Columbanus was born in Leinster circa 543AD and after spending time studying at Cleenish on Lough Erne arrived at Bangor Abbey around 558AD to study under the Abbey’s founder St Comgall.
He remained at Bangor for some 30 years and whilst here it is thought he composed some of his poetry which often focused on nature and the universe.
It was in 591AD that Columbanus left Bangor for Europe along with his fellow Saints, including St Gall who would go on to establish what is now the city of St Gallen in Switzerland.
The group first landed in Burgundy and worked their way through France establishing monasteries at Annegray and Luxeuil both drawing on the austere rule and life style of Bangor Abbey.
After falling foul of the authorities in France and being exiled the group travelled up the Rhine River to Lake Constance. Firstly a settlement was formed in Bregenz, Bangor’s twin town, before moving on to what is now Switzerland where the most famous settlement was by Gall with the foundation of what is now St Gallen.
Gall would remain in Switzerland, after a disagreement with Columbanus, while Columbanus moved on to Italy, firstly Milan in 613AD before soon settling in Bobbio close to Milan where he established his last monastery and where he would stay until his death in 615AD. Bobbio also became the resting place of the Bangor Antiphonary for centuries. The book created c.690 in Bangor was based on the rules of Comgall and Columbanus, told through prayers, hymns and poems. Cardinal Borromeo took the book from Bobbio Abbey in the 17th Century to create the Ambrosian Library, Milan where it has been ever since.
Not only did Columbanus play a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity in mainland Europe but his importance both here and in Europe has been recognised in that he was the first person to use the term “European”, was notably our first “man of Letters”, famous for his poetry, and was the first Irish man of whom a biography was written, by fellow Monk, Jonas.
The cities and regions across Europe where his memory still lives have recently come together to create a Cultural Route, “The Columban Way”, an association based on exchange and mutual understanding.
You can find out more about St Columbanus, and read some of his sermons, on the Friends of Columbanus website.