Life of St. Colman of Oughaval
Saint Colman was a disciple of St Columba, Abbot of Iona and St Fintan, Abbot of Clonenangh. In the Martyrology of Tallagh, he is included as Colman Mac h Laighsi on 15 May (28 May). He was of the family (clan) of Laoighsigh Ceannmoir, son of Conall Cearnach, a celebrated Ultonian hero who lived in the first century. His father was Lugna and his grandfather was Eugene. Their tribe-name was Mac Ua Loighse.
The first mention of St Colman, a pious youth and native of the Portlaoise area in the Province of Leinster, is in the Life of St Fintan of Clonenagh. He desired to dedicate his whole life to the service of Christ in prayer and ascetic labour. To this end, he made a pilgrimage to Iona to seek spiritual counsel from the renowned abbot of that holy island, St Columba. He remained at Iona for several years as a novice learning the disciplines of the monastic life.
Later Colman felt the call to return to Ireland and he asked St Columba how it would be possible to live there without being able to confess his sins to his abbot. St Colman said, 'Go to that pious man whom I see standing among the Angels and before the tribunal of Christ, on each Sunday night.' Colman asked, 'Who and what sort of man is he?' and the holy Abbot answered, 'There is a certain saintly and handsome man, in your part of the country, whose complexion is florid, whose eyes are brightly sparkling, and whose white locks of hair are thinly scattered on his head.' To this Colman replied, 'I know of no man answering this description, in my country, except Abbot Fintan.' Then St Columba confirmed, 'He it is, my son, whom I see before the tribunal of Christ, as I have already told you. Go to him, for he is a true shepherd of Christ’s flock and he shall bring many souls with him to the kingdom of Christ.'
Colman received the blessing of St Columba and set out on the journey to his native land. Coming to St Fintan, Colman told him all that the holy Abbot of Iona had said. On hearing these things the elderly abbot blushed deeply so it seemed as though his face was on fire. He cautioned Colman not to report these things to anyone, at least, during his own lifetime.
Colman selected Oughaval, a townland within the present-day Parish of Stradbally in County Laois, as the site of his monastic settlement. The exact date of the founding of the monastery is unknown but it was shortly before the repose of Saint Fintan in about the year 595. The place can still be identified and the burial ground is still in use. However, it is impossible to recognise the actual church or monastic building since the stone was reused at the beginning of the 18th century to build a mausoleum. It was a mediaeval church until the 18th century. The Mick walls and Tower at West End are very, very old.
Colman is a very popular name in Ireland. The Martyrology of Donegal lists 96 saints of this name and the Book of Leinster records no fewer than 209. In addition, there seems to be some confusion in ancient texts between Colman (Colmanus in Latin) and Columbanus. Not long before his own death, St Columba of Iona foresaw the death of a certain holy man named Columbanus, a bishop in the Province of Leinster and some hagiographers have identified this saint with St Colman of Oughaval. However, there seems to be no serious historical foundation for this assumption, and indeed we have no evidence that our patron was a bishop. As is well known, Celtic lands in general and Ireland in particular, during this period had few large settlements that could be described as cities or towns. Thus church administration was based more on the local monastery than on a diocesan structure. The abbot of a large monastery, therefore, had greater influence than most bishops whose basic function was to ordain.
The fate of St Colman’s monastic foundation is something of a mystery. It had ceased to function long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. The history of the monastery subsequent to the repose of St Colman is the subject of current research.
Saint Colman of Oughaval, pray to God for us!