By Caroline Hurley
These days everyone has some awareness of copyright. Original material, including text, images, music, and designs, are commonly created and used. They are all governed by copyright laws, which did not always exist. One such key rule, requiring permission to be sought when reproducing others’ work, was the outcome of a monks’ dispute in sixth-century Ireland. Figures from the top ranks of society were involved, explaining the early records.
Saint Colmcille was born in Donegal in 521 A.D. Though descended from royalty – the still-powerful northern O’Neill family – a Brehon Law decreed that, as the eldest, he should serve the Christian Church. First mentored by Cruithnechan, the local priest, Colmcille proceeded to Movilla Abbey in County Down. There he underwent intensive tuition from Finnian, who shared the boy’s love of books but was apprehensive about his hot temper.
Being made deacon in his late teens didn’t stop the large ginger-haired youth intervening in violent frays, or playing field sports.
Colmcille excelled further under a different Finnian, who ran Clonnard abbey in County Meath, a prominent centre of Christian education next only to Rome. Aged twenty-five, the newly-ordained, well-connected priest proved uniquely energetic. In fifteen years, he toured the country and established thirty monasteries.
During his travels, concerned about the shortage of books for his mission, he and his monks urgently transcribed whatever holy manuscripts they found for subsequent copying, distribution and study. His supporters went on to salvage the Church’s literary wonders during eras of persecution when book-burning was rife. Others were more touchy about this free-for-all. Opposing views came to a head in 561, with lasting impact.
Hearing, mid-century, that Finnian of Movilla had acquired St. Jerome’s copy of the Bible, the Vulgate, from Rome, Colmcille paid a visit to his former teacher.
While disappointing other curious callers, Finnian couldn’t resist sharing with Colmcille. However, when one of his monks spied his guest secretively tracing out a replica of the Vulgate at midnight, Finnian, feeling betrayed, demanded both back. When Colmcille, unrepentant, criticised his narrow-mindedness, Finnian suggested taking the matter to the court in Tara, headed by the Irish High-King, Diarmaid. Related to Diarmaid, Colmcille felt confident, but overlooked political resentment about his swift rise.