The History of St Columba

part 1

St Columba in Ireland

Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, 'church dove'; Scots Gaelic: Calum Cille : Columbkille; 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish Abbot and missionary evangelist credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. He founded his first abbey in Derry, where he is now the Patron Saint. He was highly regarded by both the of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Catholic Saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

In Ireland, he is commonly known as Colmcille.

Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, a district beside Lough Gartan, in Tír Chonaill (mainly modern County Donegal) in the north of Ireland. On his father's side, he is claimed as being great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, a pseudo-historical Irish high king of the 5th century. He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in the County Donegal Parish of Conwal (midway between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Cruithnechán. It is not known for sure if his name at birth was Colmcille or if he adopted this name later in life.

In the Irish language his name means 'dove', which is the same name as the Prophet Jonah (Jonah in Hebrew is also 'dove'), which Adomnán of Iona as well as other early Irish writers were aware of, although it is not clear if he was deliberately named after Jonah or not.


The remains of St. Columba's Church, Gartan, County Donegal

When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monastic school of Movilla, at Newtownards, under Finnian of Movilla who had studied at Ninian's "Magnum Monasterium" on the shores of Galloway.

He was about twenty, and a deacon when, having completed his training at Movilla, 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, noted for sanctity and learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for Finnian had been trained in the schools of Saint David.

In early Christian Ireland the druidic tradition collapsed due to the spread of the new Christian faith. The study of Latin learning and Christian theology in monasteries flourished. Columba became a pupil at the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne in modern County Meath. During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Celtic Christianity studied at the Clonard monastery. The average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was said to be 300.

Columba was one of twelve students of Finnian of Clonard who became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a Priest.

Another preceptor of Columba was Mobhí Clárainech, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as Cainnech of Aghaboe, Comgall, and St Ciarán. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi's disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster, the land of his kindred. He was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another.

The following years were marked by the foundation of several important monasteries: Derry, at the southern edge of Inishowen; Durrow, County Offaly; Kells, County Meath; and Swords, County Dublin.

Long Tower Church, Derry (site of the original Monastery) Monastery at Durrow, County Offaly
Monastery at Kells, County Meath Monastery at Swords, County Dublin

While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours, France. 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.

Some traditions assert that sometime around 560 Columba became involved in a quarrel with Finnian of Moville of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Finnian disputed his right to keep it. There is a suggestion that this conflict resulted in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in County Sligo) in 561, during which many men were killed. Richard Sharpe, translator of Adomnán's Life of St. Columba makes a stern caution at this point against accepting the many references that link the battle and Columba's leaving of Ireland, even though there is evidence in the annals that Columba supported his own king against the high king. Political conflicts that had existed for some time resulted in the clan Neill's battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561. An issue, for example, was 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 Columba's kinsman. Prince Curnan of Connacht, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms and slain by Diarmaid's men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary.

A synod of Clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for these deaths, but Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf. Eventually the process was deemed a miscarriage of justice. Columba's own conscience was uneasy, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to expiate his sense of offence by departing Ireland. A marker at Stroove Beach on the Inishowen Peninsula commemorates the place where Columba set sail for Scotland. He left Ireland, but through the following years he would return several times in relationships with the communities he had founded there. Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba. In 574/5 during his return for the Synod of Drum Ceat he founded the monastery of Drumcliff in Cairbre, now County Sligo, near the battlefield.

Columba studied under some of Ireland's most prominent Church figures and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his twelve companions, leaving from Derry in a curragh, crossed to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll, in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Ulster kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Celtic Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland.

Frieze above the stage of St Columb's Hall, Derry depicts St Columba leaving Derry for Scotland

continued in Part 2 >>>

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