"St. Columba Bidding Farewell to the White Horse"by artist John McKirdy Duncan
Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, 'church dove'; Scots: Columbkille; 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish Abbot and missionary Evangelist credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. 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 one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Colmcille 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 Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Ulster kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Celtic Christianity among the northern Pictich 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.
Colmcille was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, a district beside Lough Gartan, in Tír Chonaill (mainly modern County Donegal) in the north of 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 (midway between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint Crunathan. It is not known for sure if his name at birth was Colmcille or if he adopted this name later in life; Adomnán (Eunan) of Iona thought it was his birth name but other Irish sources have claimed his name at birth was Crimthann (meaning 'fox'). In the Irish language his name means 'dove', which is the same name as the Prophet Jonah (Jonah in Hebrew is also 'dove'), which Adomnán of Iona as well as other early Irish writers were aware of, although it is not clear if he was deliberately named after Jonah or not.
The remains of St. Columba's Church, Gartan, County 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, Colmcille 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. Colmcille 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 Celtic Christianity studied at the Clonard monastery. It is said that the average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was 3,000. Colmcille 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 Colmcille was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciarán. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi's disciples, and Colmcille 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, at the southern edge of Inishowen; Durrow, County Offaly; Kells, County 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. Colmcille 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 Cúl 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 Colmcille'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 Colmcille, 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. Colmcille'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 Cúl Dreimhne. He left Ireland, to return only once, many years later. Colmcille's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Colmcille.
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 Ulster 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 Ness after it had killed a Pict and then tried to attack Colmcille's disciple named Lugne (see Vita Columbae Book 2 below). He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning 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.
Colmcille died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Colmcille'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 or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick. (Names of Iona), Inchcolm and Eilean Chaluim Chille.