Saint Colman of Innisboffin

Saint Colman, known variously as of Innisboffin or Lindisfarne, founded an Abbey in the village of Mayo, which lies about six miles west of the town of Claremorris. He is the patron saint of the Roman Catholic church in Claremorris, and the ruins of an old chapel and graveyard, north of the town, also bore his name.

The following extract is from Volume I of The History of the Archdiocese of Tuam, by the Right Rev. Monsignor D'Alton (Dublin: The Phœnix Publishing Company, 1928):

  St. Colman of Inisboffin.

  Much larger than either of these islands [Arran and Cahir] is Inisboffin, which is associated with the name of St. Colman. The date and place of his birth are uncertain, but he was certainly Irish and and probably a Connaughtman. He was born in the early part of the seventh century, and was educated at Iona. From that monastery his fellow-countryman had gone to convert Northumbria, and to become abbot and bishop of Lindisfarne, and when Aidan's successor, Finan, died in 661, Colman became abbot and bishop. The paschal dispute was then agitated in Northumbria. Labouring side by side were the successors of St. Augustine, with their Roman traditions and Roman practices, and the Scots or Irish who came from Iona, and, refusing to follow the Alexandrian cycle, still clung to the antiquated method of computing Easter followed by St. Columba. To compose these differences and establish uniformity a synod was held at Whitby in 665. King Oswy was on the side of Colman, and on the other side was Wilfrid, afterwards Archbishop of York. The latter's arguments were so convincing that Oswy was converted, and the Synod followed where he led. But Colman would not submit, thinking that if he abandoned the ancient system he would be throwing aspersions on the memory of St. Columba. He therefore resigned the See of Lindisfarne, and taking with him the bones of his predecessor, Aidan, and accompanied by three monks, Irish and Saxon, who shared his views, he went back to Ireland.

  The place he selected was the desolate island of Innisboffin. The name of the island is derived from a weird legend, according to which a white cow came forth from an enchanted lake, and grazed from time to time on the scanty pasture around. Hence the name——Inis-bo-fin, the Island of the White Cow. It was a suitable place for an anchoret to dwell——bleak, desolate and lone——the sea-laden breezes sweeping over it, the waves lashing its sides, the soil too poor to afford man sufficient nourishment, which must necessarily be sought in the surrounding sea.

  The Saxon and Irish monks soon quarrelled; for, while the former sowed and reaped on the island, the Irish crossed to the mainland and stayed there during the summer and autumn, and then returned to Inisboffin, where, during the winter, they ate what others had sown and saved. St. Colman was so displeased with his own countrymen that he left Innisboffin, took with him the Saxons who had followed him from Lindisfarne, and having acquired a piece of land on the plains of Mayo, two miles from Balla, established a monastery there.

  The subsequent ecclesiastical history of Inisboffin is unimportant. There is a holy well sacred to the memory of St. Flannan, who must have visited the island and laboured there——perhaps in the time of St. Fechin; and in the townland of Knock are the remains of St. Colman's ancient church, and that is all.

  But Mayo became a great monastic establishment. St. Colman himself died there in 674, and after him came the celebrated man, St. Gerald, the son of a Saxon prince, who, like Colman, was abbot and bishop of Mayo. Adamnan visited him from Iona, and it is said that Alfred the Great sent his son to be educated at Mayo. And of Mayo was specially true what Bede writes: "Many of the nobility," he says, "and of the lower ranks of the English nation were there (in Ireland) who, forsaking their native land, retired thither, either for the sake of divine studies or of a more continent life; and some of them at once devoted themselves to study, going about from one monastic cell to another. The Irish willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, and also to furnish them with books to read, and gave them their teaching gratis." If this were true of other monasteries it was surely true of St. Colman's foundation, which owed its origin to one who had laboured long among the Saxons, who was accompanied to Mayo by Saxon monks, and who was succeeded by the Saxon-born St. Gerald. Hence was Mayo so much frequented by monks from across the Channel, and hence it came to be called Mayo of the Saxons.

Return to Claremorris and the parish of Kilcolman index page.
Return to Ireland - Local history notes index page.

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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