St. Columkille (2)

Patrick Weston Joyce

A great part of the north of Scotland was then inhabited by a people called the Picts. Those of them who lived south of the Grampian mountains had been converted some time before by St. Ninian of Glastonbury:[3] but the northern Picts were still pagans; and Columkille made up his mind to leave Ireland and devote the rest of his life to their conversion. In 563, in the forty-second year of his age, he bade a sorrowful farewell to his native country, and crossing the sea with twelve companions, he settled in the island of Iona in the Hebrides, which had been presented to him by his relative the king of that part of Scotland. Here he built his little church and monastery, all of wood, and began to prepare for his glorious work. This little island afterwards became the greatest religious centre in Scotland: and grand churches and other buildings were erected on and around the site of Columkille's humble structures. For many centuries Iona was held in such honour that most of the kings and chiefs and other great people of Scotland were buried in it; and to this day it is full of venerable and beautiful ruins, which are every year visited by people from all parts of the British Islands.

The most laborious part of St. Columkille's active life began after his settlement in Iona. He traversed the Highlands of Scotland and the Islands of the Hebrides, sometimes in a rude chariot, sometimes on foot, visiting the kings and chiefs of the Picts, and preaching to them in their homes; and he founded churches and monasteries all over that part of Scotland, just as he had done in Ireland. After many years of incessant labour he succeeded in converting the whole of the northern Picts.

When Columkille was at home in his monastery resting from his missionary labours, his favourite occupation was copying the Holy Scriptures. We are told that he wrote with his own hand, in the course of years, three hundred copies of the sacred books, which he presented to the various churches he had founded; and this good work he continued to the very last day of his life. Besides mere copying, he composed many hymns and other poems, both in Latin and Irish. He was always employed at something. Adamnan says that not an hour of the day passed by without some work for himself and his monks—praying, reading, writing, arranging the affairs of the monastery, or manual work: for he took his own share in cooking, grinding corn, overseeing the men who were working in the fields, and so forth; like many others of the eminent saints of the early Irish Church.

During St. Columkille's residence in Iona he visited Ireland more than once on important business: and we may be sure that he was delighted when the opportunity came to see again the land he loved so well. The most important of these occasions was when he came over to take part in a great meeting— a sort of Parliament for all Ireland—which was held at a place called Drum-Ketta in Derry. The proceedings at this meeting will be found described in the “Child's History of Ireland,” or in the “Concise History of Ireland.”

Amidst all the earnest and laborious efforts of St. Columkille in the cause of religion, he never forgot his native country. He looked upon himself as an exile, though a voluntary exile in a great and glorious cause; and a tender regret was always mingled with his recollections of Ireland. We have in our old books a very ancient poem in the Irish language, believed to have been composed by him, in which he expresses himself in this manner:—

“How delightful to be on Ben-Edar [4] before embarking on the foam-white sea: how pleasant to row one's little curragh [5] all round it, to look upward at its bare steep border, and to hear the waves dashing against its rocky cliffs.

“A grey eye looks back towards Erin; a grey eye full of tears.

“While I traverse Alban [6] of the ravens, I think on my little oak grove in Derry. If the tributes and the riches of Alban were mine from the centre to the utmost borders, I would prefer to them all one little house in Derry. The reason I love Derry is for its quietness, for its purity, for its crowds of white angels.

“How sweet it is to think of Durrow: how delightful would it be to hear the music of the breeze rustling through its groves.

“Plentiful is the fruit in the Western Island—beloved Erin of many waterfalls: plentiful her noble groves of oak.

“Many are her kings and princes; sweet-voiced her clerics; her birds warble joyously in the woods; gentle are her youths; wise her seniors; comely and graceful her women, of spotless virtue; illustrious her men, of noble aspect.

“There is a grey eye that fills with tears when it looks back towards Erin. While I stand on the oaken deck of my bark I stretch my vision westwards over the briny sea towards Erin.”


[3] Glastonbury, a town in Somersetshire in England, where in old times there was a celebrated monastery much resorted to by Irish students.

[4] Ben-Edar, the rocky headland now called Howth near Dublin.

[5] Curragh, a hide-covered wicker boat.

[6] Alban, Scotland.