KENNEBUNK — Anyone taking the time to make themselves and their loved ones the full Irish breakfast Tuesday – since the strictures necessitated by COVID-19 prompted Portland’s Rí Rá Irish Pub to cancel its ocean plunge and the meal served to the swimmers – may consider the ancient and modern history evoked by the words “Patrick” and “Brexit.”

Without Saints Patrick in the fifth and Columbanus in the sixth and seventh centuries, there would have been no European Union for the United Kingdom to exit – no Brexit. The bricks and mortar to rebuild Europe and England after the Western Roman Empire’s breakup were troweled by men with Irish accents and rhythms.

Patrick, born in Roman Britain, became Ireland’s most influential immigrant and brought the Irish into the mainstream of Western history. But it was Columbanus who became Ireland’s most influential emigrant, “the man from this country who went out to the world (and) left his imprint not just here in Ireland but throughout Europe,” according to former Irish President Mary McAleese.

Called “fiery Columbanus” by James Joyce, this Irish immigrant from the edge of Europe was first to voice the concept of the “whole of Europe” – “totius Europae” – twice in a letter to Pope Gregory the Great, 600 A.D. Columbanus expressed the radical notion that “we are all joint members of one body, whether Gauls, or Britons, or Irish, or whatever people we come from.”

A great flame follows a little spark as Columbanus’ monastic foundations fueled the reintroduction of classical learning to the European mainland after the Dark Ages. His 2,000-mile odyssey established a network of monasteries throughout France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy that became “vibrant centers of religious life, hubs of economic exchange, culture and learning.”  A ninth-century French scholar wrote: “Almost the whole of Ireland, setting the obstacle of the sea at nought, is migrating to our shores with a herd of philosophers.”

The famous “Boat Song” chanted by Columbanus’ 12 companions journeying up the Rhine River captures the mood of adventure and robust faith that animated these Irish monks on their way to Europe: “Heave, lads, and let the echoes ring. The tempest howl, the storms dismay, But manly strength can win the day.”

Five years after World War II ended, European statesmen and scholars gathered in Luxeuil-les-Baines, France, on July 23, 1950, to commemorate the 1,400th anniversary of Irish monastic founder Columbanus and to discuss Europe’s future. Robert Schuman, French foreign minister and architect of today’s European Union, branded Columbanus “patron saint of all those who now seek to construct a united Europe.”

Schuman proposed a series of supranational European institutions, beginning with a European Coal and Steel Community, which ultimately became the European Union. He drew inspiration from Columbanus, Ireland’s first man of letters, “who willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time.”

When Enda Kenny, then-prime minister of Ireland, received the European of the Year award in 2012, he reminded German Chancellor Angela Merkel how Irish missionaries sparked “the light of learning” to Europe during the Dark Ages, thus saving Western civilization. Kenny hinted – successfully – that it was time for the EU to reciprocate with a bailout loan in gratitude for the Irish flame of learning, which had reignited and re-evangelized a disintegrated Europe.

Jonas of Bobbio, biographer of Columbanus, records one of the earliest poems ever written about Ireland, “Carmen de Hiberniae insula”:

“The island of Ireland situated at the far end of Ocean,

and there it awaits the setting of the sun, while the world is turning,

and light descends into the sea in the western shadows.

There the huge mountains of waves, wild in color …

They strike the white foamy seashore, the final curve of the land.”

In the landmark 1819 U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled that the New Hampshire legislature had no legal right to take control of Dartmouth College, the young alumnus-lawyer Daniel Webster, in his peroration before Chief Justice John Marshall, concluded: “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.”

Ireland is a small country. And yet there are those who love it. The Irish remain European, and they desire a UK Brexodus from the final curve of their land.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.