Saint Columba, Prince of the Race of Nial

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER IX. (continued)

Columba [2] was a prince of the royal race of Nial, his father being the third in descent from the founder of that illustrious house, Nial of the Nine Hostages. He was born at Gartan, in Donegal, on Dec. 7, 521. "The Irish legends," says Montalembert, "which are always distinguished, even amid the wildest vagaries of fancy, by a high and pure morality, linger lovingly upon the childhood and youth of the predestined saint." Before his birth (according to one of these traditions) the mother of Columba had a dream, "which posterity has accepted as a graceful and poetical symbol of her son's career. An angel appeared to her, bringing her a veil covered with flowers of wonderful beauty, and the sweetest variety of colors; immediately after she saw the veil carried away by the wind, and rolling out as it fled over the plains, woods, and mountains. Then the angel said to her, 'Thou art, about to become the mother of a son who shall blossom for Heaven, who shall be reckoned among the prophets of God, and who shall lead numberless souls to the heavenly country.' "

But indeed, according to the legends of the Hy-Nial, the coming of their great saint was foretold still more remotely. St. Patrick, they tell us, having come northward to bless the territory and people, was stopped at the Daol—the modern Deel or Burndale river—by the breaking of his chariot wheels. The chariot was repaired, but again broke down; a third time it was refitted, and a third time it failed at the ford. Then Patrick, addressing those around him, said: "Wonder no more; behold, the land from this stream northward needs no blessing from me; for a son shall be born there who shall be called the Dove of the Churches; and he shall bless that land; in honor of whom God has this day prevented my doing so." The name Ath-an-Charpaid (ford of the chariot) marks to this day the spot memorized by this tradition. Count Montalembert cites many of these stories of the "childhood and youth of the predestined saint." He was, while yet a child, confided to the care of the priest who had baptized him, and from him he received the first rudiments of education. "His guardian angel often appeared to him; and the child asked if all the angels in Heaven were so young and shining as he. A little later, Columba was invited by the same angel to choose among all the virtues that which he would like best to possess. 'I choose,' said the youth, 'chastity and wisdom;' and immediately three young girls of wonderful beauty but foreign air, appeared to him, and threw themselves on his neck to embrace him. The pious youth frowned, and repulsed them with indignation. 'What,' they said, 'then thou dost not know us?'—'No, not the least in the world.'—'We are three sisters, whom our Father gives to thee to be thy brides.'—'Who, then, is your Father?'—'Our Father is God, He is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world.'—'Ah, you have indeed an illustrious Father. But what are your names?'—'Our names are Virginity, Wisdom, and Prophecy; and we come to leave thee no more, to love thee with an incorruptible love.'"

From the house of this early tutor Columba "passed into the great monastic schools, which were not only a nursery for the clergy of the Irish church, but where also young laymen of all conditions were educated."

"While Columba studied at Clonard, being still only a deacon," says his biographer, "an incident took place which has been proved by authentic testimony, and which fixed general attention upon him by giving a first evidence of his supernatural and prophetic intuition. An old Christian bard (the bards were not all Christians) named Germain had come to live near the Abbot Finian, asking from him, in exchange for his poetry the secret of fertilizing the soil. Columba, who continued all his life a passionate admirer of the traditionary poetry of his nation, determined to join the school of the bard, and to share his labors and studies. The two were reading together out of doors, at a little distance from each other, when a young girl appeared in the distance pursued by a robber At the sight of the old man the fugitive made for him with all her remaining strength, hoping, no doubt, to find safety in the authority exercised throughout Ireland by the national poets. Germain, in great trouble, called his pupil to his aid to defend the unfortunate child, who was trying to hide herself under their long robes, when her pursuer reached the spot. Without taking any notice of her defenders, he struck her in the neck with his lance, and was making off, leaving her dead at their feet. The horrified old man turned to Columba. 'How long,' he said, 'will God leave unpunished this crime which dishonors us?' 'For this moment only,' said Columba, 'not longer; at this very hour, when the soul of this innocent creature ascends to heaven, the soul of the murderer shall go down to hell.' At the instant, like Ananias at the words of Peter, the assassin fell dead. The news of this sudden punishment, the story goes, went over Ireland, and spread the fame of young Columba far and wide."


[2] His name was pronounced "Creivan" or "Creivhan."