The Irishman who became patron saint of Austria
Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
(first published in Word October 2006)
Until 1663 when he was replaced by Saint Leopold the patron saint of Austria was an Irish man, Saint Colman.
Very little is known about who exactly he was though it is believed that he was a king’s son from somewhere in the south of Ireland. It was the year 1012 when a stranger calling himself Colman or Coloman wandered into the village of Stockerau, North of Vienna. He was on his way to the Holy land when his horse lost a shoe and he needed the service of the local smithy.
In a time when people did not venture far from their native villages and everyone knew everyone, strangers stood out. This particular stranger spoke a strange tongue and wore strange clothes. The neighbouring Bohemians had often attacked the area and the villagers took Colman to be one of their spies sent to do a reconnaissance.
Perhaps bitter and angry with previous incursions a mob gathered around the Irishman and he was thrown into jail where they tortured him but to no avail. He wouldn’t talk their language and persisted in speaking his unknown language. They brought him before the local judge but Colman’s attempts to explain himself as Gaeilge and with gestures made no impression on the judge who sentenced him to death by hanging.
He was dragged to barren elder tree and they hanged him there between two murderers.
It was the usual practice of the time to leave the corpse hanging to act as a deterrent. In the case of Colman his body hung on the elder tree for eighteen months.
Unlike the other corpses however, it did not decompose and it appeared to be as fresh as the day he died. Nor had the ravens and crows plucked out his eyes. The barren elder tree had also started to blossom. The villagers wondered at this but more was to come.
In the village there was a man called Rumaldus and his son suffered from severe gout. Rumaldus could do nothing about it until one night he was told in a dream to rub the afflicted area with a piece of flesh from a hanged man’s body. It was a common belief at the time that a hanged man’s body brought luck and cured certain ailments. Very often certain bodily parts were removed for this purpose. This is exactly what Rumaldus did and the corpse he chose was Colman’s. While he was cutting off a piece of flesh warm blood flowed out as if the body was still alive. He brought it home and the afflicted area had scarcely been rubbed three times when the boy stood up and was cured. Truly amazed by what had happed Rumaldus went back to where Colman was hanging and is reported to have seen that there was no trace of any incision made on the corpse.
The locals took this as evidence that Colman was no spy, but a holy man. They realised then that they that they had being a bit hasty in hanging the stranger and had treated him with great injustice. The least they could now do was to give him a decent Christian burial and he was buried it in a small church nearby. Not long after this his origins could be established when one of Colman’s servants traveling from Ireland, trying to trace the whereabouts of his unfortunate master, turned up in the village.
The village basilica was not to be Colman’s final resting place. The following year The Danube broke its banks and flooded the entire area causing massive destruction. The only place that the water shunned was Colman’s grave, which remained a green dry island. The local prince was deeply impressed upon hearing this and decided to the holy man’s body in re-interned in more suitable surroundings. It is said that when his grave was opened a smell arose that gave joy to all who smelt it and that the body still had shown no signs of decomposition. Thus the remains were transferred to Melk in 1014. Leopold II of Austria made Melk into a Benedictine monastery in 1089 and Colman, though never officially canonized became its patron saint.
Word spread of the saint’s remains and people travelled from afar to see them. A Colman cult thrived and no less than four popes granted indulgences to those who evoked his name. It was highly desirable for a nobleman to have holy relics in his kingdom and tended to increase his standing greatly.
Perhaps with this in mind King Stefan of Hungary wanted the remains to be brought to Hungary. When his request was turned down he threatened to start a war. In order to avoid bloodshed the Austrian’s reluctantly handed over the remains. The Hungarians were ecstatic that the miracle worker’s remains had come to their country. Instead of a blessing however Stephan’s kingdom was hit by plagues and famine, which the king believed to be an act of punishment and he had the remains returned to Melk in 1016.
Colman became patron saint of Austria in 1244. He also became patron saint of those sentenced to death by hanging, travellers and cattle, protected against foot ailments and the plague. Popular images of him show a man wearing pilgrim’s clothes of hat, cloak, and walking stick and are still quite numerous.
He was not only revered in Austria, but also in Bavaria, Swabia and Hungary, where several churches bear his name. Farmers’ daughters used to call upon him to send them a good husband.
Though he was replaced as Austria’s national saint by Saint Leopold in 1663 he still retains popularity. There is still an annual blessing of horses and cattle at Melk on his feast day on the 13 October. It is not only in Melk that traces of Colman are to be found. Beside the North side entrance of Vienna’s famous St. Stephen’s cathedral there is a stone, which once had traces of blood on it. This is said to be the stone on which Colman was executed.
Though it seems hard to believe that a single Irishman could have accidentally attracted so much attention he is still revered today a thousand years after his execution. In recent years
He has become a symbol of the need for us to listen to one another. He looked different and spoke differently and such people still arouse suspicion and can very easily fall victim to intolerance.