St. Columba (Colmcille) founded the monastery at Drumcliffe in the year 575CE. He travelled over to Ireland from Iona with the intention of attending the Synod of Drumceatt, where the agenda included the banishment of the poets of Ireland, and then going down to Drumcliffe for this purpose. He brought with him St. Thorian – better known as St Mothorian, using the affectionate pre-fix to his name. Columba had already equipped Mothorian with a bell, a chalice, and a crozier he made himself. 

The need for land on which to build the monastery was met in a miraculous way. Columba’s kinsman Aedh, son of Ainmire, was now the High King and had effected a reconciliation with Columba after the Synod at Druimceatt where they had been on opposing sides in the debate; Aedh’s daughter had married a man from Cairbre (Carbury), a barony in north Sligo. His daughter, still quite new to the area, while crossing the river Codnach (now the Drumcliffe River) in her chariot, fell into a pool in the river, and she was drowned. Columba and Mothorian were passing at the time in a chariot driven by Columbanus of Slanore and heard a commotion of yells and weeping and hastened to the spot. They found Aedh’s daughter lying dead on the river-bank surrounded by yelling and keening locals. Without knowing who she was, Columba prayed for her, and her life returned. King Aedh himself arrived later and rewarded Columba with a gift of twenty-two acres of land, which just happened to be in the exact spot where the Battle of Cooldrevny (the Battle of the Books) had been fought. This fitted in perfectly with Columba’s intention which was no doubt that a monastery of monks would be able to pray away the blight that would be on the land after all that bloodshed. He had had thirteen years since that battle in which to meditate on how to compensate for it in a small way by doing something for that neighbourhood where so many battle-dead were buried.

Word soon spread locally and the men started to arrive. They would build little huts in a central circular enclosure, with a double bank around it, and a church in the middle.  Early Irish monasticism was unusual by today’s standards in that the monks were both eremitic (hermits) and also cenobitic (living in community). This pattern was derived from the Egyptian desert monasteries, and their Rule of life would also have been similar, based on that of Pachomius. Prayer would have been their main activity, but they would also have grown their own food, spent time in scribal work copying out the gospels and the psalms, have gone out preaching in the locality, and have healed the sick, and educated – the  local people and their children at first but later the monastery would have had its own college with students coming from near and far. The monastery had a strict rule and its monks said six offices: terce, sext, none, nocturnes, vigils and matins – prime and compline were later additions. There was much chanting of the psalms. 

Abbot Mothorian, Drumcliffe’s first abbot, was described in The Martyrology of Donegal as “holy, radiant” and as a saint he is commemorated on 9th June, the same day as St Columba. Another famous abbot was the tenth abbot, St. Torannan, who died in 921. It may have been during his time that the High Cross and the Round Tower were erected. He was described in The Martyrology of Donegal as ”lasting, deedful, over a wide shipful sea”. He was considered the monastery’s patron saint for many years. Due to the number of crosses found there, Drumcliffe was known as “Drumcliffe of the Crosses”. Though some were made of hazel, there is evidence of quite a few stone high crosses, only one of which remains intact.

The monastery at Drumcliffe was unusual in that it lasted almost a thousand years, from the sixth until the sixteenth century. It also seems to have been one of the few long-lasting monasteries that were not taken over by another order such as the Augustinians or the Benedictines; it stayed as a Columban monastery until the end.  

(drawing by Liam de Paor from ‘The Course of Irish History” by T.W. Moody & F.X. Martin)