A Narrow Sea - Episode 05
The Dove of the Church
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
On Ulster’s north coast, built on a massive piece of basalt, broken away eons ago from the Antrim Plateau, stand the remains of an ancient fort, Dunseverick. Today it looks rather modest and unprepossessing but this was once the stronghold of the Kings of Dál Riata. This dynasty traced its ancestry from Fergus Mór mac Erc, who spearheaded the colonisation of lands on the other side of the North Channel and whose descendants would become rulers of Scotland.
From around 500AD to 850AD the Kingdom of Dál Riata flourished on both sides of the North Channel. On one side of the kingdom lay the island of Rathlin and the basalt cliffs of Antrim rising dramatically from the sea, bristling with hillforts. On the other side were the Mull of Kintyre, the many islands of the Inner Hebrides and the peninsulas of Argyll, with their purple heather clad mountains, thrusting into the sea. By the middle of the sixth century the Dál Riata kings had made Dunadd, in the heart of Argyll, their capital. Here at the southern end of Kilmartin Glen above Lochgilphead, stands a great rock rising 54 metres from the flat floor of the valley - roughly the height of the dome on Belfast City Hall. On this rock are the impressive remains of a mighty stronghold with stone dwellings, storehouses and workshops, defended by four massive circular embankments.
At Dunadd crucibles for melting gold, silver and bronze, along with moulds for casting brooches, have been found in what was clearly a thriving royal capital. Here the kings of Dál Riata were inaugurated in the traditional Irish manner. The Gaelic way was not to crown kings but, in a symbolic way, to marry them to their kingdoms. At Dunadd the candidate for the throne proved himself worthy by climbing the great rock and placing his foot in a footprint carved on a smooth and level shelf just below the summit, successive waves of visitors have worn away the original footprint and it has now been replaced by a replica.
The Gaelic rulers of Dál Riata steadily expanded their territory at the expense of their neighbours – they chivvied the Picts to the north and east and took land from the Angles of the kingdom of Northumbria who, at that time, were expanding northwards along the east coast to the Firth of Forth. The Britons of Strathclyde also lost ground year after year to both the kingdoms of Northumbria and Dál Riata. These Strathclyde Britons were Christians but the Picts and the Angles had their own gods. It was to be from Dál Riata that the Gospel would be brought, first to the Picts and, soon after, to the Angles of the kingdom of Northumbria.
Christianity had been brought to the south of Ireland from Roman Britain and Gaul by traders and evangelists. But the main credit for bringing Christianity to most of Ireland, particularly the northern half of the island, must go to the man we now know as St Patrick. He was not yet sixteen when Irish pirates seized him from Bannaventum Taburniae, a Romanised town somewhere in western Britain. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Patrick was a Strathclyde Briton. After six years he escaped, but many years later he returned to evangelise the Irish. By the time of Patrick’s death, towards the end of the fifth century, Ireland possessed a flourishing Christian Church. Some of these Irish converts settled across the North Channel and were eager to spread the Gospel to their new neighbours.
The man who launched the mission to evangelise the Picts was an Uí Néill prince of Ulster, Colmcille or, in Latin, Columba, which means ‘dove of the Church’. Born at Gartan in Donegal, Colmcille studied to become a monk under Finnian at Movilla in County Down and at Clonard on the Boyne, before returning to build his own monastery at Derry in 546. Soon he was launching a vigorous evangelising mission across the North Channel. The Dál Riata king, Aedán macGabráin, granted him the island of Iona and here Colmcille built a monastery capable of housing 150 monks, scholars and novices. This in time would become the most famous centre of Christian learning in the Celtic world.
Meanwhile the Picts were sinking their differences and uniting under an able ruler, King Bruide. For a time Bruide threatened to overwhelm the Dal Riata kingdom created in his country by Irish interlopers. The king of Dál Riata turned to Colmcille – surely this high-born churchman, who could draw on impressive resources, would mobilise the help urgently needed? Colmcille organised a conference at Drum Ceit at Mullagh near Derry in 575. Here a pact was sealed in which the Uí Néill of Tír Conaill agreed to give military assistance to Dál Riata against the Picts. In view of this pact, it is all the more remarkable that Colmcille was to persuade King Bruide to allow him to preach to his people.