I was first introduced to Saint Columbanus more than 50 years ago by Dr Emery the music teacher at Bangor Grammar. I can still recall the words of our school song although like most of my classmates I hadn’t a clue what it was all about.
Comgall noster, Columbanus,
Sanctus noster, Gall, Britannos
Although we sang boldly about Comgall, Gall and Columbanus the significance of Bangor Abbey and our Christian heritage managed to escape me.
Columbanus next came to my attention during a Council meeting more than 20 years later. I had just sat through another boring debate on how we could prevent dog fouling when the Town Clerk tabled a letter from the parish priest of the Kolumban Church in Bregenz. This raised my interest as we rarely get letters from parish priests and in particular not one from a place of which I had never heard.
It appeared the Prelate Albert Holenstein was building a new church and he wanted to include a stone from Bangor in the foundations to recognise the origins of its founder.
A suitable two ton stone was identified in the Long Hole and in November 1984 with due ceremony it was loaded onto a lorry to travel a thousand miles to Bregenz in Austria. It was seen off by civic dignitaries including the Mayor of North Down Rev McConnell Auld, Canon Leckey of Bangor Abbey and Father Lavery P.P of Saint Comgalls. This would eventually lead to a twinning between Bangor and Bregenz.
This sparked my interest in Columbanus and I began to research the history of Bangor and the monastery which had been renowned throughout Europe for its learning and scholarship. I was not aware of its importance as a religious centre in the sixth century I was also surprised at the influence of the many monks like Columbanus who set out from Bangor Abbey to revive Christianity in Europe. This interest convinced me that someday I should follow Columbanus to Bregenz to see again the stone removed from the Long Hole.
More than 20 years passed before I had the opportunity to fulfill this wish. We were discussing of details of a forthcoming visit by a party of students from Bregenz when I finally decided that I would go there during the summer holidays. As a Green person I had previously turned down opportunities to visit our twin town because I would not fly but the summer holidays would give me ample time to visit Bregenz.
For the past decade my summer holidays had involved the purchase of a15 day interrail pass and wandering round Europe with the back packing generation. This was a low carbon environmentally friendly way to travel.
Normally we would not plan a route but merely board the first train leaving the station each morning regardless of whether it was going to Barcelona, Geneva or Milan.
This was the ideal opportunity to combine my interest in rail travel to my new found interest in Columbanus which had been reinforced by my appointment to the Board of Governors of Saint Columbanus’ College. So instead travelling aimlessly across Europe this year we had a definite itinery –to follow the footsteps of Columbanus from Bangor to Bregenz and finally to Bobbio where he died in 615.
July arrived and I set out with my wife Anne to follow the footsteps of the famous old Bangorian. Some residents would dispute this term and suggest he was merely a blow in as he lived in the town for less than 30 years.
Scholars differ on how and when Saint Columbanus left Bangor and travelled to France. It is thought that he travelled first to Scotland and then through England but some would argue he sailed down the coast of England and landed in Cornwall where there are two villages named after him.
However it is agreed that he left Bangor with twelve companions and arrived on the coast of Brittany around 586.
Our journey to Brittany was much quicker. An overnight voyage on Norse Irish Ferries to Birkenhead. A ten minute journey by Merseyrail to Lime Street station and two hours later we arrived in London Euston. A fifteen minute tube ride to Waterloo Station and then a two hour journey to Portsmouth. We took the overnight ferry by Brittany Ferries and by eight o’clock the next morning we were sailing into the beautiful walled city of St. Malo.
Less than 36 hours after leaving Bangor we had arrived on the coast of Brittany. One can only imagine how long the same trip took Saint Columbanus and his colleagues fourteen centuries ago.
Columbanus clearly had a lasting impact on Brittany. On the beach near St Malo there is a large cross commemorating his arrival and further down the coast at Carnac there is a village with a shrine and a church named after him.
My first destination was the small town of St Coulomb about four miles from St Malo on the road to Cancale. On a previous holiday we hired a gite in Cancale and I had passed through the town on a number of occasions but at that time I was not aware of its Columbanus connection.
Some years later the North Down council gave a civic reception for tourists from Brittany who were visiting Bangor because of the Columbanus link. I met a man who introduced himself as the mayor of St Coulomb and then I realized I had visited his town and beautiful beach a few years previously. I felt therefore that I should revisit the town as part of the Saint Columbanus trail.
We left St Coulomb and arrived back in St Malo for lunch .We then used our interrail tickets for the first time. As Columbanus travelled from Brittany to Burgundy we set off for Dijon the capital of Burgundy on the SCNF. This was a journey of 430 miles and involved changes at Rennes and Paris. Altogether it took just over six hours with the TGV reaching speeds of 200 miles an hour as it sped through the heart of France and the gently sloping and vine covered hills of Burgundy.
We arrived in Dijon just after eight o’clock and headed to our favorite restaurant in the town square. Although Burgundy is famous for its gastronomic delights I confined myself to steak and chips although Anne was more adventurous.
Although Columbanus spent some years in Burgundy I have not found any reference to him visiting Dijon. Dijon is one of my favorite French cities having first visited it as a student in the early sixties so I decided to indulge myself and spend a few days there and take the opportunity to visit the nearby historic wine centre of Beaune.
On day five we set off for Luxeuil-les-Bains. Columbanus founded the monastery in Luxeuil around 590 AD and it became the model for many new monastic foundations. He lived there for almost twenty years and it soon became known as the greatest school in Europe and attracted sons of nobility from many countries.
To reach Luxeuil we travelled from Dijon to Besancon a beautiful city of art and history. Columbanus was imprisoned here for some time before he and the other monks from Ireland were banished for criticizing King Theodoric and condemning the nobles for their immoral ways.
The journey from Besancon to Luxeuil took two and half hours into the Vogues mountains through an area of woods and lakes. It is easy to understand why Columbanus decided to establish his monastery in this beautiful and peaceful place.
Following their banishment from Luxeuil the Irish monks were taken to Nantes and put on a boat for Ireland but soon a storm broke out and they were set ashore. Instead of returning to Luxeuil Columbanus and his fellow monks travelled up the Rhine to Switzerland and Austria to evangelize the Alemanni.
In 610 they settled at Bregenz on Lake Constance where Columbanus founded his monastery in the ruined Roman settlement of Brigantium.
Therefore on leaving Luxeuil we headed to Bregenz. This involved five changes in the train. First at Belfort then at Mulhouse, then into Switzerland to Basel, and the intercity to Zurich then from Zurich to St Gallen.
We decided to pause at St Gallen and visit the famous Abbey of St. Gall one of the richest medieval libraries in the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is named after Gall who accompanied Columbanus from Bangor to Bregenz but when Columbanus left for Italy Gall moved to Switzerland and set up a hermitage at the site of the present Abbey.
Following an afternoon in the Abbey and its wonderful library we returned to the train and 45 minutes later we arrived in Bregenz.
The following day we set out early to head for St Kolumban church. On the map it seemed no distance at all but when we arrived more than two hours later we were totally exhausted. It must have been the warmest day of the year and the climb from town centre seemed like the ascent of Slieve Donard. However on our arrival at the church we soon found the stone with its inscription in German and English.
“Rock from the seashore of Bangor (Ireland) From there the Irish saint Columban came to the destroyed Roman settlement of Brigantium as missionary, where he taught the Christian faith with the help of God to our forbears around the years 610 to 612 before he proceeded to Bobbio (Italy)”
We spent a few days in Bregenz .Anne acted as guide as she had previously visited the town when she was mayor. It certainly lived up to all expectations particularly the floating stage on Lake Constance which is used by its world-famous festival. It was most spectacular.
In 612 because of war and political changes Columbanus was forced to leave Bregenz. With the majority of his disciples he crossed the Alps into Italy. He remained in Milan for some time until the king of the Lombards granted him permission to build a monastery at Bobbio in the Apennine Mountains where the Bobbio and Trebbia rivers meet and where there was an abundance of fish.
At Bobbio the saint repaired the half-ruined church of St. Peter, and erected his celebrated abbey, which for centuries was the stronghold of orthodoxy in Northern Italy.
So on leaving Bregenz we headed for Milan. This required a trip back into Switzerland to St Gallen a connection to Berne and then intercity to Milano Centrale. The journey took just under 7 hours compared with Columbanus’s’ of many weeks.
From Milan we headed to Bobbio which is about 70 miles to the south in the valley of the Trebbia. To reach Bobbio we got a train from Milan station and travelled through the valley to Piacenza. There, after some difficulty we managed to get a bus which took us on the long winding road up the mountain to Bobbio.
The town itself is a popular tourist destination known for its past of art culture and monuments and by nature lovers and sports enthusiasts.
However Bobbio is known throughout Europe for its famous Abbey founded by Saint Columbanus. Having visited the Abbey and signed the visitor’s book we returned to the crypt where Columbanus was laid to rest. Our pilgrimage was over and we still had five days to use our interrail pass and experience the sights of Northern Italy.
No one could ever have predicted that more than fourteen hundred years after Columbanus left Bangor that four hundred Friends of Saint Columbanus from many parts of Europe would be gathering in Bangor for a Columbani Festival.