Book Wars in Ireland

St Columba

Stained glass window in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh by Lawrence OP. Columba is apparently holding his treasured book. Columba means Dove of the Church.

You probably like reading. You’re reading this blog, after all. Many of you are book lovers, like me. Can you imagine a war being fought over a book? This was not a religious war, even though the book was a book of scripture.

A Man Who Loved Books

It happened in Ireland in the 6th century. Columba, who would later found Iona along with many monasteries in Ireland, loved books. He supposedly said, “That I might search the books all, that would be good for my soul.” He apparently wished to not only search the books, but to own them. At that time books were rare and valuable. Monks in monasteries copied books when they could get them, but someone had to agree to loan them their book, and once a copy was made, the book was less valuable. Columba (or Columcille in Irish) borrowed a book from Finian of Moville without approval. He copied it at night, as the legend goes, with the help of  luminous fingers that glowed like candles.

A Sin Uncovered and a Battle Waged

The deed was uncovered, however, and this major offense was brought before King Diarmait, a rival of Columba’s powerful clan. The king rendered the judgment that has been described as the world’s first copyright case. He said, “To every cow her calf; to every book its copy.” Columba was ordered to deliver his copy to Finian.

Columba’s clan was the most powerful in the Ireland at that time. They had no trouble defending him over some other offense, which could have been bogus. In any case, they went to war and Diarmait’s army was no match for them. In 561 at the Battle of Cooldrevny (in Sligo) 3,000 members of Diarmait’s clan were killed while Columba’s lost only one. Columba got to keep his book, but at a great price. As a result, he paid penance by either being banished or banishing himself to the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, where he could not see his beloved Ireland. His mission was to save 3,000 souls for the ones that were lost.

The Book Today

The book might still exist, although this cannot be proven. The Royal Irish Academy holds a manuscript that was found in the 17th century and is believed to be the book that was carried into battle for centuries for protection. That book is called Cathach or Battler. It is an incomplete Psalter in the Latin Vulgate and some say it appears to have been written quickly. Who knows? Maybe it’s scribbled because the scribe’s fingers were glowing like candles!


A page from the Cathach. (Image from Wikipedia)

Cindy Thomson is the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history, especially the Early Christian period. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.


Author: Cindy

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  1. The Power of Words | Irish Fireside - [...] Some ancient people believed books were magical, powerful, and could bring fortune. That might be difficult to comprehend today.…

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