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Born in Garton, County Donegal, Ireland, c. 521; died June 9, 597.

Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when Thou art near,
Oh King of night and day?
More safe am I within Thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.

--Attributed to Saint Columba

We know for certain that Columba left successors distinguished for their purity of life, their love of God, and their loyalty to the rules of the monastic life. --The Venerable Bede

Ireland has many saints and three great ones: Patrick, Brigid, and Columba. Columba outshines the others for his pure Irishness. He loved Ireland with all his might and hated to leave it for Scotland. But he did leave it and laid the groundwork for the conversion of Britain. He had a quick temper but was very kind, especially to animals and children. He was a poet and an artist who did illumination, perhaps some of those in the Book of Kells itself. His skill as a scribe can be seen in the Cathach of Columba at the Irish Academy, which is the oldest surviving example of Irish majuscule writing. It was latter enshrined in silver and bronze and venerated in churches.

About the time that Patrick was taken to Ireland as a slave, Columba was born. He came from a race of kings who had ruled in Ireland for six centuries, directly descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, and was himself in close succession to the throne. From an early age he was destined for the priesthood; he was given in fosterage to a priest. After studying at Moville under Saint Finnian and then at Clonard with another Saint Finnian, he surrendered his princely claims, he became a monk at Glasnevin under Mobhi and was ordained.

He spent the next 15 years preaching and teaching in Ireland. As was the custom in those days, he combined study and prayer with manual labour. By his own natural gifts as well as by the good fortune of his birth, he soon gained ascendancy as a monk of unusual distinction. By the time he was 25, he had founded no less than 27 Irish monasteries, including those at Derry (546), Durrow (c. 556), and probably Kells, as well as some 40 churches.

Columba was a poet, who had learned Irish history and poetry from a bard named Gemman. He is believed to have penned the Latin poem Altus Prosator and two other extant poems. He also loved fine books and manuscripts. One of the famous books associated with Columbia is the Psaltair, which was traditionally the Battle Book of the O'Donnells, his kinsmen, who carried it into battle. The Psaltair is the basis for one of the most famous legends of Saint Columba.

It is said that on one occasion, so anxious was Columba to have a copy of the Psalter that he shut himself up for a whole night in the church that contained it, transcribing it laboriously by hand. He was discovered by a monk who watched him through the keyhole and reported it to his superior, Finnian of Moville. The Scriptures were so scarce in those days that the abbot claimed the copy, refusing to allow it to leave the monastery. Columba refused to surrender it, until he was obliged to do so, under protest, on the abbot's appeal to the High King Diarmaid, who said: Le gach buin a laogh or To every cow her own calf, meaning to every book its copy.

An unfortunate period followed, during which, owing to Columba's protection of a refugee and his impassioned denunciation of an injustice by King Diarmaid, war broke out between the clans of Ireland, and Columba became an exile of his own accord. Filled with remorse on account of those who had been slain in the battle of Cooldrevne, and condemned by many of his own friends, he experienced a profound conversion and an irresistible call to preach to the heathen. Although there are questions regarding Columba's real motivation, in 563, at the age of 42, he crossed the Irish Sea with 12 companions in a coracle and landed on a desert island now known as Iona (Holy Island) on Whitsun Eve. Here on this desolate rock, only three miles long and two miles wide, in the grey northern sea off the southwest corner of Mull, he began his work; and, like Lindisfarne, Iona became a centre of Christian enterprise. It was the heart of Celtic Christianity and the most potent factor in the conversion of the Picts, Scots, and Northern English.

Columba built a monastery consisting of huts with roofs of branches set upon wooden props. It was a rough and primitive settlement. For over 30 years he slept on the hard ground with no pillow but a stone. But the work spread and soon the island was too small to contain it. From Iona numerous other settlements were founded, and Columba himself penetrated the wildest glens of Scotland and the farthest Hebrides, and established the Caledonian Church. It is reputed that he anointed King Aidan of Argyll upon the famous stone of Scone, which is now in Westminster Abbey. The Pictish King Brude and his people were also converted by Columba's many miracles, including driving away a water "monster" from the River Ness with the Sign of the Cross. Columba is said to have built two churches at Inverness.

Just one year before Columba's migration to Iona, Saint Moluag established his mission at Lismore on the west coast of Scotland. There are constant references to a rivalry between the two saints over spheres of influence, which are probably without foundation. Columba was primarily interested in Gaelic life in Scotland, while Moluag was drawn to the conversion of the Picts.

While leading the Irish in Scotland, Columba appears to have retained some sort of overlordship over his monasteries in Ireland. About 580, he participated in the assembly of Druim-Cetta in Ulster, where he mediated about the obligations of the Irish in Scotland to those in Ireland. It was decided that they should furnish a fleet, but not an army, for the Irish high-king. During the same assembly, Columba, who was a bard himself, intervened to effectively swing the nation away from its declared intention of suppressing the Bardic Order. Columba persuaded them that the whole future of Gaelic culture demanded that the scholarship of the bards be preserved. His prestige was such that his views prevailed and assured the presence of educated laity in Irish Christian society.

He is personally described as A man well-formed, with powerful frame; his skin was white, his face broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large, gray, luminous eyes. . . . (Curtayne). Saint Adamnan, his biographer wrote of him: He had the face of an angel; he was of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel . . loving unto all. It is clear that Columba's temperament changed dramatically during his life. In his early years he was intemperate and probably inclined to violence. He was extremely stern and harsh with his monks, but towards the end he seems to have softened. Columba had great qualities and was gay and loveable, but his chief virtue lay in the conquest of his own passionate nature and in the love and sympathy that flowed from his eager and radiant spirit.

On June 8, 597, Columba was copying out the psalms once again. At the verse, They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing, he stopped, and said that his cousin, Saint Baithin must do the rest. Columba died the next day at the foot of the altar. He was first buried at Iona, but 200 years later the Danes destroyed the monastery. His relics were translated to Dunkeld in 849, where they were visited by pilgrims, including Anglo-Saxons of the 11th century.

The year Columba died was the same year in which Saint Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to convert England. Perhaps because the Roman party gained ascendancy at the Synod of Whitby, much of the credit that belongs to Saint Columba and his followers for the conversion of Britain has been attributed to Augustine. It should not be forgotten that both saints played important roles.

Saint Columba left a series of predictions about the future of Ireland. These were published in 1969 by Peter Blander under the title, The Prophecies of Saint Malachy and Saint Columbkille (4th ed. 1979, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross Buckshire).

Unsurprisingly, devotion to Columba is especially strong in Derry. (Anderson, Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Encyclopaedia, Farmer, Gill, Menzies, Montague, Simpson).

The following legends about Saint Columba are the gentlest things recorded about the heroic and tempestuous abbot who founded Iona. The countryside where he was fathered is Gartan in Donegal, at the ingoing of the mountains and the great lake; a gentle countryside, and more apt a birthplace for the bird than the saint. The life written about 690 by Saint Adamnan, himself an Irishman and an abbot of Iona, is a rugged piece of work: but the deathdays of Saint Columba, and the crowding torches that discovered him dying in the dark before the high altar at midnight on June 9, are one of the tidemarks in medieval prose. The work itself owes much to Adamnan's imagination and more to unreliable sources, but it is a primarily a narrative of the miracles worked through Columba.

In the first story Columba bids his brother monk to go in three days to a far hilltop and wait, 'For when the third hour before sunset is past, there shall come flying from the northern coasts of Ireland a stranger guest, a crane, wind tossed and driven far from her course in the high air; tired out and weary she will fall upon the beach at thy feet and lie there, her strength nigh gone. Tenderly lift her and carry her to the steading near by; make her welcome there and cherish her with all care for three days and nights; and when the three days are ended, refreshed and loath to tarry longer with us in our exile, she shall take flight again towards that old sweet land of Ireland whence she came, in pride of strength once more. And if I commend her so earnestly to thy charge, it is that in the countryside where thou and I were reared, she too was nested.'

The brother obeyed and all happened as Columba had foretold. And on his return that evening to the monastery the Saint spoke to him, not as one questioning but as one speaks of a thing past. 'May God bless thee, my son,' said he, 'for thy kind tending of this pilgrim guest; that shall make no long stay in her exile, but when three suns have set shall turn back to her own land.' And so it happened (Adamnan; also in Curtayne).

The second story recalls how Columba's heart would be touched when he saw a sad child. From time to time he would leave Iona to preach to the Picts of Scotland. "Once he visited a Pictish ruler who was also a druid, or pagan priest. When he was there he noticed a thin little girl with a face like a ghost. He asked who she was and was told that she was just a slave from Ireland. The way it was said seemed to mean: 'Why do you ask such silly questions? Who cares who she is, as long as she brushes and scrubs and does what she is told?'

"Columcille was troubled; he could see plainly that the little girl was miserable. So he asked the druid to give her freedom and he would get her home to Ireland. The druid refused. Columcille went away with a picture of an unhappy little girl in his mind.

"Shortly afterward, the important druid became ill; there was nobody near to tell him what to do to get well so he sent for the Abbot of Iona, who had a great reputation for curing people. Columcille did not leave Iona but sent a message back that he would cure the druid if he let the little girl free.

"The druid was angry and again refused. 'What on earth is he troubling himself for about that little bit of a good-for-nothing?' grumbled the druid as he tossed about in bed. But the messenger had hardly left for Iona with the refusal when the druid got worse; he had much pain and he thought he would die. So he sent off another message to Columcille: 'Yes, you can have the slave-girl, only come and do something for me. I am very bad and will die if you don't come soon.'" Columcille, however, did not trust the priest, so he sent two of his monks to bring the girl back. When the girl was safe, Columcille set out for the druid's house and cured him of his sickness (Curtayne).

St Columcille's Fight with the Demons

When Padraic had banished and driven away all the evil spirits from Cruachan Aigle that is today called Cruach Padraic, there went a throng of them to the place that is now called Senglenn Colmcille in the region of Conall Gulban to the north. And they were in that place from the time of Padraic to the time of Colmcille. And they raised a fog about them there, so that none might see the part of the land that lay beneath the bog. And of the river that forms a boundary to the north they made a fiery stream so that none at all might go across it. And who should touch of that stream little or much, he should die immediately.

And the angels of God revealed this thing to Colmcille. And he went with many others of the saints to drive away the demons and banish them out of that place. And they made a stay beside the fiery stream we have mentioned. And they had not been long here when the Devil hurled a holly rod out of the fog across the stream. And it killed An Cerc, Colmcille's servant, with that cast, so that Srath na Circe is the name of that stream thenceforth.

At that Colmcille was exceedingly angry and he seized that same javelin and hurled it across the stream. And the land was yielded to him for the space the javelin went into the fog, for the fog fled before that cast of Colmcille's.

And that javelin grew in the place where it struck the ground, so that today it is a fresh holly-tree, and it has not withered from that time until now, and thus shall it be till Doomsday.

Then Colmcille blessed that stream, and its venom and enchantment departed from it. And he crossed it. And an angel brought him a round green stone, and bade him cast it at the demons, and they should flee before it, and the fog also. And the angel bade him throw his bell Dub Duaibsech at them in the same way. And Colmcille did as the angel commanded him so that the whole land was yielded to him from the fog. And the demons fled before him to a rock out in the great sea opposite the western headland of that region. And Colmcille cast at them that stone that the angel had given him, and his bell Dub Duaibsech. And he bade the demons go into the sea through the rock where they were, and be in the form of fish forever, and to do no devilry against any thenceforth. And by reason of the word of Colmcille they must needs do that. And a man having on his armour might go through the hole they made in the stone when they went through it into the sea. And lest folk should eat them, Colmcille left a mark on them passing every other fish, that they should be blind in one eye and red. And fishers oft take them today, and they do naught to them when they perceive them, save to cast them again into the sea.

Then Colmcille required of God to give back to him his bell and stone from the sea. And lo, he beheld them coming forward him in the likeness of a glow of fire and they fell to the ground fast by him.

And Colmcille blessed that land whence he had banished the evil spirits. And he bestowed thereon the right of sanctuary from that time. And he left the stone a chief treasure to do marvels and miracles. And in the place where the bell fell, it sank deep into the earth, and it left its clapper there. And Colmcille said the bell was none the worse without the clapper. And he charged them, if any man should do dishonour to the sanctuary, to put the bell in the hole where it had left its clapper, as a token of a curse upon him, and that man should not live out his year, and hath oft been proved.

The townland of Stranakirke (named after Colmcille's servant, an Cearc) still contains a grassy mound that is identified a Cearc's grave. Immediately opposite, on the western bank of the river, where the legend says Colmcille threw his javelin, a holly tree still sprouts. The current whereabouts of the blue stone are untold. The bell *may* be in the National Museum of Ireland, I can't remember for certain.

Let not the Old Glen be harmed,
The place of the slabs of heaven

Anther story occurs in May, when Columba set out in a cart to visit the brethren at their work. He found them busy in the western fields and said, 'I had a great longing on me this April just now past, in the high days of the Easter feast, to go to the Lord Christ; and it was granted me by Him, if I so willed. But I would not have the joy of your feast turned into mourning, and so I willed to put off the day of my going from the world a little longer.' The monks were saddened to hear this and Columba tried to cheer them. He blessed the island and islanders and returned in his cart to the monastery.

On that Saturday, the venerable old saint and his faithful Diarmid went to bless a barn and two heaps of grain stored therein. Then with a gesture of thanksgiving, he spoke, 'Truly, I give my brethren at home joy that this year, if so be I might have to go somewhere away from you, you will have what provision will last you the year.'

Diarmid was grieved to hear this again and the saint promised to share his secret. "'In the Holy Book this day is called the Sabbath, which is, being interpreted, rest. And truly is this day my Sabbath, for it is the last day for me of this present toilsome life, when from all weariness of travail I shall take my rest, and at midnight of this Lord's Day that draws on, I shall, as the Scripture saith, go the way of my fathers. For now my Lord Jesus Christ hath deigned to invite me; and to Him, I say, at this very midnight and at His own desiring, I shall go. For so it was revealed to me by the Lord Himself.' At this sad hearing his man began bitterly to weep, and the Saint tried to comfort him as best he might.

"And so the Saint left the barn, and took the road back to the monastery; and halfway there sat down to rest. Afterwards on that spot they set a cross, planted upon a millstone, and it is to be seen by the roadside to this day. And as the Saint sat there, a tired old man taking his rest awhile, up runs the white horse, his faithful servitor that used to carry the milk pails, and coming up to the Saint he leaned his head against his breast and began to mourn, knowing as I believe from God Himself--for to God every animal is wise in the instinct his Maker hath given him--that his master was soon to go from him, and that he would see his face no more. And his tears ran down as a man's might into the lap of the Saint, and he foamed as he wept.

Seeing it, Diarmid would have driven the sorrowing creature away, but the Saint prevented him, saying, 'Let be, let be, suffer this lover of mine to shed on my breast the tears of his most bitter weeping. Behold, you that are a man and have a reasonable soul could in no way have known of my departing if I had not but now told you; yet to this dumb and irrational beast, his Creator in such fashion as pleased Him has revealed that his master is to go from him.' And so saying, he blessed the sad horse that had served him, and it turned again to its way (Adamnan; also in Curtayne).

In art, Saint Columba is depicted with a basket of bread and an orb of the world in a ray of light. He might also be pictured with an old, white horse (Roeder). He is venerated in Dunkeld and as the Apostle of Scotland (Roeder).

Troparion of St Colum Cille
Tone 5
By Thy God-inspired life thou didst embody/ both the mission end the dispersion of the Church,/ most glorious Father Colum Cille./ Using thy repentence and voluntary exile,/ Christ our God raised thee up as a beacon of the True Faith,/ an Apostle to the heathen and an indicator of the Way of salvation./ Wherefore O holy one, cease not to intercede for us that our souls may be saved.

Icons of Saint Colmcille
[can be purchased as a print]

The Rule of Saint Colmcille:

Map in the List files of the Monasteries of Ireland in 650 AD

Useful orientation guide when reading the Lives of the Saints. St Columcille's Irish monasteries are distinguished by a red dot.

The Saint Columba Site which contains

1) a picture of the Saint's Cathach

2) a picture of the renovated monastery on Iona

3) 19th-century edition: Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy.
Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery,
ed. William Reeves. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874

The Holy Island of Iona

Brief Outline of the Abbots of Iona

Another Life of St Columba

A nice site on Saint Columba

Prayer of Saint Columba:

Almighty Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Eternal ever blessed God.
To me unworthy servant, to me allow
That I may keep a door in heaven.
The smallest door, the one that is least used.
But in your house, O Lord,
that I may see your glory, even from afar,
And hear your voice, O God, and know
That I am with You - You, O God.

In Honour of Saint Columba
An article by Thomas Owen Clancy, lecturer at the University of Glasgow in the department of Celtic history, and author (with Gilbert Márkus) of Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh, 1995).

Scion of the most powerful family in the north of Ireland, founder of monasteries, and instigator of missions to the Picts and the English, Columba is undoubtedly the most important saint associated with Celtic churches.

Legends about him grew over the centuries, and many of the stories must be treated with caution. One of the more famous paints him as a sort of Christian sorcerer's apprentice, naughtily copying his master's precious psalter by the light of his own hand, and thereby sparking a major battle!

So too, hundreds of poems, some quite romantic in their descriptions of nature, others simple devotional verses, were attributed to the saint long after his death. Nevertheless, through the obscuring mists of his legends, it is possible to make out an outline of this key figure in the early Gaelic church. In fact, of all the Celtic saints, he is also the one about whom we know the most historically.

Fox and dove

Columba was born of royal stock around 521, in northwestern Ireland's Donegal. Although destined for the church by an early age, his noble birth gave him insight and influence in the political world.

Legend tells us that his original name was Crimthann ("fox") and that when he was trained as a priest he changed it to Columb, ("dove"), later known to all as Colum Cille: "dove of the church." It has become something of a tradition in modern times to view the saint through the twin lenses of these names: the astute fox on the make, and the peacemaking and peaceable dove.

He apparently took part in a battle in 561 between his near and more distant cousins; this led to his exile and even excommunication for a time. Yet his biographer and successor, Adomnán, saw it differently, glossing over his excommunication, and telling us only that: In the second year following the battle of Cúl Drebene, when he was 41, Columba sailed away from Ireland to Britain, choosing to be a pilgrim for Christ.

Despite the skeletons in Columba's closet, his efforts in Scotland reveal a man who had learned much in his 41 years, enough to establish a string of monasteries in the Inner Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland. This monastic system anticipated later orders such as the Cistercians and Carthusians.

Iona, a small island off the larger Hebridean island of Mull, was the fertile centre of this system. Remote to modern eyes, Iona was at the hub of early medieval sea lanes that brought pottery and perishable goods north from France and the Mediterranean. Still, Iona was intended as a true monastery, a place set apart for Columba and his brethren.

Other island monasteries, such as one on Tiree, housed lay-folk serving out penances for their sins. Another island housed older, more experienced monks living as holy anchorites.

Iona, however, trained priests and bishops, and Columba's reputation for scholarship was great when he died (though we have little of his own work). From Iona, priests and monks ranged far and wide, founding churches in Scotland and seeking deserts in the ocean (lonely, distant islands).

Mighty monk

Columba's legends give us a flavour of both the fox and the dove. The Life of Columba, by Adomnán, is packed with stories about Columba conversing with angels, sending an angel to rescue a monk falling from a roof, and being whipped by an angel to convince him to ordain God's (rather than his own) choice for king of the Gaelic colony in Scotland.

He is seen rapt in contemplation, seeing with a mind miraculously enlarged . . . the entire orbit of the whole earth and the sea and the sky around it. From these visions, he proclaims prophecies, sends monks to help distressed people, or prays to refresh his tired monks labouring in the fields.

Columba holds his own with kings. Though he prays for the military success of kings whom God has chosen, he argues with angels over their appointment. He faces down the king of Picts through his power, blasting him with loud psalms, throwing wide his strong oak doors, and besting the magic of the king's druids. He even defeats wild animals: a fierce boar drops dead on the spot, and a strange monster on Loch Ness runs from his power.

Though Columba's power is often depicted in entertaining form, his influence was in fact the key to winning over the kings of Gaelic Scotland, and his legendary powers were famous enough for his monks later to convince the Picts to convert.

After his death, Columba's political and military power became a key element in his cult. His relics were taken into battle by minor Irish chieftains and Scottish kings--one of his relics preceded the victorious Scottish army at Bannockburn in 1314.

One particular appearance, decades after his death, to the English king of Northumbria was pivotal in the history of Christianity in Britain. That king was Oswald, who had been raised in exile in Iona. As Oswald fought the battle in which he secured his kingship, Columba towered above the field promising victory, as one modern scholar puts it, like Batman over Gotham. In 635, Oswald sent for missionaries from Iona to renew the flagging Christianity of Northumbria with their monastic sobriety and good works.

Posthumous achievements

Columba was a poet, scholar of wide-learning, monastic founder and leader, a visionary churchman. At the time of his death on June 9, 597, he was already celebrated.

Though more monk than missionary, Columba established churches in Scotland that went on, in time, to evangelize the Picts and the English. The legacy of the monasteries he founded, which drew constantly on the inspiration of their patron saint, multiplies many times the influence of the man himself. Fittingly, at the end of the Life, Adomnán has his hero ascend the little hill near the monastery on Iona, and declare;

This place, however small and mean, will have bestowed on it no small but great honour by the kings and peoples of Ireland, and also by the rulers of even barbarous and foreign nations with their subject tribes. And the saints of other churches too will give it great reverence.

One way Columba's influence was felt after his death was the Law of Innocents enacted by Adomnán in 697. This law sought protection for non-combatants (in the midst of a militarised society) and for women (in danger from domestic violence, common abuse, and appalling labour conditions).

Adomnán's Law imposed strong punishments against offenders. It is a remarkable landmark in the history of law.

Adomnán records many tales of Columba as a protector of innocents, and these tales reinforce the stern message of the Law. In the most famous, Columba is a young boy, studying in a meadow with his tutor. A young girl appears, pursued across the plain by a vicious thug, who spears her at the very feet of the clerics. Appalled, the tutor cries, How long, Columba, my holy son, will God the true judge let this crime and our dishonour go unpunished? Columba calls down God's wrath on the killer, who falls dead on the spot.

It is difficult to summarise his accomplishments, but one memorial composed after his death does it better than most:

He was learning's pillar in every stronghold,
he was foremost at the book of complex Law.
The northern land shone,
the western people blazed,
he lit up the east with chaste clerics.

More resources:
Thomas Owen Clancy edited Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery with Gilbert Markus.

Penguin Classics still publishes Adomnan's Life of Columba.

The Columba home page, includes The Life of St. Columba by Adomnán (English and Latin versions), a bibliography, and more.

Adomnan's Life of Columba is available elsewhere
in English
and Latin

Columba's famous rule is also online.

Iona Abbey has their own page devoted to the poet, prophet, and sage

Also Deacon Geoffrey O'Riada's Celtic Orthodox Christianity site

the Ecole Initiative

and the musical group Iona.

There's an official site for Iona (the island)

as well as an official Iona Community site.

Want to go to Iona? There's plenty of travel guides out there

and stories from past visitors.

To get you in the mood, here are some beautiful images of Iona today

and an article on the history of the island.

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