Colmán of Cloyne: a study

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 12

Colmán of Cloyne: a study
Paul MacCotter
(Four Courts Press, €30)
ISBN 1 851 827935


36_small_1246274520Colmán mac Léinín, credited with the foundation of the sixth-century monastery of Cluain Uama, Cloyne, Co. Cork, has been rather neglected by modern scholarship. Paul MacCotter speculates that the absence of an extant Vita, if one was ever written, may largely explain the lack of attention in recent times—the latest work of substance on the subject goes back to James Coleman in 1910. This long-overdue revisitation of the saint is warranted for several reasons. While the contents—the historical and cultic figure of Colmán—are more than justified, MacCotter further cites the considerable advances in the standards of scholarship of early Irish ecclesiastical historiography in the past century, particularly within the last generation. He admittedly relies upon the research of Etchingham, Ó Corráin, Ó Riain and Sharpe. MacCotter also confesses that his revisit of Colmán is an attempt to redress the local imbalance caused by the abundant attention that the patron of the neighbouring diocese, Finbarr of Cork, has received in recent years. In the end, MacCotter’s investigation of Colmán succeeds on two fronts. While providing the larger field of early Irish church studies with a thorough monograph on one of its important but hitherto neglected figures, Colmán of Cloyne: a study offers an invaluable contribution to the regional history of the diocese of Cloyne.

As is typical of early Irish church history, MacCotter’s study on Colmán is circumscribed by the availability and quality of extant sources. MacCotter argues that the textual record convincingly testifies to the historical authenticity of the saint. Meagre though they may be, the sources, MacCotter points out, are far more abundant and credible than those for most other saints, including Finbarr of Cork! The author starts by systematically laying out the received picture of the historiography of Colmán before putting to rest its many legendary elements, including his associations with Brendan of Clonfert. Having expunged these errors, MacCotter believes that the remaining historical core will not only ‘survive scrutiny’ but can be supplemented by previously unnoticed material. While he perhaps overstates the case that the result ‘leads us to a picture of a much more interesting saint to that painted heretofore’, his point is well made. Three modest chapters—focusing on his family origins, his relationship with Coirpre mac Crimthainn, king of Munster, and his function as poet (fili) and monk (athláech)—are then devoted to establishing the historical authenticity and character of the saint. The arguments are largely dependent upon various genealogical snippets, annals and martyrologies, as well as the historico-literary text Conall Corc and the Corco Luigde.

In summary, MacCotter concludes the following about the historic person of Colmán Mac Léinín. He belonged to a branch of the Cattraige, who occupied the hinterland of Emly. He may have been raised nominally as a Christian. He was educated as a fili, suggesting that he came from a family of some social standing. After a career as a successful fili, he entered the religious life. At some stage he formed a relationship with the king of Munster, who granted him land in several locations in Munster on which to found ecclesiastical establishments. His chief ecclesiastical foundation and presumed burial-place was at Cloyne, where a school of poetry may have survived him. He died on 24 November sometime around AD 600.

While the historic authenticity of Colmán is convincingly argued, the overall paucity of these sources determines both the methodology and the structure of Colmán of Cloyne. MacCotter seeks to place the study of Colmán in its proper socio-political context; however, since the source material for south Munster is particularly poor, he is forced to apply insights from some other regions of Ireland, ‘bearing in mind the marked cultural and religious homogeneity of Early Gaelic Ireland’. He is partial to the views of Etchingham, who challenges the traditional picture of dispersed monastic paruchia or fairche in the early Irish church. In certain instances, the paruchia ‘has been shown to correspond to an episcopal sphere of pastoral jurisdiction and in general, if not exclusively, would appear to have been geographically cohesive’. MacCotter advocates this model of geographical cohesion in his study of Colmán and his subsequent area of influence.

While taking on board the initial question of Colmán’s historicity, the greater part of the book’s structure is actually devoted to Colmán’s reception as a cult figure and patron. Thus, besides looking at the literary evidence of the cult, the book devotes a chapter to the Eóganacht Glennamnach, the initial promoters of the cult. The last third of the book presents the subsequent history of the church of Cluain Uama, the diocese of Cloyne, and the legacy of Colmán mac Léinín. Although the emphasis is on the period between the ninth and twelfth centuries, the final chapter brings the discussion well into the modern era. The overall result is that the book is more orientated towards the geographical paruchia of Cloyne and the subsequent Anglo-Norman diocese than towards the persona of the saint himself.

The book, a modest 152 pages, contains four useful maps, an extensive bibliography and a substantial general index. The appendices include a list of the bishops of south Munster before AD 1000 and the distribution of the cults of Colmán and Finbarr of Cork, and are punctuated by a new translation of the poems of Colmán by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. MacCotter’s Colmán of Cloyne: a study makes an important contribution to the ever-increasing standards of early Irish ecclesiastical historiography and contains an impressive compendium of sources pertaining to the developmental history of the diocese of Cloyne.
Rodney Aist


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