In company with about 70 other local history buffs for the most part from Northern Ireland I visited the Island of Iona last weekend. A small rocky island in the Inner Habrides off the Island of Mull, Iona is famous as the place chosen by Colmcille to found his monastery when he left Ireland. The occasion of our visit was the 1400th anniversary of the death of the Saint who was the earliest and possibly the greatest of Ireland’s missionaries.
The Island itself is very small no more than 3 ½ miles long by 1 ½ miles wide and is difficult to access requiring three ferry crossings and lengthy road travel before it can be reached. Everywhere I go I always seek out the Athy connection but I am afraid that in Iona once the Christian centre of Europe I drew a blank. The bleak desolate place holds its secrets giving the visitor a mere sense of the monastic world where the manuscript known as the Book of Kells was started.
Iona is acknowledged to have a historical and religious importance out of proportion to its size and but for its inaccessibility it is likely have rivalled Rome as a place of pilgrimage. The whole Island of Iona is a monument to St. Colmcille as all visitors are enabled to identify places where the 7th Century Irish missionary Saint prayed and lived.
It was from Iona that monks travelled to the east coast of England to found that other famous monastic settlement of Lindisfarne. It is an extraordinary coincidence that following Viking attacks on both monasteries in the eighth and ninth centuries two world famous manuscripts ended up in Ireland. The Book of Kells now in Trinity College was begun in Iona and removed from there for safekeeping to the Monastery of Kells in Co. Meath where it was completed. Like it the Book of Durrow originated elsewhere and in its case in Lindisfarne from where it was brought to Ireland to escape the destructive forces of the Vikings.
The visit to Iona was remarkable for a number of reasons. Perhaps the composition of the group which made the long trip was especially significant on the weekend when Orangemen unfurled banners and nationalists prepared to resist. After all Protestants, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics and some of no professed religion at all came together to share in the experience of visiting what was once one of the greatest centres of the Irish Church. This was not a pilgrimage in the sense we normally use the word. There was no communal praying or mindless repetitive circling of rocks associated with the Saint mumbling quotas of Hail Marys before passing on to the next cairn. Instead there was quite reflective visits to the sites associated with St. Colmcille where differences of Church and creed melted away allowing everyone to reflect on a shared religious inheritance and of a time when the Irish Church re-christianed Europe. This was in sharp contrast with what was happening that weekend in the Northern part of the Irish mainland. The evangelizing spirit of the Irish has long gone to be replaced by bigotry and intolerance. Nowhere was this more sharply contradicted however, than within the group of “prods and tagues” who joined together on the trip to Iona. If such people can be brought together in a celebration of a shared history why is it that our neighbours cannot also do so remembering that we are all heirs to the wisdom of the past.
As my companions and I came of the ferry at Larne on Sunday night after returning from Iona our Northern Ireland friends concerned for our safety offered advice on how best to circumvent the troubled spots in Belfast and Newry. There we were five local history aficionados facing into the uncertain future much as did Colmcille when turning his back on Ireland to set out across the Irish sea. Instead of raging seas we faced enraged people who had scarred their own landscape in protest.
With a certain amount of trepidation we drove past Union Jacks hanging from first floor windows of Larne homes down the road to Belfast and Newry. The Northern capital was soon reached and passed without incident. Soldiers passed in armed vehicles and the empty streets gave only a hint of earlier trouble where rocks and glass littered the roadway especially at road junctions. The bypass at Newry was blocked by two burnt out articulated trucks. It was now almost nine o’clock at night but the streets were empty. It would not remain like that for long. The sloped side embankment offered a precarious route around the trucks but up ahead was a still blazing oil tanker mercifully not long enough to block the wide carriageway. A cautious but speedy exit over the crushed glass and stones permitted an early arrival at the border and the safety of the 26 counties.
What had started out as a reflective tour of Iona and its links with Ireland ended with a first hand experience of well known but little understood example of fractured community living in Northern Ireland. The experience of one was overshadowed by the other but somewhere within the weekend’s experience was preserved the hope that some time in the future we will all be able to join in the celebration of a common heritage and history. Maybe that is the secret of Scotland’s most historic site.