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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Early Irish Adventurers

You probably heard of the Irish travellers who were ahead of their time in exploring the north Atlantic. You can add Cormac of Kilcormac to the list.

Cormac’s early life was comparatively quiet but he developed a pilgrim spirit and found it hard to settle down. Admomnan of Iona mentions his visits there to see his friend Columcille.

The two had met In 553 when Cormac came from distant Cork to study the scriptures under Columcille at his famous school in Durrow. The two became close friends and when Columcille left on the travels that eventually took him to Iona in Scotland, Cormack replaced him as abbot.

He did not stay long however and soon left to search for the ‘ideal hermitage’. Admonan said of him, ‘A truly holy man who no fewer than three times laboured on the oceans in search of a place of retreat yet found none.’

His adventures on the way between Scotland and the Arctic Circle are mentioned in the annals. Finally on Columcille’s advice he returned to Ireland and settled in the forest by the Silver River in Co Offaly, now the place is called Kilcormac. His ‘holy well’ can still be seen but has an unfortunate significance. It was where he was attacked by wolves and killed around the year 600.

Today two local treasures get greater attention than Cormac himself. One is the beautiful ‘Kilcormac Missal’ written there in the 14th century and now in the Royal Irish Academy.

The other is the ‘Kilcormac Pieta’, a 16th century statue made from a block of bog wood. It can be seen in the parish church. In 1650 when Cromwell’s army approached Kilcormac the statue was buried in a bog where it lay for 60 years. It was recovered thanks to a man who could remember exactly where it was hidden.


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