By Carly McNamara
Comgall is an early Irish saint, contemporary with the well-known St Columba in Scotland. According to the Life of St Columba, the saints were known to visit each other and travel together at times, including on their return trip from participation in the in the convention of Druim Cett. Comgall was reportedly born c. 510 and was part of the kin group known as Dál nAraidi in Ulster. In Irish genealogical material his father’s name is given as Setna, and his mother was Brig(a). He may have also had a sister named Subthan. He founded Bangor monastery in the north of Ireland probably no later than AD 552. His death is recorded in the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach, with a great level of detail being included in the second source. Here we are told that Comgall ‘rested’ (or died peacefully) in the 91st year of his age, but in the 50th year, 3rd month, and 10th day of his leadership, on the 6th of the Ides of May (or 10th of May). The 10th of May is the Feast of St Comgall, according to the Irish martyrologies, while within the Aberdeen Breviary his feastday is given as the 12th of May.
Fine detail on Comgall’s life is uncertain, as the Life associated with him is from the twelfth-century, though we do know that a Rule which he devised and by which his monks lived existed, and was mentioned by name in the Antiphonary of Bangor. It is further mentioned in an Irish Metrical Rule, likely written by AD 800. The twelfth-century Life prioritises expressing the great size and spread of the network of monasteries which looked to Comgall (and therefore Bangor) as it’s head, even claiming that Comgall had to construct additional monasteries all across Ireland in order to hold the 3000 monks. We should take care not to take this claim at face value, and understand that it may be a symbolic, or even merely inflated number. There is, however, some evidence of churches connected to Comgall some distance from Ulster, including in Leinster, at the site of Kinneigh in County Carlow and in Derry at Camus.
Comgall is noted as the teacher of a number of Irish saints within their own hagiographic traditions, including Fintan of Dún Bleisce (Doon), Molua of Clonfertmulloe (Kyle), Fintan of Tech Munnu (Taghmon), and Daigh of Inis Céin (Inishkeen), among others. Perhaps the best known pupil associated with St Comgall is St Columbanus, who is known for his travel to the continent and founding of monasteries in France and Italy. It is possible that these claims of connection were created or made up at the time of the writing of the saints’ Lives, but if it is true, it still serves to show the importance of Comgall’s status and reputation at the time of their authorship. He seems to have had the respect of Adomnán of Iona, who includes Comgall three times in his Life of St Columba, second only to the number of times Cainnech is mentioned, and in episodes that indicates their relationship is one of equals and colleagues.
Bangor monastery itself was an impressive foundation that was highly involved in discussions on the calculation of Easter (and thus the Easter controversy) and supported learned monks who were themselves well-known authors and scholars. One abbot, Sillán moccu Mind, known as Mo-Sinu, notably had a particular expertise in arithmetical computation and was mentioned in a continental manuscript as the first of the Irish who learned the computus by heart. The Antiphonary of Bangor contains material from as early as the second half of the seventh century. An antiphonary is a kind of liturgical book which contains chants for use during Mass and the canonical Hours. This antiphonary contains three hymns which especially relate to Bangor: Hymnus Sancti Comgilli Abbatis Nostri ‘The Hymn of Holy Comgall our Abbot’, In Memoriam Abbatum Nostrorum ‘In Memory of our Abbots’, and Versiculi Familae Benchuir ‘Verses of the Family of Bangor’. The second hymn contains a list of the first fifteen abbots of Bangor. Further, through the Antiphonary Bangor has been associated with the ‘Hisperic’ style of literature, which perhaps even originated at Bangor. This style of writing is notable for its very distinctive use of vocabulary and interest in synonyms, sometimes leading it to be called ‘bizarre’.
A fine bronze bell weighing over 9kg and standing 35cm tall was found in the abbey ruins in the 1790s. It has a ring of key pattern around its mouth and likely dates to the early ninth century. A lead stylus waws discovered during excavation in 2011 amongst material that was radiocarbed dated within 45 years of AD 840. This stylus is further evidence of writing at Bangor.
Dr Carolyn McNamara