Saint Columba

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE five hundred years, one-half of which preceded the birth of our Lord, may be considered the period of Ireland's greatest power and military glory as a nation. The five hundred years which succeeded St. Patrick's mission may be regarded as the period of Ireland's Christian and scholastic fame. In the former she sent her warriors, in the latter her missionaries, all over Europe. Where her fierce hero-kings carried the sword, her saints now bore the cross of faith. It was in this latter period, between the sixth and the eighth centuries particularly, that Ireland became known all over Europe as the Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum—"the Island of Saints and Scholars."

Churches, cathedrals, monasteries, convents, universities, covered the island. From even the most distant parts of Europe, kings and their subjects came to study in the Irish schools. King Alfred of Northumberland was educated in one of the Irish universities. A glorious roll of Irish saints and scholars belong to this period: St. Columba or Columcille, St. Columbanus, St. Gall, who evangelized Helvetia, St. Frigidian, who was bishop of Lucca in Italy, St. Livinus, who was martyred in Flanders, St. Argobast, who became bishop of Strasburg, St. Killian, the apostle of Franconia, and quite a host of illustrious Irish missionaries, who carried the blessings of faith and education all over Europe. The record of their myriad adventurous enterprises, their glorious labors, their evangelizing conquests, cannot be traced within the scope of this book. There is one, however, the foremost of that sainted band, with whom exception must be made—the first and the greatest of Irish missionary saints, the abbot of Iona's isle, whose name and fame filled the world, and the story of whose life is a Christian romance—Columba, the "Dove of the Cell."[1]

The personal character of Columba and the romantic incidents of his life, as well as his preeminence among the missionary conquerers of the British Isles, seem to have had a powerful attraction for the illustrious Montalembert, who, in his great work, "The Monks of the West," traces the eventful career of the saint in language of exquisite beauty, eloquence, and feeling. Moreover, there is this to be said further of that Christian romance, as I have called it, the life of St. Columba, that happily the accounts thereof which we possess are complete, authentic, and documentary; most of the incidents related we have on the authority of well-known writers, who lived in Columba's time and held personal communication with him or with his companions.

The picture presented to us in these life-portraitures of Iona's saint is assuredly one to move the hearts of Irishmen, young and old. In Columba two great features stand out in bold prominence; and never perhaps were those two characteristics more powerfully developed in one man—devotion to God and passionate love of country. He was a great saint, but he was as great a "politician," entering deeply and warmly into everything affecting the weal of Clan Nial, or the honor of Erinn. His love for Ireland was . something beyond description. As he often declared in his after-life exile, the very breezes that blew on the fair hills of holy Ireland were to him like the zephyrs of paradise. Our story were incomplete indeed, without a sketch, however brief, of the "Dove of the Cell."


[1] Columbkille; in English, "Dove of the Cell."