“Colum Cille (521-597): His Life and Times”. (A handmade book by Malachi McCormick.)

This book is available for sale in my online bookstore.

For some time now Sion has been asking me to provide her with some more material for the website, and we both agreed that many of my books could use a fuller description: what they are about, and how I came to do them in the first place –that sort of thing.

For the first twenty years or so, I sent out an annual letter to the supporters of the Stone Street Press –addressed in fact to “Dear Friend of The Stone Street Press”– in which I would report on items of interest, how the year had gone, and talk about any new books that had come out, or that I was working on.
It was a time-consuming (and an expensive) operation, but it was one that I enjoyed a great deal, and that brought an unpredictable and most welcome response, direct and indirect, from all corners of the globe.

In some important ways, you could say that this blog has replaced the annual letter, and though it is early days yet, I am hopeful that eventually it will reach an even wider audience, and that we will be able to discuss anything that we wish to –whether connected to an SSP book or not. (In the end, everything is connected –right?)

I have been looking over my old yearly letters –usually sent out about Thanksgiving time– and include an extended excerpt here, to give you a sense of how they went. As you will see, this one relates to the Big New Book of 1996, to wit “Colum Cille (521-597): His life and times”. Just in case the name Colum Cille is new to you, he was one of Ireland’s great bookmen –as well as an important saint.


“Dear Friend of The Stone Street Press”

I just got back from the sixth century. My book on the life and times of Colum Cille (521-597) is finally finished, and I have to tell you that it has been the most satisfying project of my life. At least, so far.
[For anyone unfamiliar with his name, it is pronounced “Columb-kill”. Also known as St. Columba, he is sometimes confused with St. Columban, aka Columbanus (540-615).

Columcille is one of Ireland’s most important saints. Like all real saints, he is also a humanist. He is an interesting person, civilized, attractive, accessible. The kind of saint we might even try to emulate. He is one of the great Irish prototypes. “Intensely Irish”, he is equally “An intensely universal man.” He had the sensibilities of a poet, calligrapher and artist. He is the “inventor” of the clear and beautiful Irish uncial script –a supreme but vastly unappreciated achievement. He is the genius behind the great Irish works of sacred art –the Books of Kells, Durrow,and Lindisfarne.

I find in Columcille what seems to me to be a key to real (rather than virtual) spirituality: he was spiritually independent and had a (Pelagian) committment to “doing the right thing.” These translated into showing “loving kindness to all”, and promulgating “a spirit of exquisite charity”. Our spirituality exists only to the degree that it benefits others. [Cardinal Bernardin (uniquely) seemed to embody these qualities in his life.]

Columcille was born a royal O’Neill in Gartan, County Donegal. He could have been king, even High-King, but chose instead the new life, the life of the monk. We don’t know if his parents were Christian –I sense not. He himself had a profound respect for Druids (–he refused to fell some sacred oaks that were “in the way” to build his chapel at Derry. Which word in Irish, ‘Doire’, means ‘oakgrove’, by the way.)

It was an exciting time in Ireland, with its two new revolutions, The Gospel and The Book; Columcille was a dynamic leader of both. He founded some forty monasteries, including Derry, Kells and Iona –where he died (in 597.) Iona must be regarded as one of the greatest spiritual centers the world has known (although –in my view– the current architectural incarnation is cold, hard and grey as granite, and utterly removed in spirit from the original Iona idea.)

Europe of course had long since slipped into its Dark Age. Goths deposed the last Roman Emperor in 476, and Irish monks became keepers of the flame of Christianity and of Western Civilization. In his “How the Irish saved Civilization”, Thomas Cahill –he eschews the modifying “Western”– gives more time to Patrick, where I see Columcille’s role as very much more significant.

With Rome beset, the Celtic Church was on its own for almost 200 years. Pope Gregory I sought to bring it back into the fold: his emissary, Augustine, arrived in Thanet the year Columcille died (597). The Celtic Church was dealt a death-blow at the Synod of Whitby (664) by the “sly” and worldly St. Wilfrid. (He put down Columcille in the process.) In his will, Wilfrid would leave vast monies to his abbots to “purchase the friendship of kings and bishops”.
The Church takes a worldly turn.

BUT –the victors write the histories, and it may be that Jesuit-educated Cahill is overly influenced by approved versions. There are two such versions here: Church history, and the later English histories. Neither smiles on Celts.

Bede (673-735) thought the Celts wrong at Whitby, but he clearly loved, even preferred, their spirit. After Bede –famous author of a famous book, “An ecclesiastical history of the English people”– we have to wait 1200 years for historian Arnold Toynbee’s non-partisan assessment. It is startling. Listen to how he sums up the situation at the end of the sixth century:
“In the contest between Rome and Ireland for the privilege of becoming the creator of the new Western Civilization, Rome only just succeeded in gaining the upperhand.”

My “Columcille” book also tells the story of the Irish side of the “contest” with Rome.

I tell how Columcille saved poetry for Ireland at the Convention Of Druim Ceat (575). His liberal legacy enriches us to this day. In his defense of poetry and poets he urges us to “buy the more enduring story”. What a sophisticated, far-seeing, man he was, and what a debt we owe him!

Another special phrase from my book stays with me: it comes from Bede (who is popularly referred to as ‘The Venerable Bede’). He talks of St. Aidan –Columcille’s successor, and founder of Lindisfarne– as being of “outstanding moderation”, a description, clearly that he would also apply to Columcille.”


[At this point in my 1996 letter, it will become clear to the reader that the recent General Election season of 1996 had just come to an end –complete with all the attendant toxicities– and we all were feeling rather weary. And the situation in Northern Ireland was still unresolved.
The remainder of my excerpt –continued below– is self-explanatory.]

“OUTSTANDING MODERATION! How I ache for it! How the entire nation aches for it! (Or, at least, its benefits.) We have all just been through our quadrennial partisan political paroxysm, and what a polarizing and dispiriting exercise it was. And surely we can say that the will of the people is for less extremism and radicalism, and for a spirit of co-operation. Moderation and conciliation have become words of weakness and compromise: perhaps we can reconstitute them. Let us be outstandingly moderate.

I took my daughter Sion (actually she took me for my birthday) to see the movie “Michael Collins”. Such Hollywoodization! Had we gone into the wrong movie? “Die Hard in Dublin” with Bruce and Arnold?
Clearly the motivation of the director was for “Die Hard” crowds, with no special interest in Michael Collins.

For me it was a shock to see such cold ruthless viciousness run rampant in familiar Irish places, and a radical extremism that would not bend. That they still hold sway 80 years later left a bitter aftertaste. All in all, a sad “enduring story” –and, so far, apparently something less than “outstanding moderation”.

June 19th, 1997 will be the 1400th anniversary of Columcille’s feastday –an auspicious time for outstanding moderates to claim back the peace. (A Dayton peace?)”

[NOTE to the reader: The book, “Colum Cille: his life and times”, is still available, priced at twenty-four dollars. It is a handmade book. The text is by me, Malachi McCormick. It received excellent reviews, and won first prize at Bumbershoot Book Fair in Seattle.
When I showed it to Enda Cunningham of Cathach Books in Dublin, he ran his hand over the lovely texture of the cover, and after a minute or so, said in a voice hardly more than a whisper, “Why isn’t somebody doing this in Ireland?” A good question, Enda: let us go ask the Celtic Tiger.]

In conclusion, a brief word on behalf of small presses. My “Colum Cille” book was the only one published in the whole United States –large or small press– for Colum Cille’s 1400th anniversary. Concerning the economics of such a venture, it took me two years to complete the book, including about three months to do the calligraphy for the text. Altogether, over ten years, I have sold not quite one thousand copies.
Insane? Clearly! (By the way, you mean of course, “insane” not to support such a worthy enterprise, don’t you?)

BOOKS IRELAND, Ireland’s premier book review magazine, ran a review and a feature article by Shirley Kelly entitled “The Mantle of Columba” in their Summer 1997 issue, which I also intend to include here.

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