Scientists Discover A Saint’s Cell

I haven’t seen this story widely reported in the Catholic press, but it’s definitely worth sharing: scientists believe that they have found the scriptorium or “writing room” of St. Columba, one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity.

St. Columba (521-597 A.D.) is known as one of the “Apostles of Ireland”, and you can read a more thorough biography of him by following this link. He lived the second half of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, where he founded a hugely influential monastic community in which he served as Abbott. He spent a great deal of time during the day writing and praying in his scriptorium, which was really just a little wooden hut that he built on a rocky mound overlooking the Abbey.

Not everything on Iona was contemplative, however. St. Columba and his companions also worked actively to expand their community to become a training center for missionaries to the many pagan tribes that dominated much of the British Isles during this period. In addition, the monks at Iona not only chronicled much of early Irish history, and preserved ancient texts for their library that would otherwise have been lost to us, but they are believed by many historians to have created the famous Book of Kells, with its lavish and strange Celtic decorations.

After St. Columba’s death, the spot where his scriptorium was located was given the name “Tòrr an Aba” (“Abbot’s Mound”), but at some point the wooden building itself burned down. The aforementioned Vikings pillaged Iona multiple times in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, so it is probable that the humble hut was torched during one of those raids. Eventually the site was covered with pebbles taken from the beach, most likely as a way to deliberately mark the location.

As noted in this (very thorough) explanation of the discovery, while there is no way to be 100% sure that the archaeological remains are in fact those of St. Columba’s hut, this is just about as close to certainty as you can get. The combination of tradition, documentation, and now, carbon dating, all point to this being where St. Columba did his work. It may well be that some of the hymns written by or attributed to him, some of which are still sung today, were written here.

One such hymn with which you may be familiar comes from composer Benjamin Britten. For the 1400th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona, Britten was commissioned to set one of the saint’s hymns to new music. While more commonly known as “A Hymn to Saint Columba”, the proper title of St. Columba’s composition is its first line in Latin, “Regis regum rectissimi”. You can read the text in both Latin and in an English translation of it by following this link – although with all due respect to St. John’s Cambridge, I find this translation slightly unsatisfactory in that it downplays the key phrase which is also the title of the hymn.

Be that as it may, given that we now know where St. Columba sat and wrote hymns such as these, I suspect that many choir directors and choral groups are going to want to perform some of these works, including Britten’s, at the very spot where they were first written, nearly 15 centuries ago.

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>Dublin’s Secret Castle

>One of the joys of developing an appreciation of architecture is that it allows us to combine a number of disciplines together; not just the actual engineering and methods involved but also, in many cases, history, archaeology, etc. Such is the case with a structure which I wanted to highlight for you this St. Patrick’s Day, gentle reader, namely Ashtown Castle in Dublin. While dating from long after the time of the great apostle to the Irish people, this building is an intriguing and charming example of what can be found hiding in plain sight.

Ashtown Castle has an uncertain history, but it was certainly built sometime well before the year 1600; there is some evidence to indicate that it may originally have been built around 1430. Never a particularly important residence, it passed through many hands and underwent various renovations until 1774, when it was literally subsumed into the fabric of a new, Georgian building called Ashtown Lodge. In other words, the old structure was not torn down, but rather a new building was built around it. Ashtown Castle effectively vanished, to lay forgotten for over two hundred years.

The Neoclassical Ashtown Lodge was used as the official residence of the British Under Secretary for Ireland for many years, until it was leased to the Vatican in the 1920’s to serve as the residence of the Papal Nuncio. In 1978 structural engineers determined that the Lodge was suffering from an irreparable case of dry rot. This is a condition in which the timbers that support a building become infested with one or more varieties of fungus, which then eat the wood and thereby damage the structure. By the time the dry rot was identified in the Lodge, it was too late to save the building, and it had to be condemned; the Papal Nuncio moved elsewhere.

During demolition of the Lodge however, the medieval building that had been swallowed up within the 18th century structure came to light. It was structurally sound due to its solid stone walls and foundations, as well as the fact that it had been protected from the elements for over two centuries. Renamed Ashtown Castle, it was eventually restored, and now serves as a museum and exhibition space for the visitor’s center of Phoenix Park, Dublin’s largest public park. The outline of the old Georgian building that surrounded and protected it is represented in the form of a hedge laid out in its landscaped grounds.

Architecturally speaking, Ashtown Castle is what I would call an unremarkable building but a remarkable survival. It is not a large or particularly grand structure, as far as fortified homes from the Middle Ages go. However, the fact that there are few of these types of buildings left in large Irish cities makes it all the more historically significant, in that Ashtown Castle provides visitors with both a tactile experience and a visual understanding of what medieval Dublin must have looked like.

In this case of course the term “castle” is not an exact term for the original purpose of the building, though its romantic connotations lend it a greater popular appeal. Like in other ancient cities such as Barcelona, Florence and San Gimignano, the well-to-do in Dublin often built themselves fortified houses that could protect their inhabitants in times of distress. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, financial incentives were often provided by local rulers to those of the local gentry who were willing to take on the expense of building these structures. In the examples of the aforementioned towns, local history, geography, and custom led to a variety of methods for added security.

Thus in Barcelona, the medieval “palau” or “palace” – really more of a large townhouse – usually had a severe, nearly windowless facade facing the street, which led to a protected interior courtyard open to the elements and surrounded by an arched colonnade, as a modification of a standard Roman villa design. In Florence the “palazzo” – also meaning “palace”, but in this case often truly palatial – was built along similar lines but with more fenestration facing the street, with the ground floor level usually having very small windows and the facade being built of thick, rusticated stone block. In the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano, the populace constructed their famous tower-houses, much like the Barcelona examples but distinguished by unique, gigantic watchtowers to which the residents could retreat during a siege or civil unrest.

Dublin’s so-called Ashtown Castle is actually a tower-house and, in Dublin like in San Gimignano in its heyday (but without the outscale height of the latter), these distinctive structures were ubiquitous in the city for many centuries. As one French visitor noted in the 16th century, the well-to-do in Dublin usually lived in such towers, which “consist of four walls extremely high.” Today of course, Dublin is not recognizable as a medieval city, thanks to the efforts of the Wide Streets Commission which, beginning in 1757 and anticipating the work of Baron Haussman in Paris a century later, tore down much of the old city and laid broad avenues leading to large Georgian squares, which characterize much of present-day Dublin.

It is ironic that the demolition derby known as the Wide Streets Commission, the political desire of the British Crown to suppress Ireland’s Catholic heritage and supplant it with a Protestant present, and the 18th century fashion for neoclassical architecture as a rejection of what were perceived as the dark days before the Enlightenment, all worked together to preserve rather than destroy this unusual survival. Moreover, given the fashion for Neo-Gothic which arose a little less than a century after Ashtown Castle disappeared into the walls of Ashtown Lodge, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the Victorians managed to get their hands on it. Perhaps it would have been “Gothicked” to death, creating more of a pastiche than preserving the medieval core of the house.

In any case, we are fortunate that Ashtown Castle stands today as a wonderful example of Dublin’s architectural history.

Entrance facade of Ashtown Castle
Phoenix Park, Dublin