School of Durrow
Noted for the useful and admirable practice of copying manuscripts, especially of the Sacred Scriptures
Durrow (Irish Dairmagh, Plain of the Oaks), SCHOOL OF, is delightfully situated in the King’s County, a few miles from the town of Tullamore. St. Columba, who loved to build in close proximity to oak-groves, because of their natural beauty, as well as perhaps to divest them of their Druidic associations, found here, as in Derry, a site just after his heart. It was freely given to him by Aedh, son of Brendan, lord of the soil, in 553, and the saint lost no time in founding his monastery, which, with more or less constant personal supervision, he ruled till 563. When, in that year, either as a matter of penance, or as Adamnan says, “of choice for Christ’s sake”, he became an exile in the wilds of Scotland, he appointed a most estimable monk, Cormac Ua Liathain, to take his place. But owing to the jealousies that existed between the northern and the southern tribes, especially on the borderland, Cormac found it impossible to retain the office of prior, and so he fled from the monastery, leaving in charge a first cousin of Columba, Laisren by name, who, acceptable to both sides, governed the institution with conspicuous success. Durrow, during Columba’s life and for centuries after his death, was a famous school, at one time being esteemed second to none in the country. The Venerable Bede styles it Monasterium nobile in Hiberniae, and, at a later period, Armagh and itself were called the “Universities of the West”. It will be ever noted for the useful and admirable practice of copying manuscripts, especially of the Sacred Scriptures, which had become quite a fine art amongst the masters and disciples there. Columba himself, who was an expert scribe, is generally credited with having written with his own hand the incomparable copy of the Four Gospels now known as the “Book of Durrow”. It is a piece of the most exquisite workmanship, charming the mind as well as the eye with its intricate and highly ornamental details. An entry on the back of one of the folios of this remarkable book, which is now to be seen in Trinity College, Dublin, prays for a “remembrance of the scribe, Columba, who wrote this evangel in the space of twelve days”.
Columba dearly loved Durrow. It held a place in his affections next to his own Derry, and while in Iona he manifested the tenderest interest in everything that concerned its welfare. When he was urging Cormac Ua Liathain to return to the monastery there, he recounted for him the manifold beauties of that “city devout, with its hundred crosses, without blemish, and without transgression”, and added, “I pledge thee my unerring word, which may not be impugned, that death is better in reproachless Erin than life forever in Alba.” Durrow, like Clonard, Derry, and the rest, was frequently ravaged by the Danish invaders, but its complete devastation was left for the fierce Norman invader, Hugh de Lacy. In 1186 he began the building of a castle for himself out of the stones of the dismantled monastery, but the axe of an Irish laboring man cut him short in his unholy work. The church and the school are long since gone; not a stone of the original building may now be found. There are, however, still to be seen at Durrow a churchyard, probably marking the ancient site, a Celtic cross, and a holy well, which will serve to keep the name and the fame of St. Columba fresh in the minds of the people forever.