Tuesday 24 July 2018

The Martyrdom of Saint Blathmac of Iona

July 24 is one of the feast days of Saint Blathmac of Iona, martyred whilst attempting to defend the relics of his beloved founder Saint Colum Cille from Viking marauders in the year 825. His other feast day is celebrated on January 19 and an earlier post containing Canon O'Hanlon's account will be found on that date here. I have also previously posted the findings of modern scholar John Marsden setting the martyrdom of Saint Blathmac into its historical context here.  As he points out, the closest thing we have to a contemporary account of Saint Blathmac's martyrdom comes not from Irish or Scottish sources, but from a monk, Walafrid Strabo, writing in the Swiss monastery of Reichenau. This was an Irish foundation and it seems that a visiting peregrinus, whom Marsden speculates may have been a last surviving eyewitness, gave a detailed account to Walafrid from which he composed his hexameter verse work on the life and death of Saint Blathmac. It was written within twenty five years of the events he describes. So below is an excerpt from Walafrid's poem on the last stand of this heroic Irish monk and the terrible death he endured:

A certain island appears in the shores of the Picts, rising above the wave-driven sea; it is called Iona,  and there the saint of the Lord, Columba, rests in the flesh. To this island came [Blathmac], wishing to endure Christ's scars, because there many a pagan horde of Danes is wont to land, armed with malignant greed. And the saint of the Lord purposed in his mind to tempt these lions, and stripped his mind of empty dread; but armed with the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation, he feared not the arms of wicked men. He might have sung with the wisdom-speaking prophet, "I have God as my helper, let base fear depart." Already too by wars of states he had been taught to despise the servants of the devil, since he had fitly overthrown their lord, and alone defeated him in all his weapons.

The time arrived, when God's great clemency disposed to associate his servant with the shining bands above the stars, and to bestow upon the good conqueror his certain crown: when the man's holy mind, foreknowing events, learned in advance by exalted sense that the approaching wolves were hastening to divide the members of the pious sheep. He said, "You, my friends, search within yourselves with active minds whether you have courage to endure suffering with me for the name of Christ; you who are able to await it, I ask to arm your manly minds; but those whose frail hearts are afraid, let them hasten their flight, to avoid the impending danger, and arm their hands in a better cause; close to us stands the experience of certam death. Let strong faith be watchful, supported by hope in the future; let the prudent precaution of flight save the weaker."

Upon these words the company was stirred, and in this mood they decided upon what they saw was possible; some, with courageous breast, to face the sacrilegious hands ; and they rejoiced with tranquil minds to have submitted their heads to the violent sword: but others, not vet induced to this by their confidence of mind, took to flight by a footpath through regions known to them.

Golden dawn shone forth, parting the dewy dusk, and the brilliant sun glittered with beautiful orb, when this holy teacher, celebrating the holy service of mass, stood before the sacred altar as a calf without blemish, a pleasing offering to God, to be sacrificed by the threatening sword. The others of the company were prostrate, commending to the Thunderer with tears and prayers their souls, about to depart from the burden of the flesh. See, the violent cursed host came rushing through the open buildings, threatening cruel perils to the blessed men; and after slaying with mad savagery the rest of the associates, they approached the holy father, to compel him to give up the precious metals wherein lie the holy bones of St Columba; but [the monks] had lifted the shrine from its pediments, and had placed it in the earth, in a hollowed barrow, under a thick layer of turf; because they knew then of the wicked destruction [to come]. This booty the Danes desired; but the saint remained with unarmed hand, and with unshaken purpose of mind; [he had been] trained to stand against the foe,  and to arouse the fight, and [was] unused to yield.

There he spoke to thee, barbarian, in words such as these: — "I know nothing at all of the gold you seek, where it is placed in the ground or in what hiding-place it is concealed. And if by Christ's permission it were granted me to know it, never would our lips relate it to thy ears. Barbarian, draw thy sword, grasp the hilt, and slay; gracious God, to thy aid I commend me humbly."

Therefore the pious sacrifice was torn limb from limb. And what the fierce soldier could not purchase by gifts, he began to seek by wounds in the cold bowels [of the earth]. It is not strange, for there always were, and there always reappear, those that are spurred on by evil rage against all the servants of the Lord; so that what Christ's decision has appointed for all, this they all do for Christ, although with unequal deeds.

Thus [Blathmac] became a martyr for Christ's name; and, as rumour bears witness, he rests in the same place, and there many miracles are given for his holy merits. There the Lord is worshipped reverently with fitting honour, with the saints by whose merits I believe my faults are washed away, and to whom as a suppliant I have sent up gifts of praise. Christ refuses nothing to these — they have brought him the greatest gains — ; and he reigns for ever with the good Father and the Holy Spirit, and is exalted without end in everlasting splendour.

Here end the verses by Strabus of the life and death of Blathmac.

Walafridus Strabus, Life of Blathmac, in Pinkerton's Vitae Antiquae, pp. 461-463.

Alan Orr Anderson, ed. and trans., Early Sources of Scottish History A.D. 500 to 1286, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1922), 263-265.

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