Access Denied

A couple weeks ago, publishing conglomerate HarperCollins announced that it would require libraries subscribing to its eBook service to purchase a new copy of an eBook after 26 circulations. In other words, after a book was checked out (downloaded to an eReader) 26 times, the license for that copy would expire. The library would no longer be able to lend the book unless it renewed the license. Faced with shrinking budgets, the library world exploded. Think librarians are mild-mannered bookworms? Not so. I heard many choice words on this issue and added a few of my own to the fray.

What’s the big deal? Demand for download services is increasing with readers investing in Nooks and Kindles. Time was when a library could purchase a copy of an eBook or downloadable audiobook and the license wouldn’t expire. HarperCollins’ reasoning is that a hardcover book lent from a library will, on average, wear out after 26 checkouts and the library would need to buy another copy to replace it. I can understand the argument, but as a librarian, I can tell you most hardcovers last twice that long. Download licenses do not come cheap, and with HarperCollins setting a precedent, it won’t be long before other publishers follow suit.

What does all this have to do with ancient Ireland? Copyright. It just happens that the first recorded case of copyright violation occurred in there in the 6th century. And it led to war.

It’s called An Cathach, “The Battler,” and 58 vellum leaves of it survive today as a beautiful little book of psalms. The O’Donnells of Donegal carried the enshrined copy before them into battle down through the centuries – hence the nickname. Writing and literacy came to Ireland with the Christian Church in the 5th century, and in that young Church there was a great hunger for new biblical interpretations – sort of like today’s hunger for eBooks. Columcille, the famous abbot and founder of Iona, had a passion for books, so much so that he became a scribe himself. Back then, books were so rare that if you came across one you wanted, it wasn’t for sale. You had to arrange to have a copy made for you or do it yourself. The printing press wouldn’t be invented for another 1,000 years.

According to legend, when Columcille was visiting Finian, the Abbot of Moville and Columcille’s former master, he found that Finian possessed a copy of Jerome’s Gallacian version of the psalms. Finian loaned him the book, but unbeknownst to him, Columcille copied it. Enraged, Finian demanded that not only the book be returned at once but along with it the copy. Naturally, Columcille refused to surrender the copy he’d created, so they took the matter to Diarmait, High King of Ireland. The king ruled, citing the maxim, la cach mboin a boinín, “to every cow its calf,” and therefore, to every book its copy. Instead of returned the copy to Finian, however, Columcille fled with it back home in what is now County Londonderry. He called the judgment “unjust” and declared that he would be avenged.

The legend goes on to tell of how Diarmait’s forces clashed with the Uí Néill – Columcille’s kinsmen – and the Connachta in the Battle of Cul Dreimne (Culdrevny) near Ben Bulben in County Sligo. The year was 561 AD, according to the Annals of Ulster, and 3,000 men perished. “Terrible was the slaughter and when the battle was over Columcille was sickened to the depths of his soul by the sight of the dead and maimed on the field of conflict. In great spiritual pain he went to his soul friend St. Laisran, who gave him the severe penance of going into missionary exile in order to baptize as many souls as the fallen of Cul Dreimne. As a further penance he was never to set foot on the soil of Ireland again.” (Slavin, 2005, p. 111).

According to Marsden, the actual cause of the battle may have been the murder of Curnan, son of the King of the Connachta. This Curnan may have killed the son of King Diarmait in a hurling match (1995, p.40). This seems more believable since the accounts of Diarmait’s judgment, the ensuing battle, and Columcille’s exile are not recorded until the mid-16th century – more than 1,000 years after the event!

Still, it’s a good story. Too bad it’s not an eBook.


Kelly, F. (1995). A Guide to Early Irish Law. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Marsden, J. (1995). The Illustrated Life of Columba. Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Slavin, M. (2005). The Ancient Books of Ireland. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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