Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Hagiographer and historian, b. in County Donegal, Ireland, about the beginning of the seventeenth century; d. probably in 1657. Having joined the Franciscan Order he was sent to study in the Irish Franciscan College of St. Anthony of Padua in Louvain. Here he is said to have acted as professor of theology for some time, but he soon forsook the professorial chair in order to devote himself to the Irish studies for which that college is justly famous. Father Hugh Ward (d. 1635) had projected a complete history of the Irish saints, and for this purpose had sent some of his brethren, notably Michael O'Clery, to Ireland to collect materials. Ward died before he could make any progress in his work, but the materials that had been gathered remained. Colgan, being a competent master of the Irish language, had thus ready at hand a collection of manuscripts unequalled in the department of Irish hagiology. He undertook a great work, to be published in six volumes, dealing with the whole range of Irish ecclesiastical history and antiquities. In 1645 he published at Louvain the third volume of this series (Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, etc.), containing the lives of the Irish saints whose feasts occur in the calendar for the months of January, February, and March. The lives of the saints whose feasts occur in the succeeding months were to have been published in the last three volumes of the series. Wadding, in his "Annales Minorum", informs us that the volume dealing with the saints for April, May, and June was in the press at Colgan's death; this seems incorrect, since, if the work had been so far advanced, it would have been published by some one of the many competent colleagues who assisted Colgan.

The second volume of the series, entitled "Trias Thaumaturga", etc., appeared at Louvain in 1647. It deals with the three great national saints of Ireland, Patrick, Brigid, and Columbcille. In it are contained seven of the ancient lives of St. Patrick, five of St. Columba, and six of St. Brigid. For a long time the "Trias Thaumaturga" was nearly the only source of information on St. Patrick , and even since the Whitley Stokes edition of the "Vita Tripartita" (Rolls Series), Colgan's work cannot be dispensed with. It should be noted that Colgan gives a Latin version of the "Vita Tripartita" which represents a different text from that edited by Stokes; Colgan's manuscript seems to have entirely disappeared. Besides the "Lives" in the "Trias Thaumaturga", there are also contained in this volume many valuable "Appendices", dealing with the ecclesiastical antiquities of Ireland, and critical and topographical notes, which, though not always correct, are of invaluable assistance to the student. In 1655 he published at Antwerp a life of Duns Scotus, in which he undertook to prove that this great Franciscan doctor was born in Ireland, and not in Scotland, as was then frequently asserted. In the "Bibliotheca Franciscana" Colgan is said to have died in 1647, but this is evidently a mistake, as a note in his work on Duns Scotus proves clearly that he was alive in 1655.

Colgan's work on Irish hagiology is of undoubted value. Though unfortunately of very weak constitution, he was a man of great ability and industry, and with a sound critical sense. His knowledge of the Irish language enabled him to turn to good account the vast collection of manuscripts (now unfortunately for the greater part lost) which had been collected at the instigation of Ward, while his acquaintance with the traditions existing among the native Irish of his time, about the various names of persons and places, gave him an advantage over writers of the present day. It must be remembered, however, that Colgan, though a fluent Irish speaker, had not, and from the nature of things could not have, a knowledge of the grammatical forms of Old and Middle Irish. Hence his judgments about the dating of the manuscripts and about the meaning of certain difficult expressions ought not to be put forward as irreversible. In other words, Colgan should be judged by the criteria of his time ; from this point of view his work on the ecclesiastical history of Ireland is unequalled. But his opinions are not decisive evidences of truth at the present day, especially when pitted against the view of the most skilled students of Old and Middle Irish grammar and texts. His principal works are: "Acta Sanctorum veteris et majoris Scotix seu Hibernix, Sanctorum Insulx, partim ex variis per Europam manuscript Codicibus exscripta, partim ex antiquis monumentis et probatis Auctoribus eruta et congesta; omnia Notis et Appendicibus illustrata. Tomus primus qui de Sacris Hibernix Antiquitatibus est tertius, Januarium, Februarium et Martium complectens" (Louvain, 1645); "Triadis Thaumaturgx, seu Divorum Patricci Columbx et Brigidx, trium Veteris et Majoris Scotix, seu Hibernix, Sanctorum Insulx, communium Patronorum Acta, Tomus Secundus Sacrarum ejusdem Insulx Antiquitatum" (Louvain, 1647); "Tractatus de Vita, Patria, Scriptis Johannis Scoti, Doctoris Subtilis" (Antwerp, 1655). Besides these he left in manuscript "De Apostolatu Hibernorum inter exteras Gentes cum Dice Alphabetico de exteris santis" (852 pages); "De Sanctis in Anglia, Britannia, Aremorica, in reliqua Gallia, in Belgio" (1068 pages); "De Sanctis in Lotharingia et Burgundia, in Germania ad senestram et dexteram Rheni, in Italia" (920 pages). Some of these invaluable manuscripts, though eagerly sought for, have not yet been traced (see Gilbert, National manuscripts of Ireland, London, 1884; or Doherty, op. cit. below, 81-82).

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 6:1-9
1 Children, be obedient to your parents in the Lord -- that is what ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 145:10-11, 12-13, 13-14
10 All your creatures shall thank you, Yahweh, and your faithful shall ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 13:22-30
22 Through towns and villages he went teaching, making his way to ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 26th, 2016 Image

St. Bean
October 26: On December 16, there is named in the Roman ... Read More