Q: I came across the title, “White Martyrs.” Who or what were they?
A: In the book How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday), Thomas Cahill talks about both green and white martyrdom. According to Cahill, Ireland was unique in that Christianity was introduced there without bloodshed (red martyrdom). No Irish martyrs emerged until the time of Elizabeth I. Cahill states that this lack of martyrdom disturbed the Irish, so they conceived first of a green martyrdom.
Green martyrs left behind the comforts and pleasures of ordinary human society to live hermits’ lives on mountaintops or lonely islands. As Cahill puts it, they went “to one of the green noman’s lands outside tribal jurisdiction.” There they studied Scripture and communed with God after the example of the anchorites in the Egyptian desert. Ireland could not duplicate the barren terrain of the Egyptian desert; thus, this green martyrdom gave way to the more social life of monasticism.
Against this background Cahill introduces Columcille (“Dove of God”)—also called Columba or Crimthaann. Born in 521, a prince with a title to kingship, he chose to become a monk. By age 41 he had founded 41 monasteries. Because Columba was held responsible for the Battle of Cuil Dremmed in which 3,000 men died, he became an exile. As penance he set out to save the same number of people as died in the battle.
Columba, with 12 relatives, founded a monastery on Iona off the coast of Scotland that became famous throughout Europe. Monks from Iona in turn set out for what they called a white martyrdom: “[H]enceforth all who followed Columcille’s lead were called to the white martyrdom, they who sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.”