In Brief

The "fiery Columbanus" (ca. 540-615), whom Stephen thinks of in Nestor and again in Proteus, was an Irish monk who carried Christianity to continental Europe during the Dark Ages, founding monasteries in the feudal kingdoms of what are now France and northern Italy. According to Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints, he left his mother in Ireland "grievously against her will," and in Nestor Stephen thinks of him striding across his forlorn mother's "prostrate body" in his "holy zeal" to spread the gospel.

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Columbanus was famous not only for great learning and eloquence, but also for impetuous, headstrong passion. Stephen identifies with him as a man who broke away from home to go to France, and as someone who repaid his mother's love with injurious independence. In Proteus, he unflatteringly compares himself to Columbanus: "You were going to do wonders, what? Missionary to Europe after fiery Columbanus." The thought of what a poor figure he cut in France leads him to think of two other Irish missionaries to the continent, laughing at him from their heavenly vantage: "Fiacre and Scotus on their creepystools in heaven spilt from their pintpots, loudlatinlaughing: Euge! Euge!" The Latin exclamation means something like "Well done!" or "Bravo!" Mockers shout the phrase ironically several times in the Vulgate versions of Psalms and Ezekiel.

Saint Fiacre built a small monastery in France in the 7th century. The other figure could be either John Scotus Eriugena, a 9th century Neoplatonist theologian, or John Duns Scotus, a late 13th century Scholastic philosopher. Both men were reputedly Irish (the epithet Scotus was given to both Scottish and Irish clergymen), and both are mentioned in Joyce's lecture "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages"––they and Columbanus are the saints on whom the lecture primarily meditates. Thornton votes for Duns Scotus on the basis of a passage in Joyce's Alphabetical Notebook which served as a rough draft for the passage in Proteus. It mentions Duns Scotus in connection with Fiacre and Columbanus, and puts them on "creepy-stools in heaven." Slote puts his money on Eriugena.

Columbanus and Fiacre make another brief appearance in the novel in Cyclops, when Martin Cunningham's remark, "God bless all here is my prayer," triggers the appearance of many dozens of "mitred abbots and priors and guardians and monks and friars."

JH 2012
Columbanus embarking, by an unknown artist who reduced his twelve companions to three. Source:
Simplified map of Columbanus' journey, from Bangor to Cornwall to Brittany, then to Luxeuil in Burgundy and to Bobbio in Emilia-Romagna. Source:
Detailed map of Columbanus' routes with arrows to Bangor, Luxeuil, the Biscayan coast, and Bobbio. Source: The Macmillan Atlas of Irish History .