St Johnston and Carrigans Donegal



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Marion J. Shepherd         RESEARCH MODULE

Tutor: Tim Spalding        December 2008


St. Johnston is credited as the birthplace of St. Baithin (536 – 600 AD). He is commemorated in the name of the village, (legend has it that his cousin, St. Columba remarked on Baithin’s resemblance to St. John, hence St. John’s Town), the name of the parish, Taughboyne, (Tigh Baithin, or house of Baithin), and in more recent times the local Catholic church, National School and the Ard Baithin housing estate were named after him.

So how much is it possible to know about a monk from the sixth century, and to what sources does one refer?

The main source is the same as for Columba; Adomnan’s Vita Sancti Columbae, written around the 690s. Other works about Columba which mention Baithin are the anonymous The Homily Life, written in Irish in 1160, and Betha Colaim Chille by Manus O’Donnell, written at his Lifford castle in 1532. (Forristal, 1997, describes this account as “colourful, uncritical and highly readable”!, p.81.) Brian Lacy, 1997, also mentions Vita Baithini, a so far untranslated Latin life of Baithin, which, while being a collection of conventional miracle stories,“still may preserve some genuine memories of the  second abbot”, (p.39).

There are references to Columba and Iona in Bede’s  History of the English Church, (eighth century) and other more contemporaneous works such as The Annals of Ulster, The Annals of the Four Masters and The Annals of Loch Ce.

Forristal believes that although Adomnan’s book is comprised of tales, legends and folklore it is still an important source of history, can tell us about specific characters, and show the impact made on “the consciousness of the Irish people”, (p.9).  Written around the end of the seventh century, Vita Sancti  Columbae  has been described as, “the most considerable surviving literary production of the Celtic Church of Ireland”, (Silke, p.67). Adomnan drew on earlier lives of saints, notably Sulpicius Severus’s Martin and the Dialogi  of Gregory the Great. Following these continental models Adomnan’s work is in Latin. It is arranged thematically in three books to do with Columba’s gifts of prophecy, the power of his miracles and his angelic visitations.(This is also the pattern of other saints’ lives of the time.) Maire Herbert believes that the Ionan monks kept a systematic record of year by year events, which formed the core of  the Annals of Ulster, and it is likely that some record was kept of notable events prior to this. Adomnan was writing within an hundred years of Columba’s death and would have had access to accounts of Columba’s “holy way of life (sancta conversatio) and remarkable powers”, (Silke, p.73).  Cummene Ailbe, abbot of Iona from 657-69, wrote a lost work on Columba’s life, which Adomnan would have had access to also. Silke, 1997, writes that this was probably a record of the testimonies of monks from Columba’s own time and  “distinguished outsiders, such as Oswald, king of Northumbria and Ernene, son of Crasen, an Irish ecclesiastic”, (Silke, p.73). Adomnan also had form as a meticulous writer with his previous work, De locis sanctis, based on his encounter with Arculf, a Gaulish bishop, who landed on Iona on his way back from the Holy Land. Apparently Adomnan compared Arculf’s account of his travels with information available to him from the monastery library and, “took great pains about measurements and maps”, (Silke, p.66). This work shows remarkable geographical detail and was used by Bede in his own writing. Studies of Vita Sancti Columbae  show it to be “a well conceived and admirably executed work of early medieval scholarship” , (Silke, p.68).

There are several references to Baithin in this work, which give clues as to the nature of the man. When St. Fintan in Ireland hears of St. Columba’s death in 597, he enquires about his successor:

“Baithene”, they said, “His disciple.”

And they all cried out, “It is meet and right!”

Vita Columbae 1.2, p.113

Fintan agrees and says of Baithin that he is a holy and wise man. When Fintan travels to Iona to meet the second abbot, Baithin is described as, “an easy man to talk to and friendly towards strangers”, (p.113).

Baithin emerges as Columba’s trusted and valued right-hand man. He has some responsibility for overseeing the agricultural harvest on Iona and the surrounding lands cultivated by the monks. This was important work as the community was responsible for production of all their material needs.

For a time he was prior of the Columban monastery of Magh Luinge on the neighbouring isle of Tiree.

He is variously referred to as Columba’s disciple, pupil and alumnus.  According to Marsden, 1991, this term suggests a deeper relationship, “a recognition of Baithene as Columba’s foster son”, (p.188). Columba seems to require Baithin’s presence, whenever something spiritually important is happening. After Columba spends three days on Hinba (? Jura) being visited by the Holy Spirit he is anxious that Baithin should join him,but, unfortunately, he is detained on Eigg by heavy winds. After another sustained experience of the Holy Spirit on Iona, Columba expresses regret that Baithin was not there to write down what he had heard and seen. When Columba is dying he had partially completed a copy of Psalm 33, and as he senses death is near, he says, according to Adomnan:

“Here at the end of this page I must stop. Let Baithene write what follows.”

Vita Columbae, p.228.

Baithin succeeded Columba as abbot of  Iona in 597. His abbacy was short-lived. His death is generally thought to have occurred in 600, but could have been as early as 598. 

His father, Brendan, and Columba’s father, Feidhlimidh, were brothers, part of the powerful dynasty of the northern Ui Neill, claiming lineage from one of the sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Baithin was also known as Conin, (as Columba was known as Crimthann).  At the time of Columba’s boyhood,  the Ui Neill’s continued the “pagan practices of royal inauguration”, (Sharpe, 1991, p.10), the Feis Tenro (“Feast of Tara”), so it is possible that neither Columba nor Baithin were born into Christianity. Sharpe conjectures that a change of name could indicate assumption of baptism into the new religion, but Adomnan tells us nothing of them prior to their voyage to Iona.

According to Canon David Crooks, 1992,  Baithin founded a monastery near St Johnston in 560 AD on a site given to him by the chieftain of Aileach. It is not possible to know how long this foundation lasted but he thinks it may have been up to the time of the first Viking invaders, after 800. 


1. List of men who travelled from Ireland to Iona with Columba

1. Two sons of Brenden: Baithin, also called Conin, St. Columba’s successor and his brother, Cobthach.

Ernanan, St. Columba’s uncle.

Diormit, his attendant.

Rus and Fechno, two sons of Roden.

Scandal., son of Bressal, son of Ende, son of Niall.

Luguid mocu-Theime.


Tochanna mocu-fir-Chetea.

Cairnan, son of Brandub, son of Meilge.


(This list appears in the earliest surviving manuscript of the  so-called B text of the Vita Columbae. It is thought possible that this passage and other B text variants might have been added by Adomnan himself at Raphoe in 697.) 


Irish St. Finten resolves to go and live with St. Columba in Iona and visits priest Colum Crag to get his advice. While he is there 2 Ionan monks arrive who tell of Columba’s recent death. They all weep. Finten enquires of his successor and when told it is Baithin, they all express great approval of the choice. Finten decised to vist Baithin, “a holy and wise man”. Baithin, described as “courteous and accessible to strangers” receives Finten and when he realises who he is he tells him of Columba’s prophesy that he was chosen of God to be an abbot and to lead souls to the Kingdom of Heaven, not to become a monk on Iona. So Finten returns to Ireland to pursue his destiny with Baithin’s blessing.


A monk, Berach, comes to Columba asking for a blessing for his proposed voyage to the Isle of Eth (Tiree). Columba warns him not to take the direct route but to sail around the smaller islands otherwise he will encounter a great monster. Berach ignores Columba’s advice, comes across a whale “of enormous and immense size” and has to let down the sail of his ship and row back to escape “the surging waves created by the beast’s movements”. Columba tells Baithin about this the next day when Baithin is about to sail to Eth. Baithin replies that “the beast and I are under God’s power”. Columba tells him to go in peace, that his faith in Christ will defend him. When Baithin and his companions see the whale, he alone is “without fear”, he raises both his hands and he blesses the sea and the whale. At this the whale plunges beneath the waves and disappears.


Columba has foreknowledge about the future visit of Male who has commited a sin “unheard of in this world”. When Male shows up with Lugaid, Diormit is sent to intercept them with what Columba has said. Male forswears food until he can speak to Columba. Baithin, “citing the authority of holy scripture”, proposes that Male’s repentance be accepted. Columba points out that Male has commited fratricide and incest, and tells him he must do 12 years penance among the Britons. Columba prophesies that Male will not fulfil this but will return to Ireland and be killed by his enemies. This is what happens.


Baithin requests of Columba that a monk proof reads the psalter that he has copied. Columba questions this request saying it is not necessary as there will not be one mistake but for the vowel I which is missing.


On several occasions monks returning to the monastery after a day’s harvesting experience a strange sensation at a place called Cuul-Eilne. Baithin says to them one day when assigning them their tasks, “Now, brothers, you must confess one by one if you experience an unfamiliar and wondrous feeling at this place midway between the harvest and the monastery.” One of the older monks tells him that he has sensed a fragrance of flowers,  a fiery glow which is pleasurable rather than painful, a strange and incomparable delight in the heart which brings wonderful comfort and so gladdens him that he forgets all sorrow and weariness.  The burden on his back is also lightened.

All the monks report the same experience and ask Baithin the cause and origin of it. He replies, “You know our father Columba’s concern for us, and how distressed he is that we come late to him, being mindful of our labours. It is because he does not come in the body to meet us that his spirit comes to meet our approaching steps; and in this way he comforts us and makes us glad.”


Baithin intends to sail to Tiree on the same day as Colman Ela, son of Columba’s sister, was going to Ireland. To ensure that both enjoy fair winds Columba advises Baithin to set sail at dawn and Colman to follow him at the third hour. (This may be less an example of Columba’s miraculous powers as evidence of his knowledge of the sea and the weather.)


Columba is on the isle of Hinba when the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out on him in “matchless abundance” for three days. He regrets that Baithene, “his foster-son” was not there for “he would have written down at the blessed man’s dictation very many mysteries, unknown to other man, of ages past or future, and also some interpretations of the sacred books”. Baithin was detained on Ege (Eigg) for the three days of this experience.


Columba has foreknowledge of his death. He is in his hut copying a psalter and reaches the verse of the 33rd psalm, where it says, “ They that see the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good.” He says, “Here, at the end of this page, I must stop. Let Baithene write what follows.” When he has finished writing he enters the church for the service of vespers. He returns to his lodging, where he lies on his bed and entrusts his last commands to his attendants, “ This last charge I give you, little children, that you keep between you mutual and unfeigned charity and peace. And if you observe this command in accordance with the examples of the holy fathers, God who gives strength to the good, will be your helper, and I, abiding with Him, will intercede for you; and not only will the needs of this present life be sufficiently supplied by Him, but also the rewards of the good things of eternity, which are prepared for those who keep God’s commandments, will be bestowed on you.”


Modern day St. Johnston is a Donegal village of 1227 inhabitants near the border with Co. Derry, N. Ireland, situated in the fertile Laggan valley on the banks of the river Foyle. The population is predominantly White Irish and Catholic, falling into socio-economic groups 2 – 5.

Make of that what you will! I lived in the Ard Baithin estate in St. Johnston from 2004 – 2007 and found it a genuinely neighbourly community and a great place to live. I was impressed by the motivation and commitment by members of the village to improve conditions and to provide new opportunities for personal and community development. The area is scenically beautiful and full of historical interest.

I was interested to learn  that the estate where I had come to live was named after a person and I wanted to find out more about him. That is the reason for me choosing this topic for my research project. 


The Senior class of St. Baithin’s National School, St. Johnston, and their class teacher, Miss Curran, Miss Meehan, principal, Mrs McDaid, school secretary, Father Daniel Carr, Tim Spalding, Mary Ryan, George Friel, Jan Lewis, Mary Browne, Ida Fisher, John McCrossan, George Tinney, Bernie Gillespie, Mary Crossan, Amanda Slevin, Carol McCrossan,  Mary Kerr, Marion Crawford, Eamonn O’Connor, Pearl Tinney, Rosemary Toland, Hilary Morton, Lorna Morton, Eileen Blake, Jacquie Ward, Aidan Doherty, Canon David Crooks and Paul Peoples. 



To find out the level of knowledge about St. Baithin among children in St. Baithin’s National School, St. Johnston.


My secondary data on the life of St. Baithin was gained from talking to local people such as Father Daniel Carr, PP at St. Baithin’s Church, St. Johnston, Canon David Crooks, Church of Ireland Rector of Taughboyne parish, and Mary Crossan, Project Coordinator  of St. Johnston and Carrigans Resource Centre. Father Carr lent me Adomnan’s Life Of Columba, and I borrowed a number of books from Donegal Library Service in Letterkenny. Pearl Tinney of Ard Baithin lent me Canon Crooks’s two books about parishes in the Derry and Raphoe diocese. Information on local statistics was accessed from the internet.

I spoke to the principal of the local national school and she agreed to let me conduct a group interview with the senior class using a short questionnaire I had prepared. The sample consisted of 25 boys and girls, aged 11 – 12 years.

I performed a short test interview using my questionnaire with George Friel, one of the other students on the research module. This gave me a better idea of how the questionnaire could be more tightly constructed, and I did modify it slightly on the basis of George’s input.

This would be mixed method research, i.e. qualitative and quantitative.  I would be able to assess what the children  knew by the number of facts they told me, but ,also, I would be looking at the depth of knowledge indicated by these facts and   considering their views on how important they considered this knowledge to be both for them and the rest of the village.

TECHNIQUE:  This would be a group interview in the classroom using a short questionnaire. Answers were to be recorded on a flip chart, during the interview. The session was predicted to last no longer than 30 minutes. The class teacher, Miss Curran, gave her permission for me to perform the interview at the beginning of the afternoon class on Thursday, 27 November, 2008.

ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES: This was a good way to get a fair sized sample in one place, at one time, focused on the questionnaire. I had a high response rate! Every child told me at least one fact they knew about St. Baithin.

They were familiar with the classroom situation, therefore geared up to respond to my questioning. They were focused on me at the front of the class, and concentrating on the subject of Baithin. Although I was not familiar to them, presumably I was viewed as another adult teacher figure doing what adult teacher figures do at the front of a class!

I was able to give a simple explanation of what I was going to do and what I expected of them and reassure them of confidentiality and anonymity.

I was able to write their responses down immediately and verbatim, so recording was not a problem.

The class teacher was present at her desk for the session but she did not intervene verbally at all. I’m not sure what bearing her presence had on the class and whether this affected their responses. She seems to maintain a high level of discipline, judging by the politeness and responsiveness of the children, and the order in the classroom.

I found the formality of the classroom slightly uncomfortable, especially when I was having problems assembling my equipment at the start,  and I was aware that interviews “depend on developing some kind of ‘rapport’ with the informant(s)”, (Hall, p.101). I tried to maintain a warm and encouraging manner, despite my inner feelings!

One of the known effects of group interviews is that of acquiescence, and where members of a group already have a history, familiarity can “inhibit disclosure”, (Hall, p.159).  I don’t think this was too much of a problem in this situation as I was asking for hard facts mostly. However, when I was asking about the importance of knowing about Baithin, I was aware of the inhibiting effect for children of speaking in a classroom with their teacher and classmates present. The idea of right or wrong answers was not something I wanted to convey, but I don’t think I managed to overcome this, and, indeed, it would seem to be hard to do given that I was in their own formal learning environment.

Once I started asking questions the session seemed to flow and the children were eager to give answers. No one shouted out. They all put up their hands so I was able to ask each child in turn. The response rate was 100 percent.


(See appendices for copy of questionnaire used and list of answers given.) All the children knew who St. Baithin was and the reason the school was named after him. (Question 1.)  In response to question 3. they told me 32 facts about their patron saint. I grouped their answers into 4 groups. B. stands for specific facts about Baithin himself, C. is for conjecture (things that might be assumed for the young Baithin and for the monk he became), D is for facts that might be generally applied to people of the time and which show knowledge of the era that Baithin lived in, and M. covers those facts that show an understanding of sixth century Irish monastic life.



B.        9 facts             D.        8 facts       

C.        3 facts             M.       14 facts 

(One of the facts appears in 2 groups so the total appears to be 34, but it was 32 facts in total.)

From my own reading it seems that what we can actually know about Baithin the person is limited. That the children knew 9 specific things about him shows good knowledge. It is not comprehensive from the sources that are available but it is good, and, indicates that, perhaps, they are taught about Baithin within the school. Their knowledge about Irish monastic life was extremely good and incredibly detailed. One child told me about the “scriptorium”, (her words), that monks used for writing in, another went into the materials that were used for scribal activities and where they were sourced from.

The knowledge they demonstrated shows a degree of learning which encompasses history, geography, spirituality, and an awareness of their own Irish heritage and some of its specifics. They also show a keen awareness of their local history and consider it important that they and the rest of the village should know about St. Baithin. (There were no dissenters when one child stated that Baithin “is our patron saint and we should know about him”!)

These children are a small sample of a very specific group (i.e. 25 11-12 year olds) within St. Johnston, and they are all pupils at St. Baithin’s National School, so one would expect them to know something of him. However, they are an integral part of the whole community and part of the future generations, so it is encouraging get the results that I have as they could be so influential. . After completing the primary research, I was given a small booklet by Mary Crossan, to which her daughter, Nuala, contributed when she was at the school in 2000. The booklet was produced by teachers and pupils in commemoration of the 1400 anniversary of Baithin’s death, and I discovered that most of the facts the children told me were in this book. It is a beguiling compilation of poems, songs and historical facts to do with Baithin and his times, and I deduce it is part of the material used to educate these schoolchildren about their patron saint. (Unfortunately, no sources are included in it.)

As the children were so emphatic that everyone in St. Johnston should know about him I wondered if they could not be included in some kind of wider dissemination of the knowledge they have to the wider community?

My secondary research was not exhaustive, constrained as it was by time and the requirements of the research module, and I think there is room for further reading into all  the sources that are available to do with Baithin, (including the Annals that I was unable to access in the time available). There is also the matter of the untranslated Latin life that Brian Lacy mentions!


  1. Adomnan of Iona, (translated by Richard Sharpe, 1995),  Life of St. Columba, Penguin Classics, London.

  2. Bourke, C, (ed.), 1997, Studies in the Cult of St. Columba, Four Courts Press, Dublin.

  3. Census 2006 Small Area Population Statistics, 2006,

  4. Crooks, DWT, 1992, In the Footsteps of Saint Baithin, Donegal Democrat, Ballyshannon.

  5. Crooks, DWT, 2001, Living Stones: A Historical Survey of the Churches of the Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe, Styletype Printing Ltd..

  6. Forristal, D, 1997, Colum  Cille: The Fox and the Dove, Veritas, Dublin.

  7. Gillespie, C, and pupils of Scoil Cholmcille, An Tearmann,  St.Colmcille:Gartan to Iona, A Life’s Journey, Cooperation North, Peace and Reconciliation Programme, Donegal.

  8. Hall, D & Hall, I, Practical Social Research, Macmillan, London.

  9. Lacy, B, 1997, Sorry, don’t have title of this book, someone borrowed it from me.

  10. Marsden, J, 1991,1995, The Illustrated Life of Columba, Floris Books, Edinburgh.

  11. Rudd, J, 1999, Studying Your Local Area, Combat Poverty Agency, Dublin.

  12. Scoil Naomh Baoithin, Baile Suinjean, 2000, St. Baithin 600-2000, Donegal Printing Co., Letterkenny.

  13. Silke, JJ, 1997, Two Abbots, Diocese of Raphoe, Veritas Publications, Dublin.


1. Yes  100%

2. Yes  100%


i.                  born 536 AD   

ii.                 taught by Columcille

iii.                cousin of Columcille

iv.               had a great love of birds and animals

v.                part of the royal family of Conal Gulban

vi.                went to Iona with 12 others

vii.              his brother was called Cobthach

viii.            spent a lot of time praying

ix.               loved going to mass

x.                liked hunting

xi.               used spear and javelin

xii.              loved to fish

xiii.            caught trout and salmon

xiv.            used snare attached to hazel rod for fishing

xv.             used animal skins for blankets on Iona

xvi.            ate one meal a day

xvii.          did chores

xviii.         collected firewood

xix.            built a library for books

xx.              built a scriptorium for writing in

xxi.            built a monastery to pray in

xxii.           built huts to live in

xxiii.         baked scones in the shape of letters when learning the alphabet

xxiv.         took sick animals to his house and cared for them

xxv.          used animal skins as a bed

xxvi.         used skins for vellum to write on

xxvii.        used feathers for quill pens

xxviii.       made ink from various plants

xxix.         lived in beehive shaped huts made of wood

xxx.          sailed to Iona, 12 miles off the Scottish mainland

xxxi.         liked to go out and play games with his friends

xxxii.         celebrated mass outdoors as inside of church not that big

5. Yes!  100%

6. Yes  He’s the Patron Saint of our village and we should know about him.


22 October 2008

The course began 2 weeks ago but despite being at the information evening and signing up to it I do not seem to have been informed about its start! Tonight I learnt how to access Census and SAPS statistics from the Internet so was able to bring up facts about St. Johnston.

I tried applying these skills to and discovered that St. Baithin is not included on their list of Irish saints. Another forgotten saint enters my life!

Spoke to local PP later and he said that Baithin would be considered “minor” in pantheon of saints. This makes me even more curious about the man, his influence and why the Catholic church consider him minor when he was Columba’s right hand man, chosen to be the second abbot of Iona. Columba’s stature and influence in both the Irish and English churches is huge and he, obviously, did not consider Baithin minor!  There is a parallel here with the way negative way I sometimes see St. Johnston is perceived, usually by people who have never been here. Conversely, the folk who have experienced the place (e.g. Diabetic Nurse Specialists at LGH who have done info sessions at the resource centre) recognise what a great community it is.

What effect do these outward perceptions have on the people of St. Johnston?

They are obviously proud of St. Baithin, naming so many things after him.

On November 7, the village with Carrigans and Porthall was featured on  UTV’s “Lesser Spotted Ulster”, presented by Joe Mahon. Mary Crossan spoke about the history of salmon fishing in the Foyle, the economic situation that forced many men to travel to the other islands looking for work. These men would still return for the salmon season, to enhance their incomes, “put shoes on the feet of the children”, as Mary put it. St. Johnston had 15 businesses in the Main Street and a railway station up until 1965. It is a border town, only 3 miles from Derry so was affected by partition of 1921.

My experience of the place is extremely positive. It is a motivated and cohesive community, open to outsiders. I saw impressive work being done during the 3 years I lived there, including the launch of an Ulster Scots dictionary by local young people with the help of Donegal library services (Taobh Tire). The young people concerned had obviously worked hard and gained much, producing an important work.

This community deserves recognition and respect for its qualities and abilities. I felt that people are valued here.

Wed 5 November 2008: This week we were learning how to gather data and analyse it. I am catching up with handouts from sessions I missed.

9 November 2008: I have been looking at feminist approaches to ethnography and empowerment of the interviewees. Am reminded of Mass Observation of 1930s and the different approaches taken by George Orwell in the 1930s and Beatrix Campbell in the 1980s to Wigan! I am also reminded of the Carers’ Project in Leeds, which resulted in Carers producing a book for other carers. I was aware of feelings of responsibility for people I interviewed then. It bothered me that an academic approach can often seem cold or exploitative, shoring up the ego of researcher, whose skills are foregrounded.  I heard massive outpourings from people whose voices were rarely heard and it was a moving experience, humbling too. I feel strongly about people doing things for themselves and being empowered in the process.

From my reading of the handout I have been focusing my aims and narrowing down my subjects. I have also considered my methods and whose cooperation I will need. Father Carr, PP, is on board and will help me contact the school about interviewing children there about Baithin.

27 November 2008: Realise how hard doing a good group interview is, and how important preparation is! I lost my nerve during my session with the children and omitted question 4., entirely. Just wanted to get out of the school, felt exhausted! It was useful to come over to resource centre and do quick run through/analysis of what I had just got in the way of responses to my questions.

5 December 2008: My biggest learning curve has been using the computer to write up my report and dealing with digital photographs. The stress of accessing equipment I am not used to when I am free to do so, (I do not have my own computer at the moment), has been the worst part of this course. Because I do not live in the village (about 30 mins away by car) I have had to arrange my research and contact people from a distance, also I am not known to them. I also have a stressful job in the health service and coming out to St Johnston in the evening after a day at work has been extremely tiring, although very worthwhile. This report has been produced under duress, as I have also had health problems, but I have to say I have learnt loads about the research process, its practical applications, technical equipment and myself! It has been great being part of such a lovely and stimulating group.