell you ... [more]
St Colmcille is one of the three patron saints of Ireland, and his life is the subject of story and legend. It was by his efforts that Christianity spread not only through Ireland but also Scotland, England and parts of Europe too! He was a tall and powerfully built man with a rich and melodious voice which, it was said, could be heard from one hil ... [more]
From the earliest times and in every corner of the world, mead was held in reverence. This sweet tasting fermented honey drink was especially loved by the ancient Irish, who shared fireside stories about rivers of mead in mystical lands over the edge of the ocean's horizon, ruled by Mannanan Mac Lír, and even in the place where the dead ... [more]
Ancient are the hills and mountains of Ireland, and ancient are her trees, something that the old people who lived here knew well. To them a tree was a mystical thing with its roots reaching down into the underworld of the sidhe mounds, and its branches lifting up high into the heavens towards the sun, moon and stars. Well over ten thousand places ... [more]
The Irish bee has been a beloved part of the culture and folklore as long as there have been people in Ireland, producing honey for cakes and mead as well as beeswax which has no end of uses. Many's the warm summer evening has been filled with their gentle humming above the beautiful flowers they help to pollinate. And yet for all that, old ... [more]
As Saint Patrick travelled across Ireland, spreading Christianity and the light among the pagan tribes, he saw many wonders and defeated many evils, but always more rose up to challenge him. So he took himself to prayer and saw a vision that he should travel to Croagh Patrick – although it was not so known at that time – and spend the L ... [more]
The shifting shadows of pagan times held sway over Ireland when the High King was a man known as Laoghaire, famed for his merciless fury and great strength, and he sat upon the seat of the High Kings in Tara. But unknown to him, Saint Patrick had landed in a little boat at Colpe in the Boyne estuary, travelling to a place called Ferta fer Feic, or ... [more]
One of the three patron Saints of Ireland, along with Patrick and Colmcille, St Brigid of Kildare was a devout Catholic in the very first days of the faith in Ireland. Her feast day is the first of February, which previously had been the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between winter and spring. Brigid herself was the daughter of a baptised Ch ... [more]
Through many an ancient legend and tale rings the name of the fierce and powerful druid called Mogh Ruith, meaning “slave of the wheel”. Older legends make him out to be the king of the Fir Bolg, or a druid gifted with many lives by the fairies, or that the name was but a title passed down through generations. Some say he had one eye ... [more]
Ireland has had many high kings, some were wise and kind and others cruel and the holders of grudges, but there were few as great as High King Cormac Mac Art, grandson of Conn of the Hundred Battles and son of Art and Ectach, the daughter of a mighty blacksmith. In his youth he stayed at the hall of the king of the north, Fergus Dubhdedach, but ... [more]
Back in the days of Ireland of old, in the times when legends walked the earth and before the light came to drive back the shadows of ancient times, the word of a bard was much feared, for the people had no writing, so all of their words and histories were stored in songs and poems by bardic masters. As you can imagine they were very wary of get ... [more]
In ancient days there was an Irish King whose name was Labraid Lioseach, known also as Labraid the Sailor for a long voyage he took into fairy seas, and when he came back from that voyage he was never seen without a deep hood over his head, except by one man. That man saw him once a year to trim his hair, and after the King's hair was cut, t ... [more]
It was the custom in Ireland of old to lay geases upon champions, heroes and warriors. These were magical forbiddings, deeds they must not do or disaster would follow, and no disaster fell so hard upon a man who broke his geases as upon Conaire Mor! His mother was a woman of the Sidhe called Etain, who had been married to King Eochaid, but disco ... [more]
Tierna the Historian was one of the many chroniclers and monks who wrote the tales of ancient Irish legends, telling us of strange and notable events in the almost forgotten past, the deeds of heroes and kings, and in one case, the disappearance of the High king himself! For it was by Tierna's hand we know that High King Cormac went missing for ... [more]
In the time between the Tuatha Princes and St Patrick, there rose over the people of Ireland mighty High Kings, who held power by force of arms, wit and wisdom. One of the greatest among them was Cormac of the wide purple cloak, whose hair was as golden as the heavy torc around his neck, with teeth like a shower of pearls and skin as fair as snow. ... [more]
Long ago when the fierce Milesians invaded Ireland and defeated the De Danann after many wars and battles, despite their sorceries and all their courage, skill and sciences, the folk of Danann made for themselves eldritch amulets and charms by which they and all their possessions became invisible to mortals, and so they continued to lead their old ... [more]
The Tailteann games were a grand affair in Ireland once upon a time, every bit as celebrated and renowned as the Olympics are today. Having their roots thousands of years earlier, in the time of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lakes were made and gigantic fires were lit during Lughnasadh, the summer feast in July. Druids and poets would compose cea ... [more]
The Claddagh Ring is one of those well known emblems of Ireland that most people recognise, but how many know the stories behind it? Many's the young man has gifted one to his lady, giving his heart along with it, as did the ring's original maker. Back in the seventeenth century there was a young Irish lad by the name of Richard Joyce, w ... [more]
Ah Tara, Temair of old, seat of more than a hundred High Kings of Ireland for better than a thousand years, home to the royal lines of Cormac and Tuathal, where is your wisdom and beauty? Where are the mighty warriors and poets who once danced in your halls? Why now do cattle and livestock graze where the mighty Fionn faced the Tuatha sidhe with a ... [more]
On Easter Sunday morning, in anno domine 433 it was that Patrick came face to face with the beating heart of the old religion at Tara, and did battle with the Druids. Although some might dispute the miraculous nature of the events that took place on that day, few argue they didn't happen, so take from that what you will! Laeghaire the king a ... [more]
Brian Boru was one of the greatest High Kings of all Ireland, a Christian king whose small dynasty challenged and broke even the power of the O'Neills, who had ruled Ireland from time immemorial. He rose to prominence at a time when the cruel Norseman was pillaging the lands of both Ireland and England, slaughtering and slave-taking, barbarians ... [more]
King Suibhne was master of the northern land of Dalriada in Ulster, and a grim and fierce king he was too, yet fair to behold like palest snow, with deep blue eyes. A mighty master at arms, he was called to war often, but latterly to the bloody battle of Moy Rath. As he readied himself he heard in the distance a church bell ringing, and no man of G ... [more]