Saint Columcille

Columcille or Columba, Saint, one of the greatest names in the early ecclesiastical history of the British Isles, was born at Gartan, in the County of Donegal, 7th December 521.

He was a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages—his father’s name being Fedhlimidh, and his mother’s Eithne, both of royal descent.

He studied at Moville under St. Finnian by whom he was ordained a deacon; and under another St. Finnian at Clonard, where he was ordained a priest.

Amongst his fellow-disciples were St. Comgall, Ciaran, and Canice.

For a time he put himself under the instruction of Berchan at Glasnevin, until a violent distemper broke up his fraternity in 544.

His original name was Crimhthain, early exchanged for the cognomen of Columcille or “Dove of the Church.”

In 546, when but twenty-five, he founded Derry, and some years afterwards Durrow, the greatest of his Irish establishments.

Religious communities at Kells, Swords, Raphoe, Tory Island, and Drumcliff claimed him also as their founder.

Various explanations are given of his reasons for leaving Ireland. The following is the ordinary recital.

St. Finnian owned a specially valuable copy of the Psalms, which Columcille, about the year 560, secretly copied, fearing refusal if he asked permission.

Finnian demanded the copy as his own, and Columcille declining to surrender it, the matter was referred to King Diarmaid who pronounced the decision: “To every cow belongeth her calf.” “This is an unjust decision, O Diarmaid,” said Columcille, “and I will avenge it on you.”

Matters were aggravated by Diarmaid dragging from the arms of Columcille and murdering a young man who had fled to him for sanctuary.

In his miraculous escape from the durance in which he had been placed by Diarmaid, while in the wilds between Tara and his native Tirconnell, he is said to have composed the beautiful hymn commencing, in the translation:

“Alone am I upon the mountain,

O King of Heaven! prosper my way.”

Columcille’s kinsmen took up the quarrel, and frightful carnage ensued at the battle of Cuildrevne, 561.

Repentant at being the cause of so much bloodshed, St. Columcille sought the counsel of St. Molaise, of Devenish, who enjoined upon him as penance that he should become an exile.

The very copy of the Psalms, the cause of so much misery, is said by some to be still extant in the possession of the lineal descendant of the O’Donnells.

Dr. Reeves considers that Columcille’s settlement at Iona was voluntary, and the foregoing account a legendary creation of a later age.

Whatever the motive may have been, it was in 563, in his forty-second year, that accompanied by twelve disciples, he set sail for the small island of Iona, of which he obtained a grant, both from the king of the Picts and from his relative the king of the Scots.

Having planted a monastery there—probably built of wattles—he set about the great work of his life—the conversion of the Pictish tribes beyond the Grampians.

He and his disciples traversed the Pictish mainland, the Western Islands, and the Orkneys, from end to end, establishing monasteries whose occupants ministered to the religious wants of the people.

The parent house of Iona exercised supremacy not only over these establishments, but also over the monasteries Columcille had established in Ireland, and those founded by his disciples in the northern provinces of England.

Columcille occasionally visited Ireland, and the shores of the Clyde.

His health began to fail in 593; but his life was prolonged until he attained his seventy-fifth year, when he died as he knelt before the altar of his church in Iona, a little after midnight, between the 8th and 9th June 597.

He was buried within the precincts of his monastery, where his stone pillow, his books, his staff, and other things which he had loved and used, were long held in veneration.

Three Latin hymns of some merit, a monastic rule in Celtic, and several Celtic poems still extant are attributed to him.

A splendidly illuminated copy of the Four Gospels—The Book of Kells, one of the most valuable MSS. extant—preserved in Trinity College, is supposed by many to have been the labour of his pen.

“The strength of St. Columcille’s character appears to have been its earnestness. … The same enthusiastic temper which won for him in boyhood the name of ‘Columba of the Church’ continued to animate him throughout his life.

The length and frequency of his fasts and vigils are spoken of as nearly incredible.

With this asceticism he combined unwearied industry; no hour passed without its allotted duty of prayer, or reading, or transcribing, or other work.

As the prevailing austerity of his disposition was often lighted up by gleams of tenderness and kindness, so it appears to have been clouded at times by anger and revenge.”

The last and best edition of his life, written in Latin by St. Adamnan, is that of the learned Dr. Reeves, printed in Dublin for the Archaeological Society in 1857. It is illustrated with exhaustive prefaces, notes, and appendices, and is a thesaurus of all known concerning the great apostle of the Hebrides.


85. Columba, St., Adamnan’s Life of: Edited by Rev. William Reeves, D.D. (I. A. S.) Dublin, 1857.

125a. Encyclopaedia, Chambers’s. 10 vols. London, 1860–’8.

171. Ireland, History of, from the earliest period to the English Invasion: Rev. Geoffrey Keating: Translated from the Irish, and Noted by John O’Mahony. New York, 1857.

260. O’Curry, Eugene: Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History. Dublin, 1861.