Two hundred years before the first Viking longships appeared off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebridean seaways were stalked by home-grown pirates. One band of cut-throats plied their trade in the late sixth century, when Saint Columba was abbot of the monastery he had founded on Iona. They were led by the sons of Conall mac Domnaill, an obscure figure of whom we know almost nothing beyond the name. According to Adomnán, author of Vita Columbae (‘Life of Columba’), Conall’s sons were members of the royal house of Gabrán, by which he presumably meant the Cenél nGabráin dynasty of Kintyre, but their position within this powerful kindred is unknown. They may have belonged to a rogue branch, perhaps to a family regarded as rivals of the chief lineage headed by Columba’s royal patron Áedán mac Gabráin. The actual number of Conall’s sons is unknown, as are the names of all but one of them: Ioan mac Conaill mac Domnaill, a ruthless sea-robber far removed from the image of the ‘jolly buccaneer’ embodied by Jack Sparrow.
Adomnán introduces us to the sons of Conall in the tale of a visit by Columba to the mainland, to the peninsula of Ardnamurchan above the north end of the Isle of Mull. There dwelt a farmer called Colmán whom Columba had befriended. Columba sometimes stayed with Colmán as a house-guest, presumably when he needed a base for religious work on the mainland. The saint was not there, however, on one fateful day when the sons of Conall came to Ardnamurchan in search of easy pickings.
The pirates came ashore and attacked Colmán’s house, breaking in to snatch whatever they could find. Filling their boat with the farmer’s belongings, they headed back out to sea. Colmán and his family survived the assault, no doubt by running to safety as soon as the raiders appeared, but their ordeal was far from over. In a grim replay of the first attack, the sons of Conall paid a return visit and did the same thing all over again. Colmán was not a wealthy man and had no means of defending his home and kin. The pirates were no doubt aware of this, hence their return for a third raid. This time, however, Columba was on Ardnamurchan with some monks from Iona. Although not at Colmán’s house when the attack came, the saint was not far away and reappeared just as the raiders were about to sail off with their loot. He confronted them on the seashore, urging them to yield up their plunder and abandon their violent ways. His pleading brought a scornful response from the pirate-chief Ioan, who promptly sailed away without any hint of remorse.
Stung by Ioan’s mockery and indifference, Columba waded out into the water and lifted his hands in prayer. There he stayed until the pirate ship disappeared over the horizon. He rejoined his monks, who had watched the entire incident, and together they went up to a higher point above the shore. Columba told his companions that Ioan’s wickedness would not go unpunished, for God was about to deal out a suitable retribution. Sure enough, even as the monks gazed out to sea, a terrible storm arose in the distance. Sweeping southward, it caught the pirates as they sailed between the islands of Mull and Coll, capsizing their vessel and drowning all who were aboard.
The sudden storm did not, however, end the menace of the sons of Conall. It appears that not all of Ioan’s brothers were on the boat that capsized, for Columba encountered the gang again during a visit to the island of Hinba. On this occasion he found himself in serious danger and only narrowly avoided being slain. The encounter came after he received disturbing news that these same pirates were attacking churches on Hinba, where one of his own satellite monasteries was located. Arriving on the island, he gathered a small party of monks and again confronted the sons of Conall. Castigating them for defiling the sanctity of churches he announced that he had decided to excommunicate them. This threat clearly enraged the pirates, who were at least nominally Christian. One of them – a henchman of Conall’s sons who went by the nickname Lám Dess (‘Right Hand’) – strode towards Columba and lunged viciously with his spear. A quick-thinking monk called Findlugán bravely put himself in the way and took the thrust, but was miraculously unharmed (according to Adomnán, this was because Findlugán happened to be wearing Columba’s hooded cloak). Amid the confusion, Lám Dess was sure he had hit his intended target and believed that a mortal wound had been given to the saint.
What happened afterwards is not reported by Adomnán but the excommunication was presumably put in place. Whether it changed the behaviour of the sons of Conall seems unlikely, given that they plainly had no qualms about attacking religious settlements. It was, nevertheless, the most drastic punishment Columba could deal out and, in an age of superstition, it may have worried some of the gang. It was evidently of little concern to Lám Dess, who was still living a life of violence one year later when he was killed in a fight on another island. After a brief notice of his death, we hear nothing more of the sons of Conall in Vita Columbae.
A depiction of St Columba by J.R. Skelton (1907)
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The story of the pirates appears on pages 118 to 121 of my book Columba.
The relevant references in Vita Columbae are in chapters 22 (Ioan) and 24 (Lám Dess) of Book Two.
Although Adomnán mentions the island of Hinba a number of times its precise location is unknown. Several theories have been proposed, based on clues given in Vita Columbae. One theory identifies Hinba as the two-part island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay, and this is the one I favour at the moment. See my blogpost on The lost island of Saint Columba.
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