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St Colmcille's Prophecies

Down the country on holidays in my childhood, I heard many references to St Colmcille's prophesies. For example, it was often said that the saint predicted in times to come:

  1. There would be the "coach without a head (i.e.,  without a horse or other animal or man to pull it along)," possibly referring to the motor car.
  2. You would not be able to distinguish between a man and a woman.
  3. The seasons would change.
  4. There would be a black pope.
  5. The yellow races would rule the world.
There were many more, which I can't recall on all sorts of themes.

Mother's view
Our family holidays were always in my father's part of the country (because, since I got sick as a baby in County Limerick, my father thought the Limerick water was not good for me). My mother was dismissive of the Offaly version of the saint's prophecies. She felt they were often attributable to sources other than the saint, e.g., imports from English culture. The county Limerick tradition, she thought, was closer to the Gaelic tradition, and she recalled hearing a coherent account when she was a child, as follows:
"Ireland is prosperous today (i.e., 6th Century, or Great Golden Age of Ireland), but it will not always be so."
Ireland would be ravaged by savage foreigners coming in terrifying long boats.
The norsemen would take over the country.
During the oppressive reign of Norse King, Turgesius, the Irish would plan an uprising. To signal the start of the uprising, a bonfire would be lit on hills all around the country. The people would rise up and throw off the Norse oppression.
Afterwards, a new foreigner would conquer the country, which would be held in subjection for 700 years.
There would be many attempts to throw off the conqueror, including the Three Conns and later the Two Hughs, but every uprising would be put down.
In the century before freedom would be achieved, there would be a great leader from Munster who would become the uncrowned king of Ireland. Then there would be a great Famine, followed by another uncrowned king.
There would be a great war between two foreign powers in which  thousands upon thousands of Irish would be slain. 
There would be an uprising that would eventually be successful.
Before the conquest of Ireland would be finally over, there  would be three fires in the principal city of England; the last would be the burning of the place where they keep the money.
 Ireland would be prosperous again. "No country on the face of the earth would be more prosperous than she."
 Dublin Castle provocation
Mother also heard that the prophecies were a provocation issued by Dublin Castle (headquarters of the British administration in Ireland). The English were, by this account, terrified by Daniel O'Connell's mass rallies, because they were peaceful and couldn't very well be suppressed. In Fenian times, a decade later, they therefore circulated the prophecies to give the rebels false hope and provoke them to taking premature violent action. Once such action was taken, they could use the British Army to put down the uprising.

This telling might be corroborated by the fact that an English-language version of the prophecies was circulated in the 1850s.

However, I think the notion that the prophecies were circulated by Dublin Castle was promulgated by the leaders of the Irish Republican Army in 1918 in order to discourage the members from taking inspiration from any source other than the commands of their officers. My mother was a young child at that time, but she would have heard this version from her big brothers who were caught up in the insurrection.

Nicholas Kearney's version, 1855
In 1855, Nicholas Kearney, a folklorist from County Louth, and a member of the Ossianic Society, published (with copious notes) an English-language book purporting to be the prophecies of St. Colmcille. He stated that his version was a translation from an Irish manuscript of the 9th century.

St. Colmcille lived in the 6th century. Of royal parentage, he received a good traditional education in the oral tradition before going to the monasteries for education in the Christian learning. Originally named Criffen, meaning Fox, he adopted the name Colm, meaning dove, instead. Latin was the language of scholarship and of the church, and in that language he was called Columba. Since there were plenty of Colms in his day, he was given the nickname "Colm Cille," meaning "Dove of the Oratory."

Colmcille was vigorous, strong and courageous. He had a great melodious voice, and eschewed laziness. When visiting St. Finian (who was educated in Wales), he stayed up at night copying an illustrated manuscript St Finian had received from the Pope when he visited Rome. Finian claimed the copy and the case went to law. High King, Diarmaid, decided against Colmcille. Colmcille went on to transcribe many books and to establish a tradition of illuminated manuscripts, which includes the Book of Kells. Besides transcribing 300 books, he is thought to have written original scripts, but only two such survive, neither of which includes his prophecies.

His hagliographer, St Eunan, describes a number of prophecies of Colmcille; however, all of these relates to the saint foretelling "who was coming to tea," or who would succeed whom in the power battles of his time - not his predictions of the distant future.

When Colmcille died, his relics were divided into two sections. One was kept in Scotland and the other sent to Downpatrick in Ireland. In face of Viking incursions, which laid waste many of monasteries he founded in Scotland and Ireland, the Irish section of his heritage was said to be buried in Downpatrick for safekeeping, but never retrieved.

It is probable that Nicholas Kearney's 9th century manuscript is a fiction to give credence to his version of he prophecies. His book contains "translations" of five prophetic poems:
  • Address to Saint Brendan
  • Saint Colmcille Cecinit
  • The Three Conns
  • The Fall of Tara
  • Eire This Night
The most relevant one to my post is the last, and I reproduce the words of Nicholas Kearney (as printed in 1855) here (and note that "Gael" means Irih person, and "Gall" means foreigner):

Eire This Night
How prosperous Eire is this night!
Her immense substance is free from taxation,
Her princes are hospitable, her palaces are full,
Her people numerous, and her crops productive.

Though this Eire is so prosperous this night,
A time will come when she will be reduced to destitution;
A powerful force of strangers will invade her,
From Lochlan (Scandinavia) of the sea-faring Galls.

They will entertain kind feelings towards no person,
Their hordes will take possession of every house;
Prolific shall be the race that will come across the sea,
The Danair (Danes) will be resolute fierce warriors.

Long shall their sway continue over the island of Conn;
They shall be the least benignant of any race of people;
They will prevail by both sea and land,
And will destroy the navy of our enterprising kings.

The time shall come, it is no tribulation to me,
When their doom shall be sealed, and their further career impeded;
(For,) on Clontarf of the blood stained garments,
Battle shall be broken upon them in one day.

Another race of invaders will come hither across the seas,
Their numbers shall be few, though their powers prove great.
Six hundred years, and ninety more in full,
Shall they impose their tribute upon us.

They will take possession of a portion of Ireland,
Their progress shall be but slow in the beginning;
But they will forcibly extend their supremacy;
With a lubriciousness similar to that of a mist stealing upon a headland.

They will persecute the Gaels with galling ferocity;
Their petitions for restitution will be disregarded,
This grievance shall stir up the descendants of Conn,
With the descendants of Eoghan of the diadem of gold.

The native Irish shall be reduced to the condition of sojourners during their sway;
They shall be deprived of their rights, instead of enjoying their dignities;
Whole tribes will be annihilated; their laws shall be unjust,
Plotting shall constitute the main features of their career.

They will erect lime-built towers upon every headland,
Their kings will be treacherous, their nobles powerful;
They will noose halters around the necks of every person;
Such shall be the results of the injustice and litigiousnes of the stranger.

An uninterrupted coarse of warfare will mark their career,
While their keen-edged swords shall be ever reeking with blood;
Fire, robbery, and every species of infliction will prevail,
They will persecute the Gael into exile.

Hard fought bloody wars will be waged,
But the Gael will be the most frequently discomfited;
To their degenerate spirit and internal discensions,
Their downfall and subsequent sufferings may be attributed.

An uncultivated language will be found in every person's mouth;
Proud abbots (clergy) will rule over every sanctified church:
In both north and south iron wheels shall support
Fiery chariots, which shall resemble druidical deception.

In the last ninety years of (Irish) bondage,
A man from Munster will start into notoriety;
Though he shall be neither a prince, a soldier, nor a lord,
Every person will send him tribute to Dublin.

During his career, power will be measured with power;
He will relieve the families belonging to high septs;
He will afterwards cross the boundless sea,
And he shall fall in a foreign country!

After his decease deception will prevail over the land of Fail,
To such an extent that no friendly associations will exist;
No man can calculate upon the support of a friend,
Any more than he can rely upon that of his sworn enemy.

A pure cleric without reproach will appear,
Who will prohibit the use of darkening (intoxicating) drinks;
Like the full moon amidst the lesser luminaries,
Shall the dignity of this foster-father appear

Storms, plagues and gnawing famine shall prevail,
The seasons will not observe their regular course;
Plague will consume the powerful as well as the weak,
With painful cramps of one half day's duration.

Dearth will become oppressive throughout the land,
Though there shall be abundance of food on one part (side);
Thousands shall die of starvation - houses shall be full;
Afterwards the land shall become a barren waste.

Persons of substane shall be reduced to a state of insolvency;
No bankers will supply them with the necessary funds;
A fraudulent system of trade will enhance their ruin,
And they shall afterwards be left to weep in sorrow.

The pure fair Gael will fly away
Into exile into both the eastern and western regions of the world;
The scantiness of land, and oppressive debts, without a falsehood,
Shall bring decay upon them, day by day.

The dignities assumed by nobles and great men shall be subverted,
The nobility shall sink into humble life before the great war;
That war that will be proclaimed against them from beyond the seas,
By means of which the frantically-proud race shall be subdued.

Legislators will enact fatal and unjust statutes,
To deprive the rightful clergy of church dignities;
(For) they will look upon their fame as an impediment in their way,
Misfortunes an mortifications shall afterwards become their portion.

The laws will be enacted in a spirit of gross injustice;
The clergy of the holy church will be persecuted
By the false-hearted Galls both here and abroad,
Which event will cause great excitement in every place.

The leading men and clergy shall be aroused in consequence of these enactments;
They will make a noisy remonstrance;
Nothing they shall do shall avail themselves,
Except to the detriment of the enemy.

The enemies of the Galls shall be aroused into activity;
They who reside in the eastern and western parts of the world,
So that they will engage in a battle on the circumscribed sea,
In consequence of which they (Galls) shall be scattered (defeated).

A fleet belonging to a foreign country will come hither,
Manned by the descendants of Golimh of the gold-embroidered garments;
They shall lay prostrate the Galls of the ships,
And liberate the people who have been held in bondage.

This fleet that will arrive here from the east
Cannot be impeded on the mighty ocean;
Through the impetuosity of its noisy breathing
Its strange appearance shall be marked by flaming mouths.

They will engage in a furious conflict,
Who compose the fleet of Ballina (i.e., River-Port);
It shall be a wonder that it will not be a mutual slaughter,
The conflict of those who will come hither to sever the intricate knot.

The Galls will muster their ruthless forces with resolution
After their bloody hard-contested sea-fight;
On Magh-dair (i.e., "Oak Plain") of the druid;
It is then the battle of Mullagh-mast will be fought.

After the Galls shall be defeated in this battle,
They shall be harassed from every quarter;
Like a fawn surrounded by a pack of  voracious hounds,
Shall be the position of the Saxons among their enemies.

The Saxons afterwards shall dwindle down into a disreputable people,
And every obstacle shall be opposed to their future prosperity:
Because they did not observe justice and rectitude,
They shall be forever after deprived of power.

Three warnings will be given them before their final fall,
The burning of the Tower of the great kings,
The confligration of the Dockyard of the Galls,
And the burning of the Treasury where gold is deposite.

The new Eire shall be Eire the prosperous,
Great shall be her renown and her poweer;
There shall not be on the surface of the wide earth
A country found to equal this fine country.

Note: if this is, indeed, a translation from a medieval document and not something concocted by O'Kearney himself, you can see that, writing in 1855, his translation may be somewhat distorted by bias by believing that every mention of Gall, or foreigner, in the prophecies, refers to the English foreigner, whereas it is apparent that some of the verses refer to the German foreigner and battles in Europe rather than in Ireland. The two world wars seem to have been mixed up, but in both cases, it is the Americans who come to the aid of Europe to liberate the peoples who have been held in bondage. Although not defeated in the world wars, both saw the diminution and final dismantling of the British Empire.


  1. The translation seems to be very accurate though not fully fulfilled yet. It all fits.

  2. The defeat of the 'frantically proud race, would I believe fit with the defeat of the Germans in WW2. The main story, I believe, fits with England and its behaviour with the British Empire towards Ireland. In the case of Ireland, the Battle of Mullaghmast sounds like a justifed victory after another attack by England. Mullaghmast was the site of a very devious massacre of unarmed Gaelic gentry in the 1600's by English officials.I think that this account is accurate.