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Dr. Harry Hillman Chartrand, PhD 


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Launched: 1998


St. Columba & Copyright *

The Month, Vol. LXII, Jan-Apr. 1888, 88-89

Compiler Press


... While visiting his old monastic master, Finian,


Columba found means to make a clandestine copy of the Abbot’s Psalter, by shutting himself up in the church at night, lighting his nocturnal work by the miraculous light which escaped from his left hand while he wrote with the right. The old Abbot discovered what was going on, but dissembled his knowledge till the transcription was completed from cover to cover. Then, indignant at what he thought a theft, Finian claimed the copy, on the ground that a copy made without permission belongs by right to the owner of the original, seeing that the transcription is the son of the original book. Columba was not the man to submit quietly to the conclusion of such an argument; and the dispute was accordingly referred to the King in his palace at Tara. He decided against Columba, giving his judgment in a phrase which has passed into a proverb throughout Ireland: “To every cow her calf”, and consequently, to every book its copy. Great was the irritation of the worsted poetmonk, and he vowed revenge; still higher rose his ire when a provincial prince who had sought refuge near his person was put to death by the King. In his passionate vexation Columba stirred up the North and West of Ireland against the monarch of Tara, who was defeated in a battle at which Columba was present. The manuscript which had been the object of this strange conflict of copyright, was afterwards venerated as a national palladium, and became the great clan relic of the O’Donnells. For more than a thousand years it was carried with them into battle; it still exists, and can be seen without difficulty in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy.

Though he had been successful in his unjust retaliation, Columba soon felt the full force of retribution. At a synod held near Kells, he was accused of having occasioned the shedding of innocent blood, and sentence of excommunication was in his absence pronounced against him. Thanks to the intervention of the Abbot Brendan, this sentence was withdrawn when Columba appeared in person before the synod; but he was charged to win to Christ by his preaching as many pagan souls as the number of Christians who had fallen in the battle of which he had been the occasion...


* HHC: Title added.  Dated 567 C.E.