A High King, 3000 Dead Men, and the First Case of Copyright Law

On a recent trip to Ireland, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit the monastic site at Durrow, in the county of Offaly which was founded by Saint Columba (also know as Colum Cille or “church dove” in Ireland). He served in Durrow from 553 to 563 A.D.

The stories surrounding Colum Cille are woven with a mix of truth, history, and legend. This particular tale involves a high king, 3000 dead men, and the first possible case involving copyright law.

Not exactly a soothing bedtime story.

According to the blog Daily Scribbler, Colum Cille did not always live up to his name’s meaning of peaceful dove.  He is said to have slain monsters, and definitely had the death of men on his conscience, before he went to Scotland to “save as many souls as he had doomed.’

In regard to monsters, tradition says the Columba was asked by a chieftain to help him slay a dreadful beast named Suileach (the Many Eyed). When the animal charged out of a cave, the chieftain fled, leaving Columba to fight the beast alone, cutting the animal in half.  The story then slips into legend involving a tail that came back to life, and a head that crawled towards the saint, before he utterly destroyed the creature.

In regard to the death of men on his conscience, it all began with a book.

Yes, a book.

According to the blog for Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Colum Cille borrowed a book of psalms from St Finnian, a volume that Colum Cille’s former teacher had obtained on a trip to Rome.  Books in those days were rare and valuable, and without permission, Colum Cille made a copy. (This did not involve a scanner, a copier or a camera. This meant meticulously writing the text letter by letter–not a five-minute job.) When Finnian heard of it, he was incensed and demanded that the unauthorized copy be surrendered. Colum Cille refused.

The case was brought to Diarmait mac Cerball, High King of Tara.

The book, Did You Know: 100 Quirky Facts about County Offaly, states that after hearing both sides of the case, the High King talked about what would happen if someone borrowed a pregnant cow who then had a calf:

To every cow its little cow, that is its calf, and to every book its little book [copy]; and because of that Colum Cille, the book you copied is Finnian’s.

Colum Cille was not happy with the ruling, but had bigger issues with the High King. About that same time, EWTN states that Prince Curnan of Connaught fatally injured a rival in a hurling match (a traditional Irish sport). The prince sought sanctuary with Colum Cille, but that protection was ignored when Diarmaid’s men dragged the prince away from the saint and killed him.

Whether it was this incident, or the copyright decision, Colum Cille stirred his men to war. In the year 561, men loyal to the High King and men loyal to the saint met in battle and 3000 men died.

History records that for his role in sending “3000 unprepared souls into eternity,” Colum Cille was brought before the church for a vote of censure and excommunication. Although this ended up not happening due to St Brendan speaking on his behalf, Colum Cille chose a self-exile to Scotland. He spent the remainder of his days trying to win as many souls for Christ as those that had perished in battle. 

The moral of the story:

Cite your sources, author friends. Copyright law is serious business.

 

Lynne Hartke can usually be found writing about the desert where she lives in Chandler, Arizona. Her first book, Under a Desert Sky, was released by Revell/Baker Publishing Group in May 2017.

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5 thoughts on “A High King, 3000 Dead Men, and the First Case of Copyright Law

  1. Most convincing argument I’ve ever heard for adhering to copyright laws! Well done, Lynn.

    • Thank you, Debora. It was one of those little side comments, that then drove me to discover more of the story.

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