Ceisteanna — Questions. - St. Colmcille Commemoration.

Bertie Ahern

Question:

1 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if the State is planning commemoration of any kind of the 1400th anniversary of the death of St. Colmcille. [9215/97]

There are a number of strands to the State's commemoration of the 1400th anniversary of the death of St. Colmcille. The Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications advised the Dáil yesterday, in a reply to written Parliamentary Question No. 313, that An Post is now commissioning a stamp for issue commemorating St. Colmcille. The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht is making a grant of £2,000 to a major international conference to be held in Derry, once the head house of the Columban family of monasteries. Other recently received proposals for the commemoration of the anniversary are being considered and it is likely decisions on these will be made shortly.

The most significant projects to commemorate the saint in this country are appropriately being run and held in County Donegal under the guidance of a co-ordinator of events for the anniversary appointed by Donegal County Council. The largest of these events will be a multi-denominational service for between 10,000 and 20,000 people in the Colmcille Heritage Centre, Gartan, County Donegal. I am very much looking forward to paying a brief visit to the Colmcille Heritage Centre in Gartan tomorrow.

I wonder whether the Taoiseach allowed the question because I found one which related to a saint born more than a thousand years ago or because he did a U-turn on the matter. I am glad he did a U-turn and I understand it was because I issued a statement last week after Deputy McDaid received a letter from An Post which said it would be impossible to produce a stamp this year. I said I would make sure one would be issued before the end of the year as soon as the May election is over.

On a serious level, why did the Taoiseach refuse to put pressure on An Post to deal with this situation? I have asked this question a number of times. It was refused on a number of occasions in February or March so he need not look so surprised. An Post refused to deal with this situation also after Deputy McDaid raised it in the House. St. Colmcille is one of Ireland's more important saints. His monastery at lona in Scotland has been of huge significance in the cause of peace and reconciliation. The Taoiseach knew I would press him on the matter today. He put horrendous pressure on An Post to change its sequence and issue a stamp to commemorate the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. I welcome the decision here, but is it as a result of pressure and commitment from Fianna Fáil?

The Deputy is using very loose language. I did not refuse to do this nor did I ever direct An Post in any matter in regard to issuing a stamp. I am glad the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Dukes, was able to persuade An Post to revise an earlier decision of its philatelic advisory committee to the effect that there would not be a stamp to commemorate the 1400th anniversary of St. Colmcille. I expect the stamp will be issued in July.

It is fair to say that St. Colmcille was a man from the north-west who made an enormous contribution to spreading the Christian religion not only in Ireland but throughout most of northern Britain. He was a figure of outstanding historical and religious significance.

It is also fair to make the point that St. Colmcille is first and foremost a Christian saint and it is appropriate that the Christian Churches should take the lead in the commemoration of saints. The State has a supportive role in this matter but in terms of the anniversaries of Christian saints, given the relative constitutional responsibilities of Church and State, the appropriate leadership in the commemoration of saints rests with the Churches.

The philatelic advisory group put the proposals to Government last year but it was well within the bounds of the Government to change them. I was in Gartan last month, as the Taoiseach will be aware.

I did not know that.

I am glad he is slowly following my footsteps around the country. I announced in Gartan that I would deal with this matter and reverse the decision on the stamp. I received the letter on 26 March and Deputy McDaid tabled a question that day stating the Government was not providing for a stamp. The decision to alter that decision was based purely on pressure from this side of the House and, to be fair, the fact that the British Government agreed to issue a stamp to commemorate St. Columba, as St. Colmcille was known in Britain. It was a shame we did not deal with this issue earlier but I am glad the Taoiseach reversed his decision and I have found some way of asking him a question, even if I must refer to events of 1400 years ago to get one which he will answer.

I ask the Taoiseach to bring to the attention of the committee examining the list of this year's celebrations the close connection which existed between St. Colmcille or St. Columba, as he is known to the Church of Ireland community, and the town of Swords, County Dublin, which is known as Sord Colmcille? Will he ensure there is some celebration of the saint's anniversary in association with the Church authorities?

I am aware of St. Colmcille's connection with Swords. As the Deputy will be aware, one of my relatives represented Swords in Dáil Éireann for many years and he advised me of these matters. I am also very familiar with Swords.

In case the Deputy did not know, St. Colmcille has a close association with the monastic town of Kells or Ceannanas Mór, County Meath, one of the few towns the urban design of which still dates from the original design of the monastic settlement which was founded there with the assistance of St. Colmcille. I understand also that Durrow in County Laois has associations with St. Colmcille. While not wishing to detract from

Derry and Donegal, I agree with Deputy Raphael Burke that we in this less interesting part of the country can share in his glories as well.

I too welcome the U-turn the Taoiseach has takenvis-á-vis this decision. No doubt he regrets his reply to a parliamentary question stating he has no intention of celebrating the 1400th anniversary of the death of St. Colmcille, following which the matter was taken up with the chief executive of An Post. My party leader said if returned to Government a commemorative stamp would be produced and this has now come to pass. The chief executive of An Post stated in his letter that the programme for 1997 has already been approved by Government and the stamp has been designed so it would not be possible to add an additional stamp. The Taoiseach will understand my dilemma. I have been in contact with my local Highland Radio which has been broadcasting intermittently but as the Taoiseach is going to Donegal tomorrow it is suddenly on air again. Surely there must be a general election in the offing when, just as the Taoiseach is due to visit Donegal, the stamps are produced. Nonetheless, I welcome the issue of a stamp to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the death of St. Colmcille——

He should have had a cathedral erected in Donegal.

Perhaps a bridge could be built there.

I must ascertain whether any more anniversaries will occur in the next month or so when we might get a similar response.

I am looking forward to attending the 500th anniversary of Mr. John Cabot's landing in Newfoundland at the end of June which led to the establishment of the Irish settlement there. We shall be celebrating many anniversaries in coming years. However, I regret the spirit in which Deputy McDaid intervened, that he did not accept what Councillor Jim Sheridan said on Highland Radio — to the effect that a stamp would be issued, because that councillor speaks with authority on these matters.