The Dove, the Book and the Black Bear (For Saint Columba of Iona)

Today’s poem recognises Saint Columba, the Irish missionary to Scotland about whom much has been said, many churches and schools named and to whom much praise has been, wrongly, given – wrongly because he was just a man. Still, there seems value in looking at aspects of his life and perhaps to take some warning from how he has been interpreted and appropriated in the 1500 years since he lived. Credit for the epigraph goes to Logismoi for providing the translation to an old Celtic poem about Columba.

The Dove, the Book and the Black Bear (For Saint Columba of Iona)
On the loud sea he cried to the King who rules thousands,
who rules the plain above cleared fields, kings and countries.
In the Trinity’s care he sought a ship—good his leaving—
on high with God, who always watched him, morning, evening.
(Beccán mac Luigdech, Tiugraind Beccáin, trans. Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus)
Though prayer, we’re told, consumed his mind,
And often he would go for days, for nights,
Without any food save the Word and prayer;
Though, so Saint Adomnán claims, an angel
In demeanour, blameless, pure-minded, chaste,
They say a violent war was waged
When he wrote Saint Finnian’s Psalter
Out by hand, and many died,
Fighting sword for pen to free
And to defend the Word he took;
And so he sailed to Scotland, set
To save as many as had died.
A noble penance, perhaps, and now
He is a saint of information which
Longs, they say, always to be free;
And in other tales he slew
Water beasts and calmed wild storms,
And delivered his isle, Iona,
From all hell and its demons;
At times a dove, others a bear.
Some say he knew such things as only
Can be counted by one who holds
Orion, Pleiades and the Bear
Numbered on his hands; and though
Hyperbole, we fly far from the point
To say such things of one who, at best,
Looked in awe at stars and knew
Himself too weak to know it all;
The true dove flees when we bow
Before one made, like us, of clay.
If we look for a dove, fighting with
The strength of a bear, quelling storms
And saving lands, look no further than
The words Columba stole, for he at best
Can but imitate what has already been said in full.

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