Cul Dreimhne – The Battle of the Book


What do you think of when you think of monks? Silent hooded figures praying in a shadowed cloister perhaps? Or the ethereal sound of Gregorian chant? You probably don’t think of a violent battle leaving thousands of dead and dying strewn on a blood-soaked field. Yet this is part of the story of a famous Irish monk named Colmcille, or Saint Columba. His Gaelic name means dove of the church, but Colmcille was far from a dove of peace when it came to Cul Dreimhne, the Battle of the Book. I heard about this strange episode in Irish history while staying in the village of Drumcliffe north of Sligo, in sight of the slopes of Ben Bulben where the sixth century Battle of the Book was fought. Colmcille instigated the battle in the aftermath of a legal dispute that is the first recorded case of copyright law.

Saint Columba IonaAbbey
St. Columba, window at Iona Abbey

According to a contemporary Colmcille was “a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another.” He was born to a royal family and educated at Movilla Abbey in Ulster, a great center of learning under Saint Finnian. In his early twenties he entered the monastery of Clonard. The sixth century was a period of rapid growth for the Christian faith in Ireland. Colmcille was one of the monks known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, all educated by Finnian. They traveled the country preaching the gospel and founding abbeys and churches.

The Irish monks are also famous for their role in collecting, copying, and preserving important manuscripts of the ancient world, both religious and secular. There is a wonderful account of this in Thomas Cahill’s bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization. Monks spent long hours in the scriptorium painstakingly copying out the ancient texts, often by candlelight. It could take weeks or months to complete a single copy, especially when embellished with the decorative illuminations we treasure so much today. It is estimated that Colmcille himself copied over 300 books during his lifetime. But one of these copies would lead to a clash with his former teacher Finnian.

St. Finnian, detail of baptismal font at Clonard Abbey

In the year 540 Finnian returned from a visit to Rome bringing with him a copy of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, the first to reach Ireland. Finnian planned to translate the Latin into Gaelic. But Colmcille had the same idea. Somehow he managed to get hold of the book without Finnian’s knowledge and secretly made his own copy. When Finnian found out he was enraged and demanded the book and the copy be returned to him. Colmcille refused. To end the standoff between the two hardheaded monks Finnian petitioned Diarmat mac Cerbaill, the High King of Ireland. In the hearing Finnian claimed that since he owned the original he also owned the copy. For his part Colmcille argued that “It is not right that the divine words in that book should perish, or that I or any others should be hindered from writing them or reading them or spreading them among the tribes.” 

But Diarmat decided the case in Finnian’s favor with these memorable words:

“To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”

It is ironic that Diarmat chose this metaphor, or perhaps he did it deliberately, for both the book and its copy were written on vellum, the skin of a calf. So the concept of copyright was born.

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In the background the slopes of Ben Bulben, County Sligo, where the Battle of the Book was fought.

But Colmcille refused to accept the King’s verdict and held onto his copy. It turned out he had other reasons to defy Diarmait. He objected to the King’s use of a Druid advisor instead of a Christian, and was outraged when the King violated sanctuary in a case involving one of his own relatives. Curnan, a prince of Connaught, had accidentally killed another player in a hurling match. (Yes, Irish sports can be dangerous). The young man sought sanctuary with Colmcille but Diarmait sent his henchmen to take revenge. They dragged Curnan out of the church and brutally hacked him to death. In 561 Colmcille decided to resolve matters by war, enlisting the help of his powerful clan, the O’Neills. He may have been a monk, but he did not shrink from battle, leading a force of 2,300 men. On the eve of the fighting at Ben Bulben Diarmait prepared with a Druid ritual, while Colmcille spent the night in prayer. It was said that the Archangel Michael appeared and led him into battle. Whether it was the Archangel or the overwhelming numbers on Colmcille’s side, by the end of the Battle of the Book he was triumphant and 3,000 men lay dead. What he could not secure in law he had secured by force. He kept his copy.

6th century ruins of an altar at the Abbey of St. Molaise on Inishmurray

The violence appalled Church leaders and they held Colmcille responsible. A synod of abbots and bishops banished him from Ireland, but the ever-stubborn monk was reluctant to accept this punishment. He traveled to Inishmurray to consult with his Confessor, Saint Molaise, who had founded an abbey on the remote island. Molaise affirmed the sentence, adding that Colmcille should atone by converting as many souls to Christianity as he had killed. Colmcille left his beloved homeland with twelve disciples in a small boat made of wicker and hides. As they crossed the Irish Sea he composed a plaintive song of farewell to Ireland:

How swift is the speed of my coracle;
Its stern turned to Derry;
I grieve at my errand o’er the noble sea,
Traveling to Alba of the ravens.
My foot in my good little oracle,
My sad heart still bleeding:
Weak is the man who cannot lead;
Totally blind are all the ignorant.
A grey eye looks back to Erin,
A grey eye full of tears;
It shall never see again
The men of Erin nor their wives.
While I stand on the deck of my barque
I stretch my vision o’er the briny sea,
Westwards to Erin.

The exiles landed on the Scottish island of Iona where Colmcille, who would in future be known as Columba, established a monastery and began his legendary conversion of the Picts and Scots. About a hundred years later, Adamnan, then the Abbott of Iona, wrote the first life of Saint Columba. In the grand tradition of medieval hagiographies, it is an account of the many miracles and wonders attributed to him:

“He alone, by the assistance of God, expelled from this our island innumerable hosts of malignant spirits, whom he saw with his bodily eyes assailing himself, and beginning to bring deadly distempers on his monastic brotherhood. Partly by mortification, and partly by a bold resistance, he subdued, with the help of Christ, the furious rage of wild beasts. The surging waves, also, at times rolling mountains high in a great tempest, became quickly at his prayer quiet and smooth, and his ship, in which he then happened to be, reached the desired haven in a perfect calm.”

In one legend Columba is said to have confronted the Loch Ness monster while it was attacking a man. Columba made the sign of the cross and ordered the monster to depart. According to Adamnan

“it fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes… and even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.”

Despite these impressive miracles and his assiduous missionary work Columba could not completely overcome his quarrelsome nature. In Scotland he was involved in another battle, this time with Saint Comgall over who owned the church at Colethem. But by the time he died in 597 he had more than fulfilled his promise to bring as many souls to Christ as he had killed in the Battle of the Book.

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Fragment of the Cathach, now in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

As for Colmcille’s troublesome book copy, it remained in Ireland in the possession of his allies the O’Donnells. In keeping with its origins it was named the Cathach, or Battler, and for centuries the clan chieftains carried it around the field three times on the eve of battle as a talisman for victory . Though some scholars now doubt it is Colmcille’s work, forensic evidence does date it to the sixth century making it the oldest surviving manuscript written, or should we say copied, in Ireland.

Saint Columba’s burial place on Iona became a center of pilgrimage, but when Viking raids disturbed the peace of Iona in the 9th century his bones were returned home to Ireland. He is remembered as the patron saint of both Ireland and Scotland, and most fittingly, of bookbinders.

To visit Ben Bulben, Inishmurray, and other historical sites in Ireland check out Wild West Irish Tours.

2 thoughts on “Cul Dreimhne – The Battle of the Book

  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say fantastic blog!


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