Written by former councillors Anne and Brian Wilson of North Down Borough Council. In 2015, to commemorate the designated Year of Columbanus, myself and Anne set off in the footsteps of the greatest Bangorian of all times. A journey to commemorate the 1400th anniversary of his death in Bobbio (Italy) and his importance which is recognised by the Council of Europe in the creation of the Columban Way which traces Saint Columbanus’s journey:
It took Saint Columbanus 15 years to complete the journey from Bangor to Bobbio and he travelled more than 4,000 miles mostly on foot. Anne and I hope to complete the same journey in 15 days by Interrail.
From Bangor to Bobbio
For many years we have spent our summer holidays using Interrail passes travelling throughout the 30 countries in Europe which accept the pass. Anne suggested that given the significance of this year and my involvement in Friends of Columbanus we should follow Saint Columbanus’ journey from Bangor to Bobbio. I thought this was a great idea but I was concerned that as Saint Columbanus tended to set up his monasteries in quiet, remote areas often in the mountains not served by the rail network this may create difficulties.
However we are setting out with the intention of following Saint Columbanus – through Cornwall – St Columb Major – St Malo where he landed in Brittany- St Coloumb–Tours – Reims –Luxeuil – (still important monastery) – Annegray – Bregenz –(Bangor’s twin town) –St Gallen – Milan (home of Bangor Antiphony) Chur and Bobbio where he died in 615.
I will report again when we reach France (Saint-Coulomb-Brittany).
The photos are outside Bangor Abbey where Columbanus served under Comgall for 30 years and the Abbey at Bobbio where he died.
Our Arrival to France
There is some dispute as to the exact route taken by Saint Columbanus and his twelve colleagues to reach France. We do know he first landed in France near St Malo in Brittany so St Malo is where we headed.
It has been suggested he sailed down either the Irish or English coast and then crossed to France. The treacherous storms of the Irish Sea and the frailty of the Curragh would make this an extremely dangerous journey and I feel it is much more likely that he made the thirty mile crossing from Bangor to Portpatrick in Scotland and then continued overland to the south coast of England passing through St Columb in Cornwall on the way.
This was our assumption as we travelled by train through Britain to the port of Portsmouth where we took the Brittany ferry to St Malo.
St Malo is a wonderful walled city with an exciting seafaring history. We had holidayed there in previous years but on this occasion our interest was not in the city itself but in the nearby town of Saint-Coulomb and the beach at Du Gueslin where we found a Celtic cross erected to mark the place where Saint Columbanus landed more than 1400 years ago.
Some years ago we had the pleasure of meeting the mayor of Saint-Coulomb at a reception in Bangor Town Hall when he and a coach load of residents paid a visit to Bangor. I talked to him about his town and its origins little realising a decade later I would be visiting it on the trail of Saint Columbanus.
We left a badge from the Friends of Columbanus Bangor for the mayor and the tourism assistant suggested we should go to the Rue de Cancale where we would find St Coulomb’s Church and a statue of the Saint.
Unfortunately the church was closed and we were unable to photograph the stained glass window depicting Saint Columbanus. We found the statue further up the street and Anne took a photo of me with the FROM BANGOR TO BOBBIO placard. Job done we took the No 5 bus back to St Malo to enjoy two days holiday in that wonderful city.
Since my posting on Saint-Coulomb my photographer/typist has gone on strike and insisted we concentrate on the holiday. So as we Interrail through central France Nantes – Tours – Reims – Metz the activities of Saint Columbanus will be recorded for future publication. However I understand the strike will end when we reach Annegray/Luxeuil where Saint Columbanus set up his first monastery.
The strike by my photographer/ typist has now ended but the details of our interrail pursuit of Saint Columbanus across central France will go unrecorded at present as Anne insists on enjoying the holiday. However, on arrival in Luxeuil-Les-Bains strike action was withdrawn and I am pleased to provide a record of Saint Columbanus’s time there.
Luxeuil is in a densely wooded area in the Vosges mountains in Eastern France near the German border.
Saint Columbanus always looked for remote locations (we needed two bus journeys to get there as it was not on local train routes). He set up his first monastery in Annegray about seven miles from Luxeuil but his reputation and teaching became so popular that he needed to diversify and expanded to new sites at nearby Luxeuil and Fontaine. Soon Luxeuil became the premier site and today houses the Abbey Saint Columban.
Luxeuil are participating in the Bangor – Luxeuil- Bobbio project organised by the Green Butterflies organisation. In April the four Bangor Primary schools involved (Kilmaine, Ballyholme, Clandeboye, and Bangor Central integrated) were presented with certificates to recognise their contribution to the project. It is hoped to exhibit the work of the children from the three towns and publish it in a joint booklet.
In May following a guided tour for delegates to the very successful Saint Columbanus conference organised by the University of Galway in Bangor I happened to come across a large number of French visitors wandering around Castle Park. In broken French, I asked if I could help and they said they were from Luxeuil and had come to Bangor to visit the home of the founder of their town. I took them to the Bangor Abbey where Rae McGookin was locking up having just completed her talk to the conference delegates. She gave them a very much appreciated talk on the history of Bangor Abbey, Saint Columbanus and the monks who left Bangor to establish monasteries in Luxeuil and other parts of Europe.
The Luxeuil Festival
So we were now actually in Luxeuil and our first visit was to the local tourism office. There prominently displayed on the counter was a local newspaper with headlines L’extraordinaire saga de l’Irelandais fondateur de Luxeuil and below a large photo of Bangor Abbey showing in the grounds a beautiful display of daffodils.
The paper was promoting events to commemorate the 1400th Anniversary of the death of Saint Columbanus. In the town itself there was much evidence of the commemoration of the event. Outside the Abbey there was a replica of the curragh used by Saint Columbanus to sail from Bangor. There was also a community festival based on Saint Columbanus and all items such as food and drink were priced in Columbans. For example, a portion of frites were 3 Columbans.
The Bangor Connection
We found considerable evidence of the Bangor connection. When we offered the tourist office staff the Friends of Columbanus Bangor badge they said they had already received them. There is also the Bangor – Luxeuil- Bobbio plaque displayed prominently on the Abbey.
We had an extraordinary meeting with a very elderly lady. As we entered the covered alleyway leading to our hotel this lady came out of her house and asked us if we would put a bag of rubbish in a bin in the main street. She was unwilling to go out into the full sun as the temperature was almost 40 degrees. Anne happily agreed and while I was waiting for her return the lady asked me in perfect English where was I from. When I replied “Northern Ireland” she suggested Bangor. I had to agree.
Unfortunately we were unable to visit the site of the original monastery at Annegray which is at present being excavated. With no bus services and the temperature in the high thirties, my suggestion that we could walk was greeted by the tourist office staff with the French equivalent of “are you mad”.
So we miss out on Annegray and head off for our twin town of Bregenz.
Luxeuil to Bregenz (Austria)
The monasteries at Annegray / Luxeuil continued to grow and Saint Columbanus attracted more and more followers. However his popularity was bringing him into conflict with both the civic and religious establishment. His strict interpretation of Celtic Christianity based on Comgall’s teaching at Bangor Abbey led him to criticise the actions of the local bishops and the immoral lifestyle of King Theuderic.
As a result, the authorities decided to get rid of him and his Irish colleagues by deporting them. They were arrested, taken to Nevers and then by boat down the Loire, through Tours where he visited the tomb of St Martin and then to Nantes. We followed the journey by train although on previous occasions we had enjoyed sailing past the chateaux and vineyards of the Loire Valley.
Before his embarkation at Nantes, Saint Columbanus wrote to his fellow monks at Luxeuil calling on them to full obedience to Attala who he appointed as his successor.
However, as they set sail for Ireland a severe storm blew up and the ship ran aground. The captain believing this was because of the holy man on board (a Jonah?) refused to take him any further. Saint Columbanus was set free and headed east where he sailed down the Rhine and on to Lake Constance and Bregenz.
Bregenz is twinned with Bangor and over the years we have had many exchanges between the two towns, school and community groups, football teams, cultural exchanges, musical performers, and of course the Bangor Ladies Choir.
However few Bangorians are aware of these links and the journey of Saint Columbanus who created them.
The Bregenz Connection
It all began almost 30 years ago when following another boring Council debate on dog fouling the Town Clerk raised a letter from Prelate Albert Holenstein, the parish priest from the Austrian town of Bregenz asking if the Council would provide a stone from Bangor beach. The aim of this strange request was that the new Saint Kolumban Church should recognise the roots of the founder of the Church 1400 years ago. The Council agreed. A suitable stone was found in the Long Hole. Under the guidance of the Mayor Con Auld and with the blessing of Father Laverty PP of St Comgall’s and Canon Leckey of Bangor Abbey it was duly hoisted onto a lorry to begin its thousand mile trip to Bregenz.
We arrived in Bregenz late on Thursday night. Despite this, the temperature was still above 30 degrees. Saint Columbanus had been extremely active on the shores of Lake Constance so it was important to prepare our priorities for the following day as we had to leave for Milan on Saturday morning.
We therefore set out our programme with three objectives. First to find and photograph the stone at St Kolumban Church. Secondly, we would visit the library in St Gallen Switzerland about 40 minutes away by train. The final aim was to cross the border into Germany to visit Kolumban Church in Friedrichshafen which was advertising a concert of “Sacred music from the land of Columbanus and Gallus.”
We had initially intended to walk the three miles to St Kolumban Church as we had on a previous visit but when the temperature reached 35 degrees we decided to take the no. 5 bus. It is a beautiful church with a very prominent cross and placed beside the door is the stone from Bangor beach. Anne took the photos and we gave out Friends of Columbanus badges. It was unfortunate that no one we met could speak English and we had no German. Job done.
We got the no. 5 bus back to the railway station and then took the train to Switzerland and St. Gallen.
St. Gallen (Switzerland)
Gall was one of Columbanus’ closest companions but when Columbanus was forced to leave Bregenz to go to Italy, Gall was unwilling to follow him and continued his mission on the site of the city now named after him. The legend of St Gall and the BEAR is illustrated today in the coat of arms of St. Gallen. The library in St Gallen has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the richest medieval libraries in the World and contains records from Saint Columbanus’ last monastery in Bobbio. In recent years residents from St Gallen have visited Bangor and St Gall’s church in particular on a pilgrimage to visit the home of the founder of their City. In recognition of this link, the Bear is prominently displayed in the grounds of St Gall’s Church.
However, the third leg was not a success. We left Bregenz in the evening to go to Friedrichshafen a trip due to take half an hour but which took more than an hour. Unfortunately, as a result of the heat and malfunctioning air conditioning systems, many trains were being cancelled or running extremely late. We decided not to start looking for the Church as we could not be sure of getting a train back to Bregenz. So we returned defeated.
However, it was a fruitful day with evidence of the significant role played by the Bangor monks on the shores of Lake Constance. As a result, we have had pilgrims from each of these towns visit Bangor in recent years.
So we now leave Lake Constance and follow Saint Columbanus across the Alps to Italy.
Bregenz to Bobbio (Italy)
Saint Columbanus remained in Bregenz for just over a year and set up a monastery in 610. However this was a time of conflict and political uncertainty and following the murder of two of his monks, Columbanus had a vision that he should move to Italy. Some of the community were reluctant to follow him including his closest companion Gall who remained and whose hermitage was to be the site of the present day city of St Gallen.
In 612 Saint Columbanus left Bregenz and travelled to the town of Chur with his depleted flock. His exact route from Chur through the Alps in uncertain but in late 612 he arrived in Milan.
We left Bregenz on Friday morning and took the train to Chur. The rail track ended at Chur so we had to take a bus through the Alps into Italy. This was a wonderful trip among the snow-capped mountains (even at temperature 30+) the dense pine forests over rivers and through the many tunnels. It was inspiring to think that 1400 years ago Saint Columbanus, a man of nearly seventy made the same journey on foot and without any roads.
We arrived in Milan late on Saturday evening and headed towards the city centre to enjoy the sights and in particular to visit the beautiful Gothic Cathedral. It is a magnificent building and took over 500 years to complete and combines the ideas of many architects including Leonardo de Vinci and many styles of architecture. We have visited many cathedrals and churches but the Milan Duomo is outstanding in terms of size and architecture and the stained glass windows are beautiful.
However, our visit to Milan was not to admire the city or the amazing Cathedral but to follow Saint Columbanus. When Columbanus arrived in Milan in 612 he was warmly welcomed by King Agilulf who offered him a tract of land at Bobbio to set up a monastery as a base for converting the Lombard people. Saint Columbanus agreed as it was a secluded place situated in the Apennine Mountains near the Trebbia River.
So first thing on Sunday morning we headed to Bobbio. On our previous visit to Bobbio we had taken the train from Milan to Piacenza and from there take the bus for the hour-long trip along the river valley and up into the mountains. We planned to do the same and arrived at Piacenza just after midday and waited at the bus stop for Bobbio. After waiting an hour in a temperature of mid-thirties we began to grow concerned as many buses stopped but none were going to Bobbio. However a number of travellers assured us it was the correct stop and the timetable at the bus stop confirmed this although the times seemed rather confusing. We tried to clarify this with other passengers with no success until after waiting two hours an English speaking passenger arrived and explained that the timetable related to weekdays and there was not a Sunday service to Bobbio. So no trip to Bobbio today.
Instead we returned to Milan and rather than waste a whole day we headed to the Ambrosian Library to make Bangor’s claim for the return of the Bangor Antiphony personally. The Antiphony is a manuscript compiled in Bangor Abbey. It is in Latin and contains collets, canticles, anthems and hymns some of which Comgall and Columbanus had written. It was taken from Bangor Abbey to Bobbio to protect it from the Viking raids in the ninth century. In 1610 it was taken from Bobbio Abbey to the Ambrosian Library in Milan where it remains to the present day. We hoped to highlight the case for returning the Antiphony to Bangor. Unfortunately we were unable to do so as the Library was closed on a Sunday.
The failure to visit Bobbio on Sunday meant that we had to adjust our plans to travel directly to Genoa on Monday morning on the next stage of our holiday. Instead we had to set out again for Bobbio and reached the town in the early afternoon.
Bobbio is located in the heart of Trebbia valley described by Ernest Hemingway as “the most beautiful in the world” and high in the Apennine Mountains about 5000 feet above sea level. It was ideal for Columbanus’ desire for a remote and secluded place to establish his monastery. The history of Bobbio identified with the Abbey founded in 614 by Saint Columbanus and it later became one of the principal centres of religious culture in medieval Italy and home to a famous library and basilica.
While Bobbio’s place in the centre of religious culture has diminished many of the buildings and works of art remain including the Basilica of San Colombano Bobbio Abbey and the Abbey Museum and Town Museum which has a section dedicated to Saint Columbanus.
So we had now arrived in Bobbio. I found it a moving experience and I wish we had had more time to study the buildings and the works of art. However with the infrequent bus service and the need to get a train connection to Genoa we had to cut short our visit. We signed the visitor’s book and left a few of the Friends of Columbanus badges (Bangor) and took the bus back to Piacenza rail station to start the second stage of our Interrail holiday.
We had completed our journey from Bangor to Bobbio.
Reflections on our Journey
Bangor-St Coulomb-Luxeuil/Annegray-Tours-Nantes-Bregenz-St Gallen-Milan-Bobbio
Fifteen days after leaving Bangor we arrived in Bobbio. We had travelled almost 4000 miles through eight countries in 41 trains, ten busses and two ferries and many hours of walking. The weather was extremely hot with temperatures constantly over 30 degrees and often approaching 40. Saint Columbanus’s preference for remote secluded sites for his monasteries meant that we often had to cross the most difficult mountainous terrain.
As we travelled we often reflected on the remarkable fact that Columbanus a man in his 60’s and early 70’s had completed this journey 1400 years ago. He did not have trains or buses and there were no real roads. The forests were dense and there were continual threats from wild animals and hostile locals. He had to walk or perhaps row the 4000 miles across some of the most dangerous terrain in Europe including climbing the Alps.
His life was one of total commitment to Celtic Christianity and the promotion of the Rule of Saint Columbanus based on the practices established in Bangor Abbey. He was a man of great courage. Disregarding his own safety he spoke out against the civic and clerical leaders when they strayed from Christian principles. It is clear from his writings letters and sermons that he was a man of great learning faith and intellect. The monasteries he established expanded and it is estimated that within one hundred years almost 100 monasteries had been established on these principles. Today many churches throughout the world bear his name not only in Europe but also in USA, Australia and Canada.
I am proud of Bangor’s Christian heritage. Saint Columbanus and the twelve monks who set out from Bangor Abbey to minister to the people of Europe set a precedent which continues to this day. This is highlighted by the annual World Wide Missionary Convention and Bangorians serving in Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and other parts of the world.
I hope our journey of the past 15 days from BANGOR to BOBBIO will add something to understanding the commitment and motivation of Saint Columbanus and his twelve fellow monks.