Bangor Abbey, the European Connection
After years of study under Comgall, Columbanus left Bangor Abbey with 12 companions to create new monasteries throughout Europe. Columbanus was by this stage almost 50 years old. One of the men who accompanied him was the much younger Gall, an expert in languages. It was a long and arduous journey with many challenges along the way but the strength of their faith ensured they continued through the toughest trials.
During his travels Columbanus visited the three Kingdoms of modern France (Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy), founding Abbeys at Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaines, inspired by the austere rule of Comgall. Where possible the group tried to use existing derelict buildings as they had very limited resources, at Annegray they had only bark, roots and herbs to eat. Columbanus himself faced opposition initially from the local abbots but also from the King of Burgundy, Theodoric who eventually forced him into exile. In 610 Columbanus was escorted to a ship to sail back to Ireland however, bad weather at the Loire River made the journey impossible which the Captain saw as a sign that the monk should stay in France.
The group moved through eastern France into Switzerland where they settled at Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance. Bangor is twinned with Bregenz because of this historic link. Gall was a very important part of the group here because of his knowledge of languages and his expertise in fishing to ensure the people did not starve, while Columbanus began farming the land. However, in 612 Columbanus’ enemy Theodoric seized this kingdom and forced the party on once more. In a dream Columbanus was told the group should travel to Italy but Gall refused to cross the Alps with them so remained alone in Switzerland.
Gall was forced to live life as a hermit as he broke the rule of obedience which was one of the most important beliefs in the Early Christian church. He chose to begin his fast by the River Steinach. The most celebrated legend of Gall followed this. A wild bear found Gall by the river but the monk unafraid, ordered the animal to put a log on his fire which it did! Today the town of St Gallen is named in his honour and the image of a bear holding a log is incorporated in its coat of arms. Gall died in 630 and his tomb became a famous pilgrimage site for the sick while the Abbey built on this site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Columbanus arrived in Milan in 613 where he spoke to Agiluf, the ruler of Lombardy who granted him land for his last monastery at Bobbio. Columbanus wished to die in seclusion in a cave nearby. On his deathbed in 615 he forgave Gall for his sin and as a peace offering sent his staff which Gall used for the remainder of his life. Bobbio also became the resting place of the Bangor Antiphonary for centuries. The book created c.690 in Bangor was based on the rules of Comgall and Columbanus, told through prayers, hymns and poems. Cardinal Borromeo took the book from Bobbio Abbey in the 17th Century to create the Ambrosian Library, Milan where it has been ever since.