Saint Columba (7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Christian saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Columba reportedly studied under some of Ireland’s most prominent church figures and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his twelve companions crossed to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintore before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early medieval Latin hymns may be attributed to him.
Early Life in Ireland
Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, in modern County Donegal, in Ireland. On his father’s side, he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish high king of the 5th century. He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in the County Donegal parish of Conwal (mid-way between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint Crunathan.
The remains of St. Columba’s church, Gartan, Co. Donegal. When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monastic school of Movilla, at Newtownards, under St. Finnian who had studied at St. Ninian’s “Magnum Monasterium” on the shores of Galloway. He was about twenty, and a deacon when, having completed his training at Movilla, he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, noted for sanctity and learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for Finnian had been trained in the schools of St. David.
In early Christian Ireland the druidic tradition collapsed due to the spread of the new Christian faith. The study of Latin learning and Christian theology in monasteries flourished. Columba became a pupil at the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne in modern County Meath. During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity studied at the Clonard monastery. It is said that the average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was 3,000. Columba was one of twelve students of St. Finnian who became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a priest.
Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciaran. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi’s disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster, the land of his kindred. He was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another. The following years were marked by the foundation of several important monasteries, Derry, Co. Derry; Durrow, Co. Offaly; Kells, Co. Meath; and Swords. While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours. Thence he brought a copy of those gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years. This relic was deposited in Derry.
Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cul Dreimhne in Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in County Sligo) in 561, during which many men were killed. A second grievance that led him to induce the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561 was the king’s violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba’s person as a monk on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint’s kinsman. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector’s arms and slain by Diarmaid’s men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary.
A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf with the result that he was allowed to go into exile instead. Columba’s own conscience was uneasy, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to expiate his offence by going into exile and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the terrible battle of Cuil Dremhne. He left Ireland, to return only once, many years later. Columba’s copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St Columba.
In 563, he travelled to Scotland with twelve companions (said to include Odran of Iona) in a wicker currach covered with leather. According to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land, he moved farther north up the west coast of Scotland. The island of Iona was made over to him by his kinsman Conall mac Comgaill, King of Dál Riata, who perhaps had invited him to come to Scotland in the first place. However, there is a sense in which he was not leaving his native people, as the Irish Gaels had been colonising the west coast of Scotland for the previous couple of centuries. Aside from the services he provided guiding the only centre of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes. There are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts, the most famous being his encounter with an unidentified animal that some have equated with the Loch Ness Monster in 565. It is said that he banished a ferocious “water beast” to the depths of the River after it had killed a Pict and then tried to attack Columba’s disciple (see Vita Columbae Book 2 below). He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the Bridei’s respect, although not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his work as a missionary, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books. One of the few, if not the only, times he left Scotland was towards the end of his life, when he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow.
Columba died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba’s relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. The parts of the relics which went to Ireland are reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St Patrick and St Brigid.
The main source of information about Saint Columba’s life is the Vita Columbae (i.e. “Life of Columba”), a hagiography written in the style of “saint’s lives” narratives that had become widespread throughout medieval Europe. Compiled and drafted by scribes and clergymen, these accounts were written in Latin and served as written collections of the deeds and miracles attributed to the saint, both during his or her life or after death. The canonization of a saint, especially one who had lived on the fringes of the medieval Christian world like Saint Columba, required a well-written hagiography to be submitted to Rome, but popular belief and local cults of sainthood often led to the veneration of these men and women without official approval from the Catholic Church.
Writing a century after the death of Saint Columba, the author Adomnán (also known as Eunan), served as the ninth Abbot of Iona until his death in 704 A.D.
James Earle Frasier asserts that Adomnán drew extensively from an existing body of accounts regarding the life of Saint Columba, including a Latin collection entitled “De uirtutibus sancti Columbae”, composed c. 640 A.D. This earlier work is attributed to Cummene Find, who became the abbot of Iona and served as the leader of the monastic island community from 656 until his death in 668 A.D. or 669 A.D.
While the Vita Columbae often conflicts with contemporaneous accounts of various battles, figures, and dates, it remains the most important surviving work from early medieval Scotland and provides a wealth of knowledge regarding the Picts and other ethnic and political groups from this time period. The Vita also offers a valuable insight into the monastic practices of Iona and the daily life of the early medieval Gaelic monks.
Instead of relying on chronological order, Adomnán categorises the events recorded in the Vita Columbae into three different books: Columba’s Prophecies, Columba’s Miracles, and Columba’s Apparitions.
Book One (Of his Prophetic Revelations) In the first book, the author Adomnán lists Saint Columba’s prophetic revelations, which come as a result of the saint’s ability to view the present and the future simultaneously. Most of the short chapters begin with Saint Columba informing his fellow monks that a person will soon arrive on the island or an event will immanently occur.
In one notable instance, Columba appears in a dream to King Oswald of Northumbria, and announces the king’s incoming victory against the King Catlon (Cadwallon of Wales) in the Battle of Heavenfield. The people of Britain promise to convert to Christianity and receive baptism after the conclusion of the war. This victory signals the re-Christianization of pagan England, and establishes King Oswald as ruler of the entirety of Britain.
Columba’s other prophecies can be considered vindictive at times, as when he sends a man named Batain off to perform his penance, but then Columba turns to his friends and says Batain will instead return to Scotia and be killed by his enemies. Several of Saint Columba’s prophecies reflect the scribal culture in which he was immersed, such his miraculous knowledge of the missing letter “I” from Baithene’s psalter or when he prophecies that an eager man will knock over his inkhorn and spill its contents.
Book Two (Of his Miraculous Powers) In the second book, Columba performs various miracles such as healing people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild beasts, calming storms, and even returning the dead to life.
He also performs agricultural miracles that would hold a special significance to the common people of Ireland and the British Isles, such as when he casts a demon out of a pail and restores the spilt milk to its container.
The Vita contains a story that has been interpreted as the first reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnán, Columba came across a group of Picts burying a man who had been killed by the monster. Columba saves a swimmer from the monster with the sign of the Cross and the imprecation, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” The beast flees, terrified, to the amazement of the assembled Picts who glorified Columba’s God. Whether or not this incident is true, Adomnan’s text specifically states that the monster was swimming in the River Ness – the river flowing from the loch – rather than in Loch Ness itself.
Book Three (The Apparitions of Angels) In book three, Adomnán describes different apparitions of the Saint, both that Columba receives and those that are seen by others regarding him. He mentions that, “For indeed after the lapse of many years, when St. Columba was excommunicated by a certain synod for some pardonable and very trifling reasons, and indeed unjustly”.
In one of the accounts, Saint Columba, in this period of excommunication, goes to a meeting held against him in Teilte. Saint Brendan, despite of all the negative reactions among the seniors toward Columba, kisses him reverently and assures that Columba is the man of God and that he sees Holy Angels accompanying Columba on his journey through the plain.
In the last Chapter, Columba foresees his own death when speaking to his attendant: “This day in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath, which means rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day of my present laborious life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of my labours; and this night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord’s Day, I shall, according to the sayings of Scripture, go the way of our fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite me; and to Him, I say, in the middle of this night shall I depart, at His invitation. For so it hath been revealed to me by the Lord himself.”
And when the bell strikes midnight, Columba goes to the church and kneels beside the altar. His attendant witnesses heavenly light in the direction of Columba, and Holy angels joins the saint in his passage to the Lord: “And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping.”
Other Early Sources of St Columba’s Life
Both the Vita Columbae and the Venerable Bede record Columba’s visit to Bridei. Whereas Adomnán just tells us that Columba visited Bridei, Bede relates a later, perhaps Pictish tradition, whereby the saint actually converts the Pictish king. Another early source is a poem in praise of Columba, most probably commissioned by Columba’s kinsman, the King of the Ui Neill clan. It was almost certainly written within three or four years of Columba’s death and is the earliest vernacular poem in European history. It consists of 25 stanzas of four verses of seven syllables each.
Through the reputation of its venerable founder and its position as a major European centre of learning, Columba’s Iona became a place of pilgrimage. A network of Celtic high crosses marking processional routes developed around his shrine at Iona.
Columba is historically revered as a warrior saint, and was often invoked for victory in battle. His relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Alba and Ireland. Relics of Columba were carried before Scottish armies in the reliquary made at Iona in the mid-8th century, called the Brecbennoch. Legend has it that the Brecbennoch was carried to the Battle of Bannockburn (24 June 1314) by the vastly outnumbered Scots army and the intercession of Columba helped them to victory. It is widely thought that the Monymusk Reliquary is the object in question.
In the Antiphoner of Inchcolm Abbey, the “Iona of the East” (situated on an island in the Firth of Forth), a 13th-century prayer begins O Columba spes Scotorum… “O Columba, hope of the Scots”.