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Colum Cille, Saint Columba (7 December 521 – 9 June 597AD)

Colum Cille (Old Irish, meaning "dove of the Church of the church"), Calum Cille (Scottish Gaelic) and Kolban or Kolbjørn (Old Norse, meaning "black bear") was  a Gaelic Irish missionary and Monk who propagated Christianity among the Picts during the Early Medieval Period. He was known as one of the twelve apostles of Ireland.In turn he would have a grand title and be forever known as the Abbot of Iona, born at Garten, County Donegal, Ireland, 7 December, 521 he was christened at Temple-Douglas, in the County Donegal parish of Conwal (mid-way between Gartan and Letterkenny). He belonged to the U’Neill tribe and was of royal descent. His father was Fedhlimdh and his mother Eithne.

On his father's side he was great-great-grand son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland. His baptismal name was Colum, which signifiesa dove, hence the latinized form Columba. It assumes another formin Colum-cille, the suffix meaning "of the Churches". He was baptized at Tulach-Dubhglaise, now Temple-Douglas, by a priest named Cruithnechan, who afterwards became his tutor or foster-father. When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monasticschool of Movilleunder St. Finnian who had studied at St. Ninian's "Magnum Monasterium" on the shores of Galloway.

Columba at Moville monastic life and received the diaconate. In the same place his sanctity first manifested itself by miracles. By his prayers, tradition says, he converted water into wine for the Holy Sacrifice. Having completed his training at Moville, he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, a remarkable, like his namesake of Moville, for sanctity and learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for Finnian had been trained in the schools of St. David. Here also he became one those twelve Clonard disciples known in subsequent history as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. About this same time he was promoted to the priesthood by Bishop Etchen of Clonfad. The story that St. Finnian wished Columba to be consecratedbishop, but through a mistake only priest's orders were conferred, is regarded by competent authorities as the invention of a later age.

Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciaran. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi's disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster, the land of his kindred. The following years were marked by the foundation of several important monasteries, Derry, Durrow, and Kells. Derry and Durrow were always especially dear to Columba. While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours. Thence he brought a copy of those gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years. This relic was deposited in Derry(Skene, CelticScotland, II, 483). Columba left Ireland and passed over into Scotland in 563. The motives for this migrationhave been frequently discussed.

Later writers state that his departure was due to the fact that he had induced the clan U’ Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevnyin 561. The reasons alleged for this action of Columba are: (1) The king's violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba's person as a monk on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint's kinsman; (2) Diarmait's adverse judgment concerning the copy Columba had secretly made of St. Finnian's psalter. Columba is said to have supported by his prayers the men of the North and Ulster who were fighting while Finnian did the same for Diarmait's men. The latter were defeated with a loss of three thousand. Columba's conscience smote him, and he had recourse to his confessor, St. Molaise, who imposed this severe penance: to leave Ireland and preach the Gospel so as to gain as many souls to Christ as lives lost at Cooldrevny, and never more to look upon his native land. Some writers hold that these are legends invented by the bards and romancers of a later age, because there is no mention of them by the earliest authorities.

Cardinal Moran accepts no other motive than that assigned by Adamnan, "a desire to carry the Gospel to a pagan nation and to win souls to God". (Lives of Irish Saints in Great Britain, Archbishop Healy, on the contrary, considers that the saint did incite to battle, and exclaims: ". . . which produced so much good both for Erin and Alba(Schools and Scholars).

Scotland and the Island of Iona

Columba was in his forty-fourth year when he departed from Ireland in 563 he travelled to Scotland with twelve companions theycrossed the sea in a currach of wicker work covered with hides where according to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land he moved further north up the west coast of Scotland. In 563 he was granted land on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland the island, according to Irish authorities, was granted to the monasticcolonists by King Conallof Dalriada, Columba's kinsman.

However, there was a sense in which he was not leaving his native people, as the Irish Gaels had been colonizing the west coast of Scotland for the previous couple of centuries including his Great Grandfather Niall.  Aside from the services he provided guiding the only centre of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes; there are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts.

He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the Bridei's respect, although not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country.Bede attributes the gift to the Picts, it was a convenient situation, being midway between his countrymen along the western coast and the Picts of Caledonia. He and his brethren proceeded at once to erect their humble dwellings, consisting of a church, refectory, and cells, constructed of wattles and rough planks. After spending some years among the Scots of Dalriada, Columba began the great work of his life, the conversion of the Northern Picts. The thirty-two remaining years of Columba's life were mainly spent in preaching the Christian Faith to the inhabitants of the glens and wooded straths of Northern Scotland. His steps can be followed not only through the Great Glen, but eastwards also, into Aberdeenshire.

The "Book of Deer" in which he tells us how he and Drostan came, as God had shown them to Aberdourin Buchan, and how Bede, a Pict, who was high steward of Buchan, gave them the town in freedom forever. The preaching of the saint was confirmed by many miracles, and he provided for the instruction of his convertsby the erection of numerous churchesand monasteries. One of his journeys brought him to Glasgow, where he met St. Mungo, the apostleof Strathclyde. He frequently visited Ireland and his clan; in 570 he attended the synodof Drumceatt, in company with the Scottish King Aidan, whom shortly before he had inaugurated successorof Conallof Dalriada. When not engaged in missionaryjourneys, he always resided at Iona.

The main source of information about Columba's life is the Vita Columbae by Adomnán (also known as Eunan), the ninth Abbot of Iona, who died in 704. Adomnán, categorizes the Vita Columbae into three different books: Columba’s Prophecies, Columba’s Miracles, and Columba’s Apparitions.

Book one (Columba's Prophecies)

Adomnán tells of Columba’s propheticrevelations in the first book. In one notable instance, Columba appears to King Oswald of Northumbria, in a dream, and he announced the king’s incoming victory against King Catlon. The people promise to believe and be baptized after the war. This victory ends with the re-Christianization of pagan England, and King Oswald as ruler of all Britain. Columba’s other prophecies can be vindictive at times as when he sends a man named Batain off to perform his penance, but then Columba turns to his friends and says Batain will instead return to Scotia and be killed by his enemies. A few of his prophecies are bookish like when he knows that Baithene’s psalter is missing one letter “I” or when he prophecies that an eager man will knock over his inkhorn and spill the ink.

Book two (Columba's Miracles)

In the second book, Columba performs various miracles such as healing people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild beasts, calming storms or raising the dead to life. He can perform agricultural miracles that would matter to the common people, such as when he casts a demon out of a milk pail and restores the spilt milk to the pail.

The vita of Columba contains a story that has been interpreted as the first reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnán, Columba came across a group of Picts burying a man who had been killed by the monster. Columba then saves a swimmer from the monster with the sign of the Cross and the imprecation, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." The beast the beast flees terrified, to the amazement of the assembled Picts who glorified Columba's God. Whether or not this incident is true, Adomnan's text specifically states that the monster was swimming in the River Ness - the river flowing from the loch - rather than in Loch Ness itself.

Book three (Columba's Apparitions)

In book three, Adomnán describes different apparitions of the Saint, both that Columba receives and those that are seen by others regarding him.

In one of the stories, Columba is in excommunication and goes to a meeting held against him in Teilte. Saint Brenden, despite of all the negative reactions among the seniors toward Columba, kisses him reverently and assures that Columba is the man of God and that he sees Holy Angels accompanying Columba on his journey through the plain. In the last Chapter, Columba foresees his death to his attendant:

This day in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath, which means rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day of my present laborious life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of my labours; and this night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord's Day, I shall, according to the sayings of Scripture, go the way of our fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite me; and to Him, I say, in the middle of this night shall I depart, at His invitation. For so it hath been revealed to me by the Lord himself.

And when the bell strikes midnight, Columba goes to the church and knees beside the altar. His attendant witnesses heavenly light in the direction of Columba, and Holy angels joins the saint in his passage to the Lord: And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping.

Other early sources of Columba's life

Both the Vita Columbae and the Venerable Bede (672/673-735) record Columba's visit to Bridei. Whereas Adomnán just tells us that Columba visited Bridei, Bede relates a later, perhaps Pictish tradition, whereby the saint actually converts the Pictish king. Another early source is a poem in praise of Columba, most probably commissioned by Columba's kinsman, the King of the Uí Néill clan. It was almost certainly written within three or four years of Columba's death and is the earliest vernacular poem in European history. It consists of 25 stanzas of four verses of seven syllables each.

Through the reputation of its venerable founder and its position as a major European centre of learning, Columba's Iona became a place of pilgrimage. A network of Celtic high crosses marking processional routes developed around his shrine at Iona.

Columba is historically revered as a warrior saint, and was often invoked for victory in battle. His relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Alba and Ireland. Relics of Columba were carried before Scottish armies in the reliquary made at Iona in the mid-8th century, called the Brecbennoch. Legend has it that the Brecbennoch, was carried to the Battle of Bannockburn (24 June 1314) by the vastly outnumbered Scots army and the intercession of Columba helped them to victory. It is widely thought that the Monymusk Reliquary is object in question.

In the Antiphoner of Inchcolm Abbey, the "Iona of the East" (situated on an island in the Firth of Forth), a 13th century prayer begins O Columba spes Scotorum... "O Columba, hope of the Scots".

When on the Island of Iona numerous strangers sought him there, and they received help for soul and body. From Iona he governed those numerous communities in Ireland and Caledonia, which regarded him as their father and founder. This accounts for the unique position occupied by the successors of Columba, who governed the entire province of the Northern Picts although they had received priest's orders only. It was considered unbecoming that any successor in the office of Abbot of Iona should possess a dignity higher than of the founder. The bishops were regarded as being of a superior order, but subject nevertheless to the jurisdiction of the abbot. At Lindisfarne the monks reverted to the ordinary lawand were subject to a bishop.

One story that appears during his missionary work in Scotland is the following together with St. Comgall and St. Canice (Kenneth) he visited King Brudein his royal residence near Inverness. Admittance was refused to the missionaries, and the gates were closed and bolted, but before the sign of the cross the bolts flew back, the doors stood open, and the monks entered the castle. Awe-struck by so evident a miracle, the king listened to Columbawith reverence; and was baptized. The people soon followed the example set them, and thus was inaugurated a movement that extended itself to the whole of Caledonia. Opposition was not wanting, and it came chiefly from the Druids, who officially represented the paganism of the nation.

He was also very energetic in his work as a missionary, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides; he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books.Towards the end of his life, he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow unfortunately sometime later Columba died on Iona and was buried in 597 AD by his monks in the abbey he created.

Columba had known that his end was approaching. On Saturday, 8 June, he ascended the hill overlooking his monastery and blessed for the last time the home so dear to him. That afternoon he was present at Vespers, and later, when the bell summoned the community to the midnight service, he forestalled the others and entered the church without assistance. But he sank before the altar, and in that place breathed forth his soul to God, surrounded by his disciples. This happened a little after midnight between the 8th and 9th of June, 597. He was in the seventy-seventh year of his age. The monks buried him within the monastic enclosure. It is stated that he wrote 300 books with his own hand, two of which, "The Book of Durrow" and the psalter called "The Cathach", have been preserved to the present time. The psalter enclosed in a shrine, was originally carried into battle by the U’Neill as a pledge of victory. Several of his compositions in Latin and Irish have come down to us, the best known being the poem "Altus Prosator", published in the "Liber Hymnorum", and also in another form by the late Marquess of Bute. There is not sufficient evidence to prove that the rule attributed to him was really his work.

After the lapse of a century or more his bones were disinterred and placed within a suitable shrine. But as Northmen and Danesmore than once invaded the island, the relics of St. Columba were carried for purposes of safety into Ireland and deposited in the churchof Downpatrick. Since the twelfth century history is silent regarding them. His books and garments were held in veneration at Iona, they were exposed and carried in procession, and were the means of working miracles. His feast is kept in Scotland and Ireland on the 9th of June and is highly respected in all of Ireland and in particular Co Derry and Donegal. In the Scottish Provinceof St Andrews and Edinburgh there is a Mass and Office proper to the festival, which ranks as a double of the second class with an octave.

He is patron of two Scottish dioceses Argyle and the Isles and Dunkeld. According to tradition St. Columba was tall and of dignified mien. Adamnan says: "He was angelicin appearance, gracefulin speech, holyin work. His voice was strong, sweet, and sonorous capable at times of being heard at a great distance. He inherited the ardent temperament and strong passions of his race. It has been sometimes said that he was of an angry and vindictive spirit not only because of his supposed part in the battle of Cooldrevny but also because of irritant related by Adamnan. But the deeds that roused his indignation were wrongs done to others, and the retribution that overtook the perpetrators was rather predicted than actually invoked. Whatever faults were inherent in his nature he overcame and he stands before the world conspicuous for humility and charitynot only towards has brethren, but towards strangers also.

He was generous and warm-hearted, tender and kind even to dumb creatures. He was ever ready to sympathize with the joys and sorrows of others. His fasts and vigils were carried to a great extent. The stonepillow on which he slept is said to be still preserved in Iona. His chastity of body and purity of mind are extolled by all his biographers. Not withstanding his wonderful austerities, Adamnan assures us he was beloved by all, "for a holy joyousness that ever beamed from his countenance revealed the gladness with which the Holy Spirit filled his soul

Influence, and attitude towards Rome

He was not only a great missionary saint who won a whole kingdom to Christ, but he was a statesman, a scholar, a poet, and the founder of numerous churches and monasteries. His name is dear to Scotsmen and Irishmen alike. And because of his great and noble work even non-Catholics hold his memory in veneration. For the purposes of controversy it has been maintained some that St. Columba ignored papal supremacy, because he entered upon his mission without the pope's authorization. Adamnan is silent on the subject; but his work is neither exhaustive as to Columba's life, nor does it pretend to catalogue the implicit and explicit belief of his patron. Indeed, in those days a mandate from the pope was not deemed essential for the work which St. Columba undertook.

This may be gathered from the words of St. Gregory the Great, relative to the neglect of the British clergy towards the pagan Saxons. Columba was a son of the Irish Church, which taught from the days of St. Patrick that matters of greater moment should be referred to the Holy See for settlement. St. Columbanus, Columba's fellow-countryman and fellow-churchman, asked for papal judgment(judicium) on the Easter question; so did the bishops and abbots of Ireland. There is not the slightest evidence to prove that St. Columba differed on this point from his fellow-countrymen. Moreover, the Stowe Missal, which, according to the best authority, represents the Mass of the CelticChurch during the early part of the seventh century, contains in its Canon prayers for the pope more emphatic than even those of the Roman Liturgy.

To the further objection as to the supposed absence of the cultus of Our Lady, it may be pointed out that the same Stowe Missal contains before its Canon the invocation"Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis", which epitomizes all Catholicdevotion to the Blessed Virgin. As to the Easter difficulty Bede thus sums up the reasons for the discrepancy: "He (Columba) left successors distinguished for great charity, Divine love, and strict attention to the rules of discipline following indeed uncertain cycles in the computation of the great festival of Easter, because, far away as they were out of the world, no one had supplied them with the synodal decrees relating to the Paschal observance". As far as can be ascertained no proper symbolical representation of St. Columba exists. The few attempts that have been made are for the most part mistaken. A suitable pictorial representation would exhibit him, clothed in the habitand cowl usually worn by the Basilian or Benedictinemonks, with Celticton sure and crosier. His identity could be best determined by showing him standing near the shell-strewn shore, with currach hard by, and the Celtic crossand ruins of Iona in the background.

His Lasting legacy


Columba is credited as being a leading figure in the revitalization of monasticism, and "His achievements illustrated the importance of the Celtic church in bringing a revival of Christianity to Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It is known that Clan MacCallum and Clan Malcolm are descended from the original followers of Columba, It is also said that Clan Robertson are heirs of Columba. Clan MacKinnon may also have some claim to being spiritual descendants of St Columcille as after he founded his monastery on Isle Iona, the MacKinnons were the abbots of the Church for centuries. This would also account for the fact that Clan MacKinnon is amongst the ancient clans of Scotland. The cathedral of the CatholicDiocese of Argyll and the Isles is placed under the patronage of St. Columba as are numerous Catholic schools and parishes throughout the nation. The Scottish Episcopal Church and Church of Scotland also have parishes dedicated to him. The village of Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire is also derived from Columba's name.


Columba is the patron saint of the city of Derry, in the North of Ireland where he founded a monastic settlement in c.AD 540. The name of the city in Irish is Doire Colmcille and is derived from the native oak trees in the area and the city's association with Columba. The Catholic Church of Saint Columba's Long Tower stands at the spot of this original settlement. The Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry is dedicated to St Columba. St. Colmcilles Primary School and St. Colmcilles Community School are two schools in Knocklyon, Dublin, named after St. Colmcille, with the former having an annual day dedicated to the saint on June 9. Aer Lingus, Ireland's national flag carrier has named one of its Airbus A330 aircraft in commemoration of the saint (reg: EI-DUO).


It should also be noted that it is from the Church of Iona and from its disciples both Scottish and Irish over many generations that the concept of monastic sites as places of learning and scholarship would in turn find its way into England and the founding of other Gaelic styled Monastery’s all over Europe. Therefore these centers of learning would become the early libraries of the literary arts of not just in Europe but the entire world even today.

St Colmcille is considered by the Irish people as one of the most important Saints to our Country on par with St Bridget and St Patrick, firstly because of his contribution to Irelands development into a truly Christian country through his religious teachings , but also to its culture and of course its history. Colmcille resonates on many levels with in particular the Catholic people of the North and Ulster, he is of course classed as a spiritual leader but in he is in some ways he transcends this description and is classed as one of their own. Hence why, Catholics in Ireland each year complete the Stations of the Cross in the Glen of Colmcille in Jesus name, but also in Colmcille’s memory.            

As of 2011, Canadians who are of Scottish ancestry are the third largest ethnic group in the country, and thus Columba's name is to be found attached to Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian parishes. This is particularly the case in eastern Canada apart from Quebec which is French speaking.Throughout the U.S.A. there are numerous parishes within the Catholic and Episcopalian denominations dedicated to Columba. Within the Protestant tradition the Presbyterian Church (which has its roots in Scottish Presbyterianism) also has parishes named in honour of Columba

There is even an Orthodox Church monastery dedicated to the saint in the Massachusetts town of Southbridge. Iona College, a small Catholicliberal artscollege in New Rochelle, NY is named after the island on which Columba established his first monastery in Scotland.St. Columba is the Patron Saint of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, OH. The Cathedral there is named for him, the Munich GAA is named Muenchen Colmcille.