As any schoolchild in Donegal can tell you, Colmcille died on Iona on the ninth of June, 597AD. But Dan McCarthy, a senior lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, says it ain’t necessarily so.
Scholars have long regarded the dates in the Irish annals as unreliable, because of errors that crept into the record during copying over the centuries. However, the date of Colmcille’s death was seen as one of the few reliable events in sixth century history.
By matching references to famine and disease in the annals to the dendrochronologial record, Mr McCarthy has been trying to verify the dates in the annals. Dendrochronology is the study of tree rings, which provide a permanent record of the climate with narrow rings in poor years and wider rings in good times.
“Initially when I did the work on Colmcille’s death and it came out at 593AD, I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s different.’ But then I thought it might make an interesting topic, so I went back and read his biography, Vita Columbae, the Life of Colmcille, written by Adomnán (St Eunan). The second last chapter outlines the circumstances leading up to Colmcille’s death.
According to Adomnán, Colmcille says God had agreed he could die after thirty years in exile, but just as the angels were coming to take him, at the last moment they pause just across the Sound from Iona, because the churches had prayed for Colmcille to stay with them, so he gets a four year extension.
Mr McCarthy says that, as he saw how the Vita Columbae repeatedly emphasised the four-year delay, he realised what Adomnán was up to. A distant nephew of Colmcille, and his successor as Abbot of Iona, Adomnán wrote the biography to prove his relative was a great saint, and great saints traditionally die on Sunday, the holiest day of the week. But 9th June 593 was a Thursday. By adding four years to Colmcille’s life, his death would take place on a Sunday.
So why didn’t anyone notice Adomnán adding four years to Colmcille’s life? “Most of the annals don’t give an Anno Domini, that is one of the problems with them. They’ll say, the first of the year began on a Wednesday or something, and that’s it.
“The Anno Domini date has been added by later editors. Colmcille’s death is in the Vita, and while the English historian Bede, who is generally regarded as the great authority, doesn’t give the year, he gives other information, which makes it easy to figure out. This was thought of as an independent confirmation of the Vita.
“But Bede was working around twenty years after Adomnán died, and a close colleague of his, Egbert, was visiting Iona at the time, so I believe he got his information from Egbert, and he in turn would have been working from what Adomnán wrote.
Mr McCarthy presented his paper on Colmcille to a meeting of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies last year. He has previously published an article on the chronology of Bridget in the academic journal ‘Peritia’. He plans to publish his paper on Colmcille, but in the meantime has been distracted by his first vocation, working on high performance computer architecture in Trinity College Computer Science Department.
“I’m actually an electrical engineer, that’s my educational background, but I’ve been interested in chronology, and astronomy which relates to it, so I’ve been involved in chronological issues, and Irish chronological issues for some years now.
“As it happens, we have a number of the annals here in the College, which is great, I’ve been able to look at the primary documents, which is a great assistance. I certainly don’t see myself as going around setting everybody else straight about historical dates, but it is an interesting subject.”