When the Saints go Marching – On the Trail of Columbanus by Barry Sloan: Book Review

sloanbook2Last November marked the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columbanus, the Ulster monk whose missions on the continent have made him the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe.

This anniversary was marked in various ways on the island of Ireland and in Europe, including a joint BBC/RTE documentary titled ‘Mary McAleese and the Man who Saved Europe.’

The Mary McAleese documentary gave some flavour of the sights and sounds of the present-day landscape where Columbanus established monasteries, admonished chiefs and kings, promoted scholarship, and preached the gospel.


Rev Barry Sloan, a Methodist minister and native of Carrickfergus who has worked in the United Methodist Church in Germany for the last 16 years, also followed the Columbanus trail in the lead up to the landmark anniversary.

Sloan has chronicled his adventures in a sharp and witty book, When the Saints go Marching: On the Trail of Columbanus (Youcaxton Publications, 2015). [The kindle version of the book is free on Kindle Unlimited.]

Sloan’s journey from Columbanus’ home monastery in Bangor through France, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy is also a journey of inward discovery as he ponders his own identity as a Northern Irish Protestant and how he has come to be open to the spiritual insights of other Christian traditions.

As the first line on the book jacket reads: ‘Why would a Northern Irish Protestant, raised in a staunchly loyalist community, hitchhike through Catholic Europe on the trail of medieval celtic monks?’

The book doesn’t provide much background information about the life experiences that may have pushed Sloan on this journey, but throughout – particularly when he encounters Catholic priests, worship and prayer – he reflects on how these differ from his own tradition and considers what he might learn from them. Near the end of the book Sloan reveals that his father was a ‘Loyalist Prisoner of War’ in Long Kesh, and contrasts his childhood understanding of Protestantism with ‘the expression of true Christian faith and identity in Christ I was later to discover’ (p. 189-190).

One of the more interesting characters he encounters on his way is a monk from Dublin called Patrick who he meets in the Columban monastery in Luxeuil. Sloan details Patrick’s hospitality in hosting him as a guest in the monastery and showing him the Columban sites in the area, as well as noting their theological conversations. Even so, there is a note of sadness when he shares that after discussion with Patrick he did not attend the Sunday service in the monastery church, because of the prohibition on Eucharistic sharing.

Indeed it is the people who extend kindness to Sloan who are the stars of the book, including the members of the Friends of Columbanus, who are scattered throughout the continent. They often serve as impromptu hosts and tour guides.

Then there are those who assist Sloan in his hitchhiking endeavour. For accommodation he relies on internet couch surfing sites, accommodation in churches or monasteries, or people’s homes. Part of the pilgrimage for Sloan is to intentionally trust the providence of God – and/or the kindness of strangers – to deliver him to his destinations along the way.

Sloan recounts a number of humorous and spiritual conversations with these people. His observations about ‘what works’ for enticing people to stop for a hitch hiker are also entertaining – striking just the right look can be challenging and waiting for hours in the sun can sap the spirit.

Sloan supplies plenty of information about the life of Columbanus, providing perspective on his achievements. Readers learn about the strict discipline of the Bangor monks, how they gained the admiration or ire of those on the continent, how Columbanus challenged the temporal power of political leaders, and even Columbanus’ physical exploits – when he was more than 70 years old he set off to cross the Alps on foot to Bobbio in Italy to start a new monastery.

In the final chapter, Sloan uses the German phrase ‘na und?’ (‘and now?’) to focus his reflections. And this chapter becomes a call – to himself and also to his readers – to build a kind of church that reflects the spirit of the ancient Celtic mission in Europe (p. 191):

‘The stories of Columbanus, Gall and the other missionary monks from Bangor have left a mark on me. I know they lived in a different era, and I know their understanding of the Christian faith and how it is practised, differs at various points with mine. But I have nothing but the utmost respect for these men of God who heard the call to follow Christ ‘even unto the end of the world’. I admire their dedication, their faith, their intellect and the way they integrated their faith into everyday life. For them, there was no sacred and secular, for all was holy, if submitted to God.

My Columban adventure has convinced me more than ever that modern day Europe needs this kind of church. … A church that is more a movement, than a monument – always reforming, and breaking down walls, crossing borders as it reaches out to others in love.’

  • Zorin001

    Thank you for this, I am a Bangor native and am ashamed to say that my knowledge of Columbanus is somewhat limited; will have to check out the book.

  • ted hagan

    Can’t really see why a Northern Ireland Protestant would have any difficulty following the trail of Columbanus actually. I mean it’s about the spread of Christianity and long before the age of Protestantism. And where does the idea of ‘Catholic’ Europe come from?

  • csb

    I’m not particularly interested in religion, but it’s interesting to think how Irish monks like Columbán and his followers, through the manuscript tradition, helped to preserve some of our own cultural heritage that would have been lost otherwise – Old Irish poetry, etc.

  • Anglo-Irish

    From the same place as ‘analog watches’.

    Many years ago I set out to buy myself a new watch. Digital watches were all the rage and in fact looked at the time as though they might take over from the traditional watch.

    I didn’t like them, and so I started to explain to the jeweler that I wanted one with hands.

    ” You mean an analog watch sir. ” he said.

    First time that I’d heard the word used in that context.

    He explained that when all watches were the same no other description was necessary but now that there was another version they needed to be differentiated.

    I wonder if staunch Protestants ever have sleepless nights thinking about how they are descended from ancestors who were – for centuries – what is now called Catholic?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And all in turn descended from Pagans, of one variety or another!!! Simply thinking about this without blinkers puts a great deal of the exclusivism of certain versions of Christianity into a most interesting perspective. As a rather devout teenager (early teens) I once had a discussion with a Calvinist about Socrates and Plato’s current spiritual state. “In Hell,” I was told….

    We Anglicans are let off the hook (at least as far as most of us would think) because our Ordinations are in continuous unbroken succession from Catholic Ordinations seamlessly running into our version of the reformed churches. “Heads I win, tails you loose………..”

  • Zorin001

    On another forum I am currently in the middle of a very interesting discussion of the historicity of the Bible and the likelihood of the truth of Biblical innerrancy. I’m a non-believer myself but possibly if I had had the opportunity to have the questions of my younger self answered in this manner rather than the “sit down, shut up and don’t rock the boat” manner that I encountered through the mainstream denominations I may have stayed with the Christian faith longer

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As something of an effete Anglican Gnostic cripto-Pagan myself, Zorin, I do not feel in any obliged to believe what any orthodoxy requires me to believe, but its a very lonely place to be sometimes.

    I entirely agree that the rigid “sit down, shut up and don’t rock the boat” approach is an impossible thing to live with for anyone with a questioning mind, but I was lucky in that I was brought up by men and women who were just as questioning as I am today (an inheritance then on my part), who encouraged me to look at the Gnostic versions of Christianity and at many other faiths (including Shinto and Humanism), and with whom I could discuss the Nag Hammedi Texts when the appeared in the 1970s. This made it possible for me to surf the wave of possible rejection and find a small niche I could just about sit in.

  • Zorin001

    I have a deep interest in Gnosticism myself and was for a brief time toying with Thelema; aspects of which I have adapted into my daily life without rigidly practicing (I like to think old Aleister would have approved).

    I think it’s hard to grow up in this region without some sort of religious fervour rubbing off on you but alas i’m too much of a scientist to open myself to faith, something I admit has troubled me in the past.

    Saying that I find much to admire in all the words religions, its just the practitioners I occasionally have trouble with.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Although raised a Catholic I could never – even as a child – believe in the way that many appear to.

    No other religion appeals as it’s the concept of humans – but only a select few – knowing the truth as to whether or not there is a God and what ‘his’ nature is that seems nonsense to me.

    As an agnostic I think that the wisest words spoken on how to deal with God (s) or lack thereof were spoken by Marcus Aurelius who died on St Patrick’s day 180 AD.

    When asked what to do about all these conflicting religions and which if any to worship he replied;

    ” Live a good life, then when you die if the God(s) are just they will not care that you didn’t spend your life worshiping them. If the God(s) are not just you should not be worshiping them.
    If there are no God (s) then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones “.

    As an agnostic I simply accept the fact that I don’t know and therefore there’s little point in believing that there is or isn’t a God.

    Either way I certainly have no belief in an afterlife, whilst I can see what would be in it for humanity I can see no reason whatsoever why a supreme being would wish to spend eternity surrounded by intellectual pygmies.

    By the way I’m married to an Anglican and you lot can think what you like but you’re all a bunch of heretics whatever wiggle room you may think you have! : )

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Bless you, Anglo-Irishman! I love the last bit, reminds me of poor wee Cathal O’Byrne anguishing over the damnation of his dear friend Francis Joseph Bigger, who, as a High Church Anglican might have been a crypto-Catholic in the eyes of every orthodox Covenanter, but was certainly on the wrong side of the Reformation, even so, for any truly devout Catholic. But then I’d have demanded Plato and Socrates, heretics both, in any afterlife I’d be at all interested in.

    The Emperor Marcus I knew by heart at one time and I constantly find his “Meditations” surfacing in my mind all the time. When I look at this bizarre place to live, I need all the Stoicism I can muster, and the best place to find it is Marcus.

    Interestingly, your “pigmies” comment reminds me of C.S.Lewis’s description of Christ entering into the human condition as being like an intelligent human having to live in the mind and thought patterns of a cat. While I’m filled with doubts constantly I’m still with Erasmus, (via Bollingen in my case), “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.” As yer man said “Though I don’t believe in Ghosts, I still know they’re there.”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ahhhhh….Uncle Aleister! I’ve been flirting with yer woman Violet Frith myself at various times in the past! Regarding Gnosticism, I encountered a letter in “Time Life” by Stephan Hoeller in my teens that first informed me that Gnosticism was alive and well today, long, long before I encountered Uncle Aleister (I still have a first edition of his “Magick” bought in my 20s, however). I’ll risk being called a fantasist again and perhaps mention that at a later point in my life I discovered that my father-in-law was one of Hoeller’s patrons and a close personal friend. He and I were talking late into the night once in a little borrowed Hollywood (CA) bungalow filled with esoteric books when that unmistakable chin-beard appeared through the door at about 3.00am.

    And “practicioners”, oh yes……

  • Anglo-Irish

    The idea that because someone was born before God got around to delivering his message they would then be condemned to eternal hell fire is both ridiculous and totally unchristian, the eagerness of some supposedly religious people to consign others to eternal damnation never ceases to amaze and amuse me.

    In my opinion C. S. Lewis seriously underestimated the reality of the situation.

    Everything in the Universe is made out of atoms. Whilst differing in essential ways they are all composed of protons, neutrons and electrons
    If you were to scale an atom up in size until the nucleus formed by the neutron and proton is the size of a football then the electron would be orbiting approximately a mile away.

    In other words 99.999% of an atom is nothing.

    Which means that everything in the universe is made out of nothing.

    We aren’t talking man and cats here, we’re not even talking Einstein and insects, the gap in intelligence is incomprehensible and it’s going to be a little difficult to hold a rational conversation with the Creator, if such a being exists.

    Only mans hubris and belief that he is somehow important enough to go on keeps people under the influence of the various religions.

    On the other hand, if it provides some measure of comfort, good luck to those who have the capacity to believe.

  • Zorin001

    I must admit that if I was to believe in a deity then I would more than likely pivot towards Pantheism.

    Which is a great name for a band I just realise!

  • Anglo-Irish

    Pantheism as in the worship of many Gods definition?

    Makes more logical sense than most of the religions thought up by mans imagination.

    Being the Creator of all things if ‘he’ wished for some company and he could do anything ‘he’ wished then creating some other divine beings with similar – if not equal – level of intelligence would seem to make more sense than creating a mortal biped species of such stupidity and savagery that they kill each other to settle disagreements and allow poverty and starvation to kill millions of others.

    Then select some of them for company!

    The entire afterlife and being in the presence of God for all eternity doesn’t stand up to any serious thought.

    What’s in it for God?

    Spending any amount of time with creatures who’s intelligence gap would compare unfavourably with the gap between humans and amoebas doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Zorin, I say “Uncle” but it’s just a kind of affectionate way of speaking. No actual kinship, after all I’m not actually a fantasist……..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As a natural contrarian, even here I tend to take the third way, beyond both unquestioning acceptence or rationalist rejection. I ask myself what is the positive impetus in human beings, the yearning, towards that which echos the emptyness in being a great unknowable? Religions are congealed spirituality, me, I prefer to approach a spirituality that is still flowing and open to being something that may just reflect the actual shape of what may actually speak out of the emptyness. Have you ever come across the Yeats’ story “Where There is Nothing, There is God”?;


    Not that I’m trying to convert you or anything…………but have you ever encountered that profound Jewish metaphysical speculation, the Kabbalah, or Taoism or Zen? There’s a lot more out there than security blankets such as TULIP:


  • SeaanUiNeill

    Can’t resist it! An alternative pilgrimage:


  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Anglo-Irish, I wonder what Shes thinking of your use of the term “He”!!! Lets ask her prophet:


    I never met her, but have occasionally accessed her extraordinary archive at The Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas Library at the campus of the Pacifica Graduate Institute just below Santa Barbara. Lots of rich material from which anyone may construct their very own heresy! The Institute developed out of the work of James Hillman, with whom I once trained. Happy days………

    And, rather more to the point, surely you’ve read enough of my postings to see that any diety who would pass up the opportunity of listening to my anecdotes through eternity would be (male, female or unknowable) a chump………

  • Greenflag 2

    Everything ? There is that 0.000001% that is ‘stuff’ of which everything is made including cats and ants and puppy dogs tails . Those are slim odds very slim but somehow at least in this universe life as we know it exists here and nowhere else and even here it’s existence is limited to a 10 mile narrow skin from the depths of the sea to the upper atmosphere .

    I believe we are all very very very lucky to be here at all at all at all . In other universes it may be different but in this one we hit the eh ‘jackpot’ of brief existence . We should not underestimate nor overestimate our good luck 🙂 Its as the man said not guaranteed .

  • Anglo-Irish

    Well I did say 99.999% so I was allowing for the ‘stuff’ that everything is made of. Let me rephrase, everything is made of next to nothing, but it’s very tightly packed!

    It’s a wonder CERN hasn’t been in touch with me really.

    As for ‘nowhere else’ the odds on that, given the numbers involved must be infinitesimal.

    Have you read Bill Brysons ‘A short History of nearly everything’?

    As a terrifying explanation of how dependent our existence is on finely balanced, interdependent, and seemingly random occurrences it is frightening, and should cause some concern as to mans effect on knocking the whole house of cards down through sheer stupidity.

  • Anglo-Irish

    I tend to agree with the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne on the various religious beliefs that we have available to us.

    ” Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens ”

    There is a yearning within us to know what it’s all about, and because we simply don’t know we make stuff up to try to satisfy that yearning.

    As an agnostic I believe that there is no point in spending too much time worrying about a question that has no answer.

    In fact I base my personal view on that other great philosopher Homer, not the Greek poet, the American Simpson.

    In sage advice he gave to his son Bart, ” If at first you don’t succeed, give up and go and have a beer “.

    Where religion is concerned that tends rightly or wrongly, to be my attitude.

  • Greenflag 2

    I have years ago and still have a copy on my shelf . Perhaps Bryson should have titled it ‘ A Short History of Nearly Nothing ‘ but that’s just my inner wordsmith’s ‘s take on this universe . I can’t speak for other universes . Just like an ant can’t discuss gravitational waves and relativity theory 🙂
    Ernest Rutherford was the boffin who discovered the nearly nothingness of everything and the incredible density of being something .

    As for missionary methodists more later

  • Anglo-Irish

    Now you see right there is another problem that I have with the main monotheist beliefs.

    Not just the fact that God is always depicted as a man, but the fact that it is thought appropriate to assign a gender to a supreme and single entity.

    Of what possible use would genitalia be to a one off God?

    At the age of 12 or so I got myself into a ‘spot of bother’ in a RE lesson by questioning why God would choose to look like a human being.

    Given that ‘He’ had created far more spectacular looking stuff why go with the two legs, two arms and a head image?

    To what purpose was he going to put his arms and legs being as he was both omniscient and omnipresent?

    As to your anecdotes whilst I do find them personally both amusing and enlightening trying to tell one to an omniscient being that keeps stopping you to say ” heard it ” would surely get a little annoying for you?

    Especially if it went on for all eternity which as Woody Allen said ” Is a very long time,especially toward the end “.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    CERN are far too busy trying to find out if we all disappear into a black hole when the particles hit. Their only concern is that this may create problems for the write up and publication of the experiment and will certainly inhibit future funding.

    Yes, I’m astonished that things like the political polarisations of the Wee Six can build up the energy when life is such a fragile thing.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Montaigne lived during the period of the Wars of Religion in France, something, as my old history master (an exiled Bandon Protestant) used to say, we were all still going through here (“which gives you a considerable hard start in the “A” Level 17th Century History papers, boys…”).

    When I see a revival of “Waiting for Godot”, I always remember that Beckett went to school in Enniskillen and taught for a while in East Belfast. But as Greenflag said to me elsewhere today “its the journey”, so although I know I’m unlikely to find the answer to “Life, the Unverse and Everything”, I’m enjoying a journey of my own that steers well clear of that highway crowded with the true and unconditional believers, as parodied in the band name “Sons of the Never Wrong”, an indie folk band whom my friend Andrew Calhoun distributes on Waterbug:


  • Cosmo

    Gladys, i have always wondered if the 7 th century monk, Psalmodius, renowned for his singing, caught this habit at Bangor Abbey.


    I was also embarassed to meet an Italian, in Avignon, who knew far more about the Bangor Antiphony than I did !

  • Anglo-Irish

    The thing I always remember about the CERN ‘Big Bang’ experiment is that my initial thought was that the world had finally gone mad.

    We had spent billions in an effort to replicate the event – or bloody great explosion in common parlance – that was that enormous that everything that ever existed was created by it.

    Whilst never claiming that I’m the sharpest tool in the box, I felt the description ‘Big Bang’ was a bit of a giveaway as to what the result might be.

    Watching a program about it one of the scientists involved made it very clear what he thought of morons like me who were’ worrying about nothing.’.

    Although a bit miffed by this confirmation of my stupidity I was somewhat reassured by his certainty.

    This lasted up until I watched a later program which came from the under construction ‘ Hadron Collider’ itself.

    Professor Brian Cox was taking part, and toward the end of the program he popped his head out of a side passage,
    looked down the main tunnel at the camera and with that big boyish grin of his said ” The wonderful thing about this experiment is that no one, absolutely no one, knows what’s going to happen “!

    The other thing that bothers me about the whole ‘Big Bang’ thing is that it has to be the most inaccurately named event in the entire history of the universe.

    It will have been silent, you need a receptor such as an eardrum to hear anything.

    Unless of course God was listening.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Have you encountered Ian Adamson’s “Bangor, Light of the World”, now re-issued by Colourpoint Press?:


    Regular Slugger readers will be all too aware that I suggest Adamson’s opinions about “the Cruthin” require a few kilos of salt over and above the first pinch, but this is worth a look and by a local boy at that!!