Saints of Ireland: Columba Beckons a Deeper Journey

St. Colmcille's Well Sign in Durrow, Ireland

June 9th is the Feast Day of Saint Columba. Columba – or Colmcille as he is known in Ireland  – was a 6th-century monk who played a major role in the spread of Christianity and the development of the Celtic church in Ireland and Scotland. His achievements have earned him the distinction of Patron Saint of Ireland (along with St. Patrick) and inclusion as One of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Royal Roots

Columba was born into a royal family in 521 AD in County Donegal. King Fedlmid, his father, was the great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages who became the High King at Tara in 379 AD. During his twenty year reign, Niall controlled most of northern Ireland, establishing a dynasty that ruled from Tara for 600 years. Niall earned his nickname ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’ by capturing important rival tribe members as hostages until the enemy surrendered. In fact, it was Niall’s warriors who captured the teenage Patrick.

Columba’s mother, Eithne, descended from the kings of Leinster. According to legend, an angel appeared to Eithne during her pregnancy, announcing, “The son you bear will be a prophet of God.” The infant was named Crimthann (which means ‘fox’), but came to be called Columcille, ‘Colum of the Church’, due to the boy’s habit of spending long periods of time praying in the local church. His Latinized name, Columba, means ‘Dove of the Church’.

Trained for the Priesthood

Collum Cille received the best education available in Ireland, studying at the monastery schools of Moville and Clonard. After his ordination, the monk founded a number of monasteries at Derry, Durrow, and Kells.

War and Exile

Around 560 AD, Columcille was involved in a dispute resulting in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne where many lives were lost. It is said that Columba’s passion for books led him to secretly copy a valuable manuscript owned by his former teacher, Saint Finnian. When he was discovered doing this forbidden deed, Finnian demanded the copy, viewing it as stolen property. When Columba refused, the dispute was taken to King Diarmait, the High King. The king declared, “To every cow her calf, and to every book its copy.”

Columcille’s fury at losing his book caused him to enlist his clan to declare war on the High King. In the ensuing battle, many lives were lost, resulting in Columcille’s exile from his beloved Eire. It is uncertain whether exile was imposed on Columba or if his departure was a self-imposed penance. His regret is expressed in the following prayer:

Prayer of St. Columba

Let me bless almighty God,

whose power extends over sea and land,

whose angels watch over all.

Let me study sacred books to calm my soul:

I pray for peace,

kneeling at heaven’s gates.

Let me do my daily work,

gathering seaweed, catching fish,

giving food to the poor.

Let me say my daily prayers,

sometimes chanting, sometimes quiet,

always thanking God.

Delightful it is to live

on a peaceful isle, in a quiet cell,

serving the King of kings.

Iona Monastery

Columcille left Ireland in 563 AD with 12 of his relations, resettling on the barren island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. From Iona, Columba and his fellow monks traveled to the north of Scotland to preach to the unreached tribes known as the Picts. In due time, most of the tribes converted to Christianity. Converts flocked to Iona, studied the Scriptures and were themselves sent out as missionaries. A gifted scribe, Columba set up a scriptorium to copy portions of the Bible to accompany his traveling monks. The scriptorium also produced illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. Columba spent the remainder of his life as abbott of Iona and preaching in northern Scotland. He is said to have written 300 books in addition to the Rule of Life he prepared to guide life in the monastery.

He returned to Ireland at least once and possibly on several occasions to serve on church councils.

Saint Columba died and was buried at Iona in 597 at the age of 77. It is recorded that before breathing his last, the beloved abbot prayed a blessing over the monks in his care.

A Blessing of St Columba

See that you be at peace among yourselves, my children,

and love one another.

Follow the example of good men of old,

and God will comfort you and help you,

both in this world

and in the world which is to come. Amen.

Saint Columba’s Legacy

Most of what is known about the life of Saint Columba comes from three early biographies that were written long after his death. Adomnán, Abbot of Iona from 679 to 704, collected many of the saint’s writings and recorded a number of miracles that were accredited to Columba. These include banishing a troublesome monster to the depths of Loch Ness and Columba’s habit of meeting with angels.

Today, Columba is known as one of the greatest missionaries of the Celtic church, a great preacher, wise abbot, savvy diplomat, skillful scribe, and prolific writer. Yet his greatest legacy is the founding and development of the Monastery City of Iona. Iona became one of the most influential worship, educational, missionary, and political centers of the Western World until its destruction by Vikings in the 9th century. Iona also became the ‘mother’ of scores of monasteries that its monks established in Ireland, Scotland, England, and into Barbarian-ravaged Europe. Many of these also became important educational and missionary centers, such as Saint Aidan’s monastery on Lindisfarne in Northumbria.

Iona continues to be a place of worship as well as a popular pilgrimage site. Ruins of a later Medieval abbey can be viewed along with a high cross from the early Celtic monastic community. The Abbey church was rebuilt in the 20th century where worship to the One True God continues to be offered each morning and evening.