Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Carmen de Hiberniae insula

Alexander O’Hara in his excellent translation and study of Jonas of Bobbio’s Vita Columbani notes that this seventh century account of the wandering Irish pilgrim Columbanus opens with a citation from the earliest poem about Ireland, the Carmen de Hiberniae insula. Jonas was not the author of this poem, rather it was written by an Irishman most probably a disciple of Columbanus in the late sixth or early seventh century.

The poem Carmen de Hiberniae insula
in Codex S Gall 533, folio 12 
We can tell that the poem is of Irish provenance because of the poem’s peculiar style of Latin, namely the flamboyant style employed by Irish monks and known to scholars as Hisperic Latin. In addition the poem refers to the western coast of Ireland as something known first-hand to the author. This is certainly not true of Jonas of Bobbio, an Italian monk who never visited Ireland. So where did Jonas come across this poem?

Jonas was a monk in the Irish monastery at Bobbio in northern Italy, a monastery established by Columbanus in 614. Jonas entered the monastery shortly after Columbanus’ death in 615, and as O’Hara notes, he was “influenced by his monastic formation at Bobbio, where he would have come into contact with Columbanus’s Irish monks, who had travelled with the saint following their expulsion from Burgundy in 610. In a multi-ethnic community such as Bobbio the Irish members of the community could voice their own perception of their island home as opposed to the liminal and pejorative views of classical ethnographers” (O’Hara, 308). 

Classical geographers and their successors in late antiquity generally had very little to say about Ireland, and what they did say was usually negative, tales of cannibalism and barbarism etc. What stands out in the Carmen de Hiberniae insula is that the poet has nothing to say about his fellow Irishmen and women, its the island itself, the land of his birth, its climate and her ocean view that he seeks to describe and remember. His theme is the rugged Atlantic seaboard, the wild Atlantic way if you will. The poet knows the western coast of Ireland well, which may suggest he was from the west of Ireland. Could he even have been a Clare man? His Ireland lies at the end of the world, battered by monster waves and ocean swells. A land of the setting sun.

Coming from Ireland to the European mainland in the early medieval period was in the words of Columbanus “coming from the world’s end” (de extremo mundo) (Ep. 5.7). Columbanus himself could also wax lyrical about Ireland as the edge of the inhabited world, an island on the periphery but still within God's plan of salvation. In his letter to Pope Boniface in 613 he described the Gospel's first arrival to Ireland as coming on the chariot of God which came racing over the seas from Rome “over the dolphin’s backs over the swelling flood, [and] reached even unto us” (Ep. 5.11). Here Columbanus was probably referring to Rome sending Palladius to Ireland as its first bishop in 431 (years before St. Patrick later came on the scene).

Columanus and his fellow monks
from Codex S Gall 602, folio 33
In chiding Pope Boniface for his failure to lead the Church and his divergence from orthodoxy - as Columbanus understood it - he employed metaphors of the ocean and its waves breaking over the swamped curragh that is the Church. In the mind of Columbanus the crisis of the Tri-Capitoline Schism that he waded into in northern Italy was no rogue wave, it was a full blown tempest.

“Watch, for the sea is stormy and whipped up by fatal blasts, for it is not a solitary threatening wave such as, even across a silent ocean, is raised to overweening heights from the ever-foaming eddies of a hollow rock, though it swells from afar, and drives the sails before it while Death walks the waves, but it is a tempest of the entire element, surging indeed and swollen upon every side, that threatens shipwreck of the mystic vessel… For all we Irish, inhabitants of the world's edge, are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul and of all the disciples who wrote the sacred canon by the Holy Ghost, and we accept nothing outside the evangelical and apostolic teaching” (Ep. 5.2).

A with that, here’s the poem on the island of Ireland, the Carmen de Hiberniae insula

The island of Ireland situated at the far end of the ocean, 
and there it awaits the setting of the sun while the world is turning, 
and light descends into the sea in the western shadows.

There the huge mountains of waves, wild in colour, 
with profuse snaking locks, beat everywhere on the caves, 
and there, in a cloak that its blue backs suddenly reveal, 
they strike the foamy seashores, the final curve of the land, 
and do not allow the coast that we know well to release a small questing boat into the salt-swell. 

Above these, yellow haired Titan descends and, 
with dimmed light wheeling, heads for the regions of [the star] Arcturus.
Following the North Wind, he seeks his rising place in the East, 
so that, revived, he may give back a pleasant light to the world, 
and, with fire, show himself far and wide to the shivering world. (O’Hara, 95)

Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Réomé, and Life of Vedast. Alexander O'Hara and Ian Wood. Liverpool University Press, 2017.

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