Colgan, John (1592?–1658), Franciscan friar and hagiographer, was born in Priestown in the parish of Donagh, Inishowen, Co. Donegal. Little is known for certain of his early years or family circumstances. He was a member of a well-established Donegal clerical family, the Mac Colgans of Inishowen, and is perhaps identifiable with the Johannes McCollgan referred to by Bishop George Alexander in his survey of the dioceses of Clogher, Derry, and Raphoe compiled between 1605 and 1607; McCollgan is described by Alexander as the fifteen-year-old son of the rector of Donagh, skilled in law, fluent in Irish and Latin, and a student in Glasgow. Although Colgan himself does not refer to that period of his life, his subsequent interest in Scottish affairs and hereditary church offices may corroborate this theory. It may also indicate his intention to follow family tradition by becoming a priest. The changed political climate in Ulster at the end of the Nine Years War in 1603 and the flight of the earls in 1607 put paid to Colgan's clerical prospects in Ireland, as the lands and endowments of hereditary ecclesiastical families were among those confiscated. He departed Ireland for the continent some time between 1611 and 1615 and was ordained priest in 1618, though the place of his theological formation and his ordination are unknown. He entered the Irish Franciscan community at St Anthony's College, Louvain, on 16 April 1620. Here he pursued further theological studies under the tutelage of Friar Thomas Fleming (qv), later archbishop of Dublin, and Friar Robert Chamberlain (qv), before being appointed a lecturer himself, first in philosophy at Aachen and then, in 1628, in scholastic theology at Mainz. He returned to Louvain as novice master in 1634.
Since its foundation in 1607 St Anthony's principal objectives had been the training of friars for the Irish mission and the collection and preservation of material relating to Irish history and culture. At the time of his entry, the community included a number of future bishops and individual friars deeply involved in Irish politics. Like Colgan, many of the friars were recruited from the traditional hereditary learned and clerical families, a fact reflected in the community's historical, theological, and literary output. Colgan is particularly associated with the project for the preservation and publication of early Irish hagiographical material. This was initiated at a meeting in Paris in 1623 of Friar Hugh Ward (qv), Friar Patrick Fleming (qv), and Friar Hugh MacCaghwell (qv) with Father Thomas Messingham (qv), a secular priest and rector of the city's Irish college. Messingham's involvement proved short-lived and the project became a Franciscan endeavour with Ward and Fleming as the driving forces.
As guardian of St Anthony's (1626–9), Ward set about assembling the resources for the project, employing the services of Irish friars and clerics elsewhere in Europe to transcribe material in continental libraries, and relying on Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (qv) and his collaborators to gather sources in Ireland. The project formed part of a broader current within counter-reformation scholarship that stressed the value of historical research as a form of apologetics. This emphasis, however, did not prevent the friars from entering into contact with the distinguished protestant scholar James Ussher (qv), archbishop of Armagh, who placed his library at their disposal. They in return provided transcripts of Irish material preserved in continental repositories. Their emphasis on hagiography is comparable in inspiration, if not in scale, to the project initiated in 1607 by the Belgian Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde to publish in calendar order the manuscript lives of the saints preserved in Belgian libraries, which later developed into the Bollandists’ Acta sanctorum. An additional impetus to the friars’ historical research was the indignation aroused by the posthumous publication in 1627 in Bologna of Thomas Dempster's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Scotorum. Dempster, a Scottish catholic, interpreted the term ‘Scotus’ as referring exclusively to a native of Scotland, thereby claiming many political and religious figures hitherto regarded as Irish. The friars’ commitment to the intellectual legacy of the Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus, and their firm, but mistaken, conviction of his Irish origins, linked the hagiographical and historical research in Louvain with that of the important Scotist school of philosophy and theology that developed at St Isidore's, Rome, under the direction of Friar Luke Wadding (qv) and Friar John Punch (qv).
Colgan's involvement with the Louvain project is first evident in a letter written from Mainz to Hugh Ward in 1628, in which he offered to copy hagiographical material in various libraries. Following Patrick Fleming's martyrdom in 1631 in Bohemia and Hugh Ward's death in November 1635 in Louvain, Colgan succeeded the latter as professor of theology and assumed responsibility for the hagiography project. While he modestly claimed to have done no more than prepare Ward's work for publication, it is clear that as both editor and compiler he made a significant personal contribution. The publication programme he envisaged was somewhat fluid but was to consist of seven or eight volumes. The first, which never appeared, was to be a general ecclesiastical and secular history of Ireland, including the history of the Irish abroad. The second, published out of sequence, was to consist of editions of the various lives of the principal patrons of Ireland, St Patrick (qv), St Brigit (qv), and St Colum Cille (qv). The subsequent volumes, of which only one was published, were to contain the lives of the Irish saints arranged in calendar order, as the Bollandists had done in the Acta sanctorum. In the end, owing to Colgan's poor health and the difficulties of securing financial support, only two of the projected volumes were published. The first of these, the Acta sanctorum veteris et maioris Scotiae, seu, Hiberniae sanctorum insulae went to press in November 1643 and was published in 1645. It consisted of 270 lives of the saints whose feast days occurred in the first three months of the year, with the exceptions of St Brigit (1 February) and St Patrick (17 March). Hugh O'Reilly (qv), archbishop of Armagh, sponsored the publication. In 1647 the Trias thaumaturga appeared. This was the second volume of the projected series and consisted of a compilation of sources relating to the cults of St Patrick, St Brigid, and St Columba. The project was patronised by Thomas Fleming, Colgan's former teacher and archbishop of Dublin. According to Luke Wadding the projected fourth volume containing the lives of the saints for April to June was ready for the press shortly afterwards but, owing to lack of patronage, was never published.
In June 1651 Colgan was appointed commissary of the Irish Franciscan colleges at Louvain, Prague, and Wielun (Poland). Pleading ill health he was relieved of this position in February 1652 by the minister general of the order, Friar Pedro Manero. He also asked to be excused from writing a reply to accusations made by the Conventual Franciscan Zacharius Borenius against the Observant Franciscans, to which he and the Irish friars belonged. In 1655 he entered the debate surrounding the nationality of John Duns Scotus with the publication in Antwerp of his short work Tractatus de Ioannis Scoti, doctoris subtilis, theologorumque principis, vita, patria, elogiis encomiasticis, scriptis, doctrina. This was a response to the 1649 claim of the English Franciscan Friar Angelus Mason that Scotus was an Englishman. Like Friar John Punch, the other Irish participant in the debate, Colgan argued strongly for his Irish origins.
Colgan died 15 January 1658 at Louvain leaving a considerable amount of hagiographical material complete in manuscript. Responsibility for the project passed to Friar Thomas Sheeran but he managed to publish only the Vita S. Rumoldi and Patrick Fleming's Collectanea sacra before his own death in 1673. A catalogue of the contents of Colgan's cell, compiled after Sheeran's death, lists over 120 individual items connected with the project, including lists of Irish church dedications, copies of annals, transcripts of saints’ lives, martyrologies, lists of continental monasteries founded by Irishmen, and a considerable amount of Irish poetry. Some of this material survives to the present, but much disappeared after the dispersal of the Louvain archives following the French revolution.
Colgan's scholarship compares favourably with that of his contemporaries; while his editions have numerous shortcomings, remarkably they continue to be consulted and in many cases remain the only available editions of the texts. His diligence in the face of physical frailty and illness won the admiration of his Roman confrère Luke Wadding, who praised him as an illustrious alumnus of Louvain, well skilled in the Irish tongue, a most religious man, assiduous in study, and, despite ill health, faithful to an almost miraculous degree to the task of collecting and examining Irish material. In the fresco portrait of Colgan in the aula maxima of St Isidore's College, Rome, the artist, Friar Emanuale da Como, depicts him c.1670 as an elderly man in his study surrounded by manuscripts and writing materials, with the folio volumes of the Trias thaumaturga, Acta sanctorum, and other works prominently displayed. His physical frailty is alluded to by the walking stick beneath his desk, while from his mouth a scroll issues containing the single word ‘Preservata’. The fresco is reproduced as the frontispiece to Jennings's edition of the Acta sanctorum (1948) and that to Ó Riain's edition of Trias thaumaturga (1997). There is also a pencil and watercolour drawing, after Emanule da Como, in the NGI.