August 12, 2020

An Introduction To St. Columcille

A while back, I threatened to write about the three patron saints of Ireland, and since I’ve covered St. Patrick and St. Bridget, now it’s time to tell you all about St. Columcille, because his feast day was yesterday, the 9th of June.

Some of you may be more familiar with him under the Anglicised version of his name, St. Columba.  He is very much associated with Iona, the Scottish island famed for monastic culture and nowadays often referenced in terms of “Celtic Christianity.” Iona is linked to the Book of Kells as it is thought that the book was begun in the monastery there during the 9th century and, because of Viking raids, brought to Ireland with the fleeing monks where it ended up in the Abbey of Kells.  Iona is important for its role as mother-foundation of the missions that St. Columcille and his successors began in Scotland and the north-west of England; the monastery of Lindisfarne (the Holy Island) was founded by the Irish monk St.Aidan, who had been sent from Iona to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald in the 7th century and it became the base for evangelization in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia, and Irish monks and the Irish-founded monastic settlements produced and had a great influence on the Anglo-Saxon monastics and saints of the north-west and north of England, such as the famous St. Cuthbert of Durham, who grew up near the abbey of Melrose which was founded as an off-shoot of Lindisfarne.  This would later lead to a small amount of friction between the Irish and Irish-Scottish-influenced Anglo-Saxon Christians and those converted by the mission led by St. Augustine of Canterbury, sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great to the southern English kingdom of Kent.  All this was sorted out in the 7th century Synod of Whitby.

Returning to St. Columcille, he is known as the “Apostle to the Picts” and was a vigorous and successful missionary, founder of monastic settlements, and trusted emissary amongst the tribes of the Picts.  All this sounds very virtuous and edifying, and it truly was, but the thing is – Columcille didn’t head off to the west of Scotland for the benefit of the pagan Picts.  He did it as a penance, being sent into exile for his role in the battle of Cúl Dreimhne.

Let’s step back a bit and look at the three Patron Saints of Ireland.  St. Patrick is first, naturally; the Romano-Briton son of a church family who was captured on an Irish looting raid and sold into slavery until he managed to escape years later, make his way back home, and eventually return at the urging of a vision to evangelize the pagan Irish in the early 5th century.  St. Bridget, who is the third patron, was the daughter of a Christian slave who founded a renowned community of nuns and monks at Kildare in the mid-5th century, as well as other monastic foundations, and was famous for miracles of healing and hospitality.

Columcille, the second (after St. Patrick) patron, wasn’t like them.  Born in the early 6th century, he came of noble and even royal stock, being related to the dynasty of the Northern Uí Neill as a member of the Cenél Conaill clan.  Unlike Bridget, he was born into a position of wealth, power and influence.  Unlike Patrick, who defended his unpolished Latin and lack of education because he had been enslaved (“A young man, almost a beardless boy, I was taken captive before I knew what I should desire and what I should shun.  So, consequently, today I feel ashamed and I am mightily afraid to expose my ignorance, because, [not] eloquent, with a small vocabulary, I am unable to explain as the spirit is eager to do and as the soul and the mind indicate”), Columcille was famous for his learning and attainments.  He certainly did not have any great excess of humility, as may be seen from the anecdote which is best known about him, the Case of the Copied Psalter (as we might call it).

Columcille was a pupil – indeed, the star pupil – of St. Finnian of Moville, who founded a renowned monastery and centre of learning at Clonard (it is stated that there were no fewer than 3,000 pupils getting instruction at one time in the school).  Columcille, now around forty years of age, went to visit Finnian and was shown his new copy of the Vulgate version of the Psalms, brought home after a visit to Rome (the Vulgate was the definitive Latin translation of the Bible done by St. Jerome about 100 years earlier).  Previously, all the texts had been in Greek, which was read and spoken by few.  This was the first and only Latin copy of the Psalter to reach Ireland and Finnian was naturally proud of it.  Equally naturally, Columcille asked to borrow it in order to make a copy – at this time he was the founder of a great number of monasteries, all producing copies of the sacred Scriptures, and the chance to mass-produce accessible Latin texts of the Psalms for use by churches was irresistible.

For whatever reason, Finnian refused.  Maybe it was because Columcille was one of those book-borrowers who “borrow” books that somehow never get returned?  Maybe he wanted his own monastery to have a chance to make a copy first?  Maybe Columcille had demonstrated a bit of an attitude in the way he asked?  (By now, he was a fully-grown adult who had twenty years’ experience under his belt as a successful, important and powerful clergyman with impeccable political connections and maybe Finnian felt he wasn’t quite as respectful of his old teacher as he could have been?)  Anyway, Finnian said “No” and that should have been it.  Columcille should either have taken “no” for an answer (as, under holy obedience as a monastic to his superior, he should have done) or waited a little and then asked again when Finnian was in a better mood.

You forget – we’re talking about Irish saints here.  Columcille went behind Finnian’s back and copied the Psalter secretly by night.  Finnian found out eventually, and claimed the copy of the book as his own.  Columcille refused to hand it over.  They decided to go for arbitration to Tara, to the court of the High King, Diarmaid Mac Cerbhaill.  Columcille argued his case with every expectation of winning (probably not alone because he was convinced he was in the right, but because Diarmaid as a member of the southern Uí Neill dynasty was a kinsman of his), and got the shock of his life when Diarmaid (supposedly on the advice of his legal adviser, a druid named Bec Mac De) gave the verdict against him in the famous (in Ireland, anyway) ruling: “To every cow her calf, to every book its copy”.  Unfortunately, Columcille was not content to abide by this ruling.  He went back to his own monastery, angry and insulted and hurt in his pride.  This wasn’t the only reason for him to be annoyed, however, as Diarmaid then made a fatal mistake – he gave Columcille (and his ambitious royal kinsmen) the excuse they needed to pick a fight with him.  Traditionally, kings kept hostages – members of the ruling families of other tribes with which they had been at war – as guarantees of maintaining truces at their courts.  One such hostage was Curnan, son of Aedh, the king of Connacht (the western Irish province).  Every three years, the High King held a festival at Tara where the tribes would gather, laws would be made, ritual ceremonies performed (to make and keep the peace) under the influence of the old pagan customs and games and other entertainments held.

Unhappily, in a hurling match, Curnan hit and killed the son of the king’s steward with his stick.  Convinced the king would have him executed at the steward’s request, Curnan fled for sanctuary to Columcille, who promised to protect him.  Diarmaid’s men followed Curnan and, despite Columcille, dragged him out of the church grounds and killed him.

This was a very serious violation of church sanctuary, and not the first time Diarmaid had done it (so he probably figured he’d get away with it this time, as well).  Columcille begged to differ.  He formally pronounced a curse upon the King and went home to his relations in the north.  As I said before, the northern Uí Neill were ambitious: they had consolidated their power in the north (as you can see from this map) and were looking to expand south and east.  As descendants of a High King of Ireland (Niall of the Nine Hostages, traditionally acclaimed as the man who brought St. Patrick to Ireland as he is alleged to have led the raid on Britain where Patrick was captured), they felt they had every much a right as their southern cousins to the High Kingship of Ireland and were looking for an excuse to challenge Diarmaid.  The king of Connacht wanted revenge, the Uí Néill wanted power, and whatever Columcille wanted – to teach Diarmaid a lesson, to challenge the waning power and influence of the old pagan establishment, to punish the violation of church sanctuary, to soothe his injured pride – he was the connection between them.  If he didn’t urge his kinsmen into battle, he didn’t hold them back, either.  His name may translate as “Dove of the Church” but at Cúl Dreimhne, he didn’t prove to be a dove.  In the year 561 (or 555, according to some of the annals), at the foot of the mountain of Ben Bulben in County Sligo in Connacht, the battle between the High King and the  Connachtmen and their northern allies took place where it is said:

“Three thousand was the number that fell of Diarmaid’s people.  One man only fell on the other side, Mag Laim was his name, for it was he that passed beyond the Erbhe Druadh.”

The Connacht king got revenge, the northern Uí Néíll eventually put one of their clan in the High King’s place and Columcille got both his revenge and his copy of the Psalter back, if the history of the Cathach (as it was known) is to be believed.  However, that wasn’t the end of things.  The leading clergy of Ireland were furious about this behaviour on the part of Columcille and convened a synod at Tailte (Taltown in County Meath) where he was excommunicated.  St. Brendan of Birr, one of his fellow-students under St. Finnian, spoke up for him and got the sentence reduced.  The synod agreed to send him into exile, instead – supposedly he was ordered to convert as many pagans as the number of men slain in the battle (3,000, as given above).

So here he was – a man in his forties, successful, the sought-after counsellor and adviser of kings, of noble birth and high status in both secular and church circles, founder of monasteries and centres of learning with disciples and students of his own, used to having his own way and the last word – sent off to begin all over again in poverty and exile in a savage, foreign land.

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad.  The western coast of Scotland was the Dál Riada kingdom, ostensibly settled by Irish colonists and connected to the small Dál Riada kingdom in the north-east of Ireland.  So it wasn’t like he was going out to an unknown land of savages, and he seems to have been welcomed by the native kings (both Scottish-Irish and Picts) and treated much as he had been at home: a trusted intermediary and adviser.

But exile was genuinely hard for him, because he truly loved his native place; as verses attributed to him show us.  Verses such as this one, about Derry/Londonderry, Daire Calgaich (the “oak-grove of Calgach:

“Is aire charaim Doire,

ar a réide, ar a gloine;

ar is lomlán aingel finn

ón chinn co n-ice ar-oile.”


“For this do I love Derry,

For its stillness, for its purity,

For it is quite full of white angels

From one end to the other”


Or the verse attributed to him as he departed on the boat carrying him away from Ireland:

“Fil súil n-glais

fégbas Éirinn dar a h-ais;

noco n-aceba íarmo-thá

firu Érenn nách a mná.”


“There is a grey eye

Which will look back on Ireland

Never more will it see

The men of Ireland or its women.”

It is said that he left his first foundation in Scotland because, as a condition of his exile, he had sworn never again to look upon Ireland and from where he and his companions had landed, the faint outline of Ireland could be seen on the horizon.  Eventually he came to Iona, and made it a centre and mother-house of evangelization and learning.  Naturally, in the early hagiographies about him, there are many miracles attributed to him both in Ireland before and in Scotland after his exile.  The most famous probably has to do with the sea-monster dwelling in the river (not the lake) Ness, the river which runs out of Loch Ness, as recounted in the “Life of St. Columcille” attributed to Adamnan:

How an aquatic monster was driven off by virtue of the blessed man’s prayer

On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat.  The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank.  And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water.  But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream.  Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’  Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast.  Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man.  And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

I’ve never seen this suggested before, but when considering the three patron saints of Ireland, if we think which of the theological virtues might be associated with them, then St. Patrick is undoubtedly Faith, and St. Bridget Charity, which leaves Hope for St. Columcille.  And I think that is important, because hope is the expectation of something not yet possessed, and Columcille was a man who was so accustomed to having his own way due to his talents and gifts and his position as a Prince of the Uí Néill and churchman, that he didn’t have to wait or expect for something, he could get it by his own efforts.

Then this man, so proud and so successful, was broken by his own faults and went into exile from all that he knew and loved for thirty-four years until his death at the age of seventy-seven.  He did return to Ireland once again, at the urgent request of kings and clergy, to an important convention of Druim Ceatt in 574 (probably near Limavaddy in County Derry).  There were three important questions to be settled:

1. Should the Scottish Dal Riada be subject to the Dal Riada king of Scotland or should their allegiance be to the king of the Northern Uí Néill.

2 The release of a hostage by the Uí Néill king.

3 The future of the filidh, the bards/poets who were the remnants of one of the old influential pagan castes (along with the druids and brehons or judges/legal advisers) and whose exactions and demands (on threat of using their powers of satire) had made them unpopular with the nobles and whose pagan linkages had made them distrusted by the new Christian establishment.

Columcille, because of his lineage, connections and contacts, had been instrumental in establishing alliances between the Scots kingdoms and his kingly relatives, so it was no surprise that he managed to broker an agreement and alliance between the Uí Néill and Dal Riada kings.  It might, however, be expected that Columcille would support the suppression of the bards as rivals to the new dispensation of Christian revelation, but he did not.  Remember, Columcille was an educated man (by the standards of the time) and this education had not been confined to merely learning his Bible verses.  He had been educated in part by Gemman, a Christian bard, and was a trained poet himself, so he spoke up on behalf of them and the result was that their numbers were reduced and their privileges curtailed, but they were not purged.  However, the most remarkable thing was probably how he managed to observe (or circumvent, if you want to be critical) his vow never again to look on Ireland or walk on Irish soil.

He came back to Ireland blindfolded and with sods of turf from Iona tied to his shoes because of his promise never to see Ireland again or to set foot on Irish soil.  Now, this may look like quibbling, but I think it is a sign of how he had changed and been changed in exile.  The old Columcille, in false humility, might have said “I vowed never to come back to Ireland so if you want my advice, you (or your representatives) will have to come here” or might have said “In so urgent a case, this is no time to observe a vow that will cause more harm by keeping than by breaking it.”  Both those positions have sound reasoning behind them, but they would also come from his own conceit of his character: that his advice and arbitration was so important that his penance came second.  And he dearly longed to return and see once again his native land and his family, besides.

But the older Columcille was content to make himself look a fool (because he must have looked silly, with crumbling lumps of earth tied to his shoes, stumbling around blindfolded) in order to give counsel not for the aggrandizement of his own reputation, but to the help of those he now dwelt amongst in Scotland.  Another anecdote, from another “Life”, tells us that at the very end of his life:

Thereafter he went to bless the barn, and he said to his servant Diarmait that on Saturday night he would depart unto heaven.  After that the venerable old man, Colombcille, sat down on the edge of the path, for weariness had come to him, though his wayfaring had been but short; seventy-seven years was his age at that time.  Then came unto him the nag which the monks had in the island, and weeps in the breast of the cleric, so that his raiment became wet. The servant, Diarmait, sought to drive the nag away from him.  ‘Let him be, O Diarmait,’ saith Colombcille, ‘until he sufficeth himself with tears and sorrow in lamenting me.’

The man who was so proud of his own virtue and learning and noble blood that he defied his teacher and waged war on a king was now content to be an old man sitting by the wayside with a broken-down workhorse slobbering on his chest.  I think Columcille had finally come to learn the virtue of Hope through hard teaching.  To conclude with the conclusion of that same “Life”:

There shall he have that great glory and elevation: in union with nine orders of heaven that have not transgressed; in union with apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ; in union with the Godhead and Manhood of God’s Son; in union that is noblest of all unions, union with the Holy Trinity, noble, venerable, almighty, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

I implore the mercy of Almighty God, through holy Colombcille’s intercession, that we may all reach that union, that we may deserve it, that we may dwell therein, in saecula saeculorum.  Amen!





  1. My favorite saint, whom I would not have ever heard of were it not for briefly living in a parish named for him. There’s a wonderful picture book about him for children: Across a Dark and Wild Sea, by Don Brown. Love hearing about his later days.

  2. Iona college in New York has a statue near the front in a little area called Columba Circle. Never knew what that was about.

  3. Thanks Martha. I enjoy hearing your retelling of those who’ve gone before.

  4. Martha, I’m just a lowly Protestant and an American to boot, but the reason I should care about St. Columcille is???? I don’t mean to sound snarky (well, okay, maybe I do) but what was the point?

    Also, this site needs a spam filter and the commenter above me should be banned. I’m just saying.

    • Apparently you are not an Irishman sir, nor do you enjoy church history… actually, as with any history, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, it is always good to read about the lives of others for edification or, jsut maybe we might learn something….

    • Why? Well aside from the ‘inspiration’, there are lessons to be learned from those who went before us, even those of different traditions.

      I too am a lowly American, and a Protestant. A few years ago (while studying at Durham, England) I visited St. Oswald’s church in Durham with my wife and daughter (we like old churches with overgrown graveyards!). The church was built in the 12th century, on foundations from the 8th century. I told my wife and daughter how humbling it is to be at a place where people have been worshipping God for almost 1300 years, while we Americans (particularly evangelicals) think we invented all the ‘Christianity stuff’, or at least have finally perfected it. Unfortunately, in our arrogance we don’t appreciate those who went before us (and we are always hungry for the newest ‘thing’ or book or ‘plan’) and we keep making the same mistakes and rehashing the same issues that the church resolved centuries ago!

      A few years later my daughter had the opportunity to spend a week at Iona Abbey with a college group. Her father was more than a little envious!

    • been there, there is no reason you should care. Don’t have to. nobody’s making you 🙂

      Just throwing these examples out there for a few reasons:

      (1) I go “Hulk smash!” when I see all too frequently a romanticised notion of what “Celtic Christianity” might have been like, before those nasty mean continental ‘Romans’ showed up and started centralising and consolidating power (apparently, before St. Augustine got on the boat, all of us over here in the British Isles were frolicking around with flowers in our hair, living in co-ed monastic centres, and really feeling all that peace and love, man).

      I hope that this portrayal of Columcille puts the kibosh on that line of thinking. If you take the traditional attribution that St. Patrick started evangelising in Ireland around 433 A.D. and St. Columcille was born in 521 A.D. into a royal family that was Christian (but also into a country with a pagan presence that, if waning, was still in evidence), that gave around 88 years from Ireland to go from all-pagan to switching-to-majority-Christian.

      This means his grandparents, if not pagan themselves, would have been the first generation to convert. And yet, we see that even so soon, the good old qualities of human nature were still present, and that “Celtic Christianity” was not so very different from its Roman mother. Columcille did have a keen appreciation of nature, as revealed in his poetry, but he also had no difficulty pronouncing a curse of destruction on a king and cheering on his clan in a battle that ended up with 3,000 of the enemy dead. If the Church went apostate, it went apostate very fast. If there are visible faults in the Church (and I don’t mean the Catholic Church only here, I mean “Christianity the Church”) today, they were just as visible back then. Things were not always gold in the Golden Age, and our age is not necessarily an age of clay. And as Christ has preserved the Church and sent His Spirit all through the ages, so we keep falling down and keep getting up again.

      (2) Any mention – as I saw casually tossed off online – of “book-burning zealots of the Dark Ages” also gives me the hump. As I hope the mention of Finnian’s journey to Rome, where he came back with a brand-new translation of the Psalms (and probably, though it’s not mentioned, as many other books as he could stuff into his luggage) and the school attached to his monastery which was for the lay as well as the clergy, and Columcille’s foundation of monasteries all over Ireland churning out books as fast as the scribes could write, and Columcille’s defence of the old pagan order of the poets, clergy and other people in the ‘Dark Ages’ did not react to books in the caricature (i) “Pagan rubbish! On the bonfire with it!” and (ii) “Disseminating the written Word of God? No, keep it in the hands of the few, only the Pope is allowed to read it!” but rather made as many copies as they could of whatever they could get their hands on. The printing press was not yet invented, so the limitations on the numbers of books were (a) how many educated people were available to copy them (b) how fast they could work (c) hope that no plagues, famines, or invasion of Visigoths/Huns/whomever would kill off the educated people in the middle of copying books (d) being able to read the languages of whatever manuscripts were around (as noted in the post, before St. Jerome’s Vulgate version, the Scriptures were in Greek which – with the split between the Eastern and Western Empire and the decline of the West – meant that there were fewer and fewer as the generations went on who could read, write or speak the tongue.

      It’s the attitude demonstrated in the movie “Agora” (i.e., Hypatia was a Pagan Martyr of Science murdered by Christian Zealots who, for good measure, destroyed the Library of Alexandria and put Science back a good two/five/thousand years – amount of backwardness depending on bias of person making the accusation). It is also wrong, as the review by an atheist blogger skewering the movie demonstrates (Google “Armarium Magnum” for the blog and “Agora” for the movie).

      (3) Hoping that these fragments of Irish church history may entertain, amuse and inform, but once again, not trying to shove them down anyone’s throat.


      • That should be “put science back a good two hundred/five hundred/thousand years”. I saw a genuine comment enthusing over the movie about how, if it wasn’t for Christianity, we’d have so advanced in science that we’d all be living on other planets by now (the limitations of materials technology and the likes obviously never troubled the unclouded serene of this person’s mind, as it’s all very well having the theory but you have to develop the means to make the stuff as well, and that takes time and trial and error to figure out).

  5. Martha,

    I’m guessing my clan Coughlin -> Cochlain who hailed from County Cork did not have a dog in this fight, probably still living in caves or something. Still trying to tie myself back to the family lure that says we were related to the 5th King of Ireland…

    • Radagast, as you may see by the linked map, in the south and south-west the dynasty on the make were the Eóghanachta, who were quite happy to watch the northern and southern branches of the Uí Néill dynasty getting stuck into one another as they themselves consolidated their gains and made alliances (in due time, one of the vassal tribes of the Eóghanactha – the Dál gCáis – would produce Brian Boru, who claimed the High Kingship in the late 10th century).

      So your ancestors were probably negotiating with the future Kings of Munster while the O’Neills were slaughtering each other 🙂

  6. Well, “Been there”, as a Protestant and an American, I have an easy solution to your problem–Just don’t read it! Do you go to your local library, see books you are not interested in, and write letters to the authors asking them why they have written a book you aren’t interested in, or ask the librarian to remove those books your have no interest in? My guess is, if you ever make it to your local library, you just don’t read them.
    In truth, Martha is a great asset to this blog. Her knowledge, honesty, and wit bring much needed perspective to those of us trapped in the American Protestant tunnel. She constantly reminds us that labels, such as Protestant and American are in many ways like the labels we wear on our collars, and deep, down, we share a common humanity with Columba and his spiritual ancestors.

  7. Really, all this saint stuff is fascinating. It’s like astrology for Catholics. Think about how hard it must have been to be appointed Apostle to the Hobbits. And inclusion of the Loch Ness Monster sure does add to the credibility of holy tradition. (Couldn’t the Holy Spirit have descended as a pterodactyl instead of a dove? Because that would make church so much more interesting…)

    Yeah, we should have articles like this for other countries too. I hope you cover St. Vlad the Impaler next.

    • (Sorry, not Hobbits. Leprechauns.)

    • I sometimes wonder what Christians (particularly scholars and historians) looking back in a hundred years or more will think of the current bunch (and for the last 200 years too) of ‘saints and heroes’ (megachurch preachers, psuedo-scholars [with honorary degrees, I could name names but that would be unkind] masquerading as authorities, and just plain lunatics) who write books (and have radio programs) filled with quasi-biblical nonsense that evangelicals eat up like it’s candy (because much of it is – cotton candy – lots of yum but no nutrition – no biblical substance). I think we need to be careful about ridiculing the faults of those who lived in very different times and with different worldviews – it could be the pot is calling the kettle black.