On December 7th, 521 AD, in what is now County Donegal, in the north-west of Ireland, a baby was born into a noble family. I’m sure great expectations were placed on him, as on his father’s side he was the great-great-grandson on Niall of the Nine Hostages, one of Ireland’s most famous High Kings from the 5th century.
The baby was either named Cille (Irish Gaelic for “dove”) at birth or adopted this name later in life. The addition of “colm” (church) likely came during his lifetime. Either way, it is this name, Colmcille (“dove of the church”), later Anglicized into Columba, that he is known to us today. He is one of the most important ecclesiastical figures in Ireland and Scotland, responsible for the establishment of the great monastery at Iona, known then as Hii.
I haven’t been able to find out much about his family other than his noble ancestor. Like many of his contemporaries in noble society, Columba was sent to a monastic school for education, and like many others, he stayed in the church. From all accounts he was a tall, good-looking man, with a melodious voice that carried from hilltop to hilltop when he preached.
When he was around twenty, and a deacon, he left his first school and went to study under an elderly theologian and bard, Gemman, and here Columba became a poet himself. Two poems attributed to him survive today. After that he moved on to a famous school of Clonard, headed by a monk named Finnian. To give you an idea of the popularity of these schools, it is said that at one point over three thousand students were gathered there, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Gaul and Germany.
Columba was eventually ordained a priest and for fifteen years travelled throughout Ireland, preaching and founding monasteries, the most notable being Durrow, Derry, and Kells.
Columba, like all the Irish monks, loved books and in his travels tried to obtain as many as he could for the use of his monks in the various monasteries he founded. And it was because of this that an incident happened that would profoundly change the course of his life.
His former teacher Finnian had been on pilgrimage to Rome many years previous, and had brought back with him a copy of St. Jerome’s Psalter, a forth-century Latin translation of the Scriptures. This was the first translation of the Scriptures into Latin, and it was a very precious manuscript indeed.
Columba was given permission to look at it, but surreptitiously copied it for his own use, and refused to surrender it when Finnian demanded that he do so. Finnian appealed to Columba’s relative Diarmait mac Cerbaill, the high king of Tara, and Diarmiat ruled on Finnian’s behalf.
Around this same time, insult was added to injury in Columba’s mind. A young noble, Prince Curnan of Connaught, fatally injured a rival during a hurling match (hurling is an ancient Gaelic form of football). Curnan, a relative of Columba’s, sought sanctuary with Columba but was dragged out and killed by Diarmait’s men, which was against the laws of sanctuary.
There was probably a lot of other things going on in terms of ancient rivalries or grievances or family pressures that we don’t know about, but the result was that Columba roused his clan, the Ui Nialls, against the clans loyal to Diarmait, and war broke out, culminating in the battle of Cuil Dremme, in which over three thousand were killed.
It is interesting to note that, at this time, monks were not against strapping on a sword themselves and joining in a fight. It is very possible that Columba himself took part in this battle. After the battle, in which Columba’s clans were victorious, a church synod (meeting) was called to discuss Columba’s responsibility in the death of all those killed. After all, it was he who instigated it all.
From all accounts Columba, himself, was troubled by it all. He likely would have been excommunicated, but for another monk, Brendan, who intervened on his behalf (not Brendan the Navigator, although the two were contemporaries and friends). But after some advice from trusted elders of the church, Columba decided that in expiation for his sins he would exile himself from Ireland and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the battle.
Thus it was that Columba set sail in a leather currach with twelve other monks and headed to what is now called Scotland, then the home of the British (Celtic) Dál Riatans, whose king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. They landed on the island of Hii, which Conall gave to Columba and his monks, and there he built the monastery that was to become the centre of Irish missionary work and learning for the next three centuries, until the Vikings sacked it and so many other of the monasteries in the 8th century.
From Hii (now called Iona) Columba had fairly easy access to the Picts in the east and the many tribes and clans in the north. He went on many missionary journeys, establishing monasteries and teaching the converts. Many miracles were attributed to him, and it is in the stories of his travels that we find the first recorded encounter with the Loch Ness monster! Loch Ness was along the route from Iona to the lands of the Picts, and during one of these journey a terrible “water beast” attacked them, and Columba banished it to the depths of the River Ness after it killed a Pict and tried to attack his disciple Lugne. It wasn’t exactly in the Loch itself, but close enough to count, perhaps!
Along with his significant influence on the church, Columba had a great deal of influence on the politics of the time. His status as a churchman (coupled with his high status in society) would have meant that the local tribes would have turned to him to help in diplomacy in the various disputes among them. He influenced the choice to the successor of King Conall of Dal Riata, and crowned Aidan (not Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne) at Iona in his role as chief ecclesiastical ruler. And, although he maintained his self-imposed exile for the rest of his life, his influence in Irish affairs was great. He attended a church synod in 575 AD at County Meath (legend says he took along a piece of sod from Iona to stand on so that he could truthfully say his feet never touched Irish soil again and so not break his vow) and it was his veto that stopped a proposal to abolish the order of bards. He also secured an exemption for women from all military service.
Even after his death in 597 AD his influence continued, for it was St. Columba who appeared to Oswald in a dream before the crucial battle of Heavenfield in 634 AD and told him that despite his smaller army, Oswald would be successful in the upcoming battle against the usurper king, Cadwallon. Oswald described the dream to his war council and they agreed to be baptized as Christians after the battle if they were successful (Oswald himself was Christian already). They were, and they did, and Oswald’s reign as the first Christian king of Northumbria began.
Columba’s rule for his monks (the prescribed schedule of prayers, work, and every other detail that made up life in a monastery) was based on the eastern Rule of St. Basil, and he very much led by example. He slept on a slab of rock and ate oat cakes and drank only water. His monks did not have such severe restrictions, but still, his Rule, which spread along with the monasteries that he founded, was quite austere and was the basis for monastic life for centuries until it became superseded by the easier Rule of St. Benedict which Charlemagne encouraged the Western European monks to adopt.
What we know about Columba comes mainly to us from Adomnán (624 – 704 AD), the ninth Bishop of Iona, who wrote the Vitae Columba (Life of Columba) sometime between 697-700 AD. Adomnán probably drew from an earlier work written around 640 AD by a previous Bishop of Iona. Adomnan was also a cousin of Columba’s on his father’s side, and likely grew up with stories about his famous relative and fellow churchman.
Adomnán wrote of Columba,
He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council. He never let a single hour pass without engaging in prayer or reading or writing or some other occupation. He endured the hardships of fasting and vigils without intermission by day and night; the burden of a single one of his labors would have seemed beyond the powers of man. And, in the midst of all his toils, he appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit in his inmost heart.
There is likely a little “padding” in that description, but still, taking into account his accomplishments and influence, it’s probably not too far from the truth.
The day before his death at the age of 76, he was copying a Psalter and had just finished writing “They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing,” and stopped, saying, “Here I must stop; let Baithin do the rest.” Baithin was his cousin, whom he had already appointed successor to him. The next day Columba died in church, in front of the altar.
From all accounts, an amazing man, who loved God and loved people, and who left a legacy of faith and learning that continues to this day.