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President honours 'Dove of Church' who took flight


HOME OF LEARNING: President Higgins and wife Sabina on the island of Iona yesterday

HOME OF LEARNING: President Higgins and wife Sabina on the island of Iona yesterday

RESPECTS: President Higgins visits the grave of Labour leader John Smith

RESPECTS: President Higgins visits the grave of Labour leader John Smith


HOME OF LEARNING: President Higgins and wife Sabina on the island of Iona yesterday

AS the legend goes, it was the first island where St Colmcille could not see his homeland.

Yesterday president Michael D Higgins paid tribute to one of Ireland's great exiles when he travelled to the remote Scottish Hebridean island of Iona, from where the Donegal-born saint was credited with spreading Christianity to Scotland.

It seemed all 125 residents of the picturesque island, which has been a place of pilgrimage and Christian worship for the last 1,400 years, were there to greet Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina,

It was Mr Higgins's second visit to the UK last week, following a two-day trip to England, and was to mark the 1,450th anniversary of St Colmcille's landing on the remote Scottish Island.

In 563, the saint and 12 companions arrived, following his exile from Ireland after a dispute with St Finnian, prompting the folklore that he settled on Iona as it was far enough away to be out of sight of Ireland.

Mr Higgins yesterday paid tribute to the "Dove of the Church", who is known as St Columba in Scotland, while condemning the sectarianism that sometimes follows migration. The comments followed his criticism last week of the riots in Belfast and a demand that community leaders there accept their responsibilities to act in the face of the violence.

"Societies benefit from hearing many voices, but surely no benefits are to be derived from voices raised against one another in hate or intolerance based very often on an abuse of myth and history," he told an audience on the island.

"The prevalence of sectarianism or xenophobia within a community we know may be a symptom of its members feeling themselves ignored, rejected by those in power or under threat from wider socio-economic pressures. It is an atmosphere prevalent in European cities today."

The President also spoke of how the last century had seen "intense conflict" in Ireland and other countries.

"To fail to recognise this would be to do a disservice to our history. But remembrance of a period of conflict or division does not, in itself, exacerbate such conflict," he said.

After his speech, the President walked a short distance to the St Oran's graveyard, where John Smith, the former leader of the British Labour Party, and where the grave os Scottish king Macbeth – who died in 1057 – is located.

St Colmcille's arrival on Iona followed the 'Battle of the Book' with St Finnian when Colmcille had made an unauthorised copy of the first Latin copy of the bible to arrive in Ireland and a judgement by King Diarmuid went against him. This in turn led to the 'Battle of the Book' in which 3,000 people died.

Colmcille was sent into exile and told to win 3,000 converts for the church as penance.

He died on Iona in 597 and his remains were distributed between Scotland and Ireland some 200 years later.

The President said yesterday that there was a strong tradition of migration between Ireland and Scotland, with the Irish influence felt throughout the neighbouring country.

"Modern migrants do not generally make decisions in such dramatic circumstances as Colmcille's but, whether they see themselves as exiles or not, at some point many will ask themselves what they have to share and to teach to their new neighbours; how they may influence the society in which they make their new home; and what they may absorb there, changing themselves in the process," he said.

Scottish cabinet secretary for culture and external affairs Fiona Hyslop and Irish language scholar Peadar O Riada also attended yesterday's event. Later, there was a symbolic spilling of holy water collected from wells in the island's abbey.

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