Emerald Isle

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!

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