poet • publisher • prince • priest
warrior • diplomat • scholar • sailor
Feast Day: June 9
Columba was a great lover of books and it was perhaps his passion for them that established the monasteries as “publishers” (all painstakingly inscribed by hand, of course).
It was also this passion that, by most accounts, got him into big trouble…
Columba was born in Ireland, in 521 at Gartan, Co. Donegal, into the powerful Ui Neill clan. His mother, Eithne, was a princess from Leinster. Given the name “Crimhthann” (meaning “Fox”), at birth, he was later christened Colm (or Colum or Columba), by his foster father Cruithnechan. That name meaning “Dove,” finally became Colm Cille due to the many “cells” or churches he founded.
Columba was educated at Finnian’s famous school in Movilleand; studied at Leinster with the Bard Gemman (and became a poet himself); studied yet further at Clonard, eventually becoming a priest.
He returned to Ulster a robust and handsome young man, with a voice that was said to be “so loud and melodious, it could be heard a mile off.” He spent the next 15 years travelling and founding monasteries, including the famous Derry, Durrow and Kells.
Columba was a great lover of books and it was perhaps his passion for them that established the monasteries as “publishers” (all painstakingly inscribed by hand, of course). It was also this passion that, by most accounts, got him into big trouble.
Apparently, he so wanted a copy of Finnian’s St. Jerome’s Psalter that he made one for himself. When it was discovered, Finnian demanded he give it to him. Columba refused and the case was brought before King Diarmaid who ruled against him, saying “To every cow her calf, to every book its son book.”
Columba felt wronged. This resentment finally spilled over when Curnan of Connaught sought refuge with Columba and Diarmaid’s men defied the laws of sanctuary and murdered Curnan in the church.
His outrage spread to his clan, resulting in a bloody battle in which thousands were killed. The “Dove” was held responsible for their deaths and would have been excommunicated but for the intervention of St. Brendan.
In atonement, Columba vowed to convert as many persons as had died in battle. There are several versions of his reason for leaving Ireland, but by most accounts, he departed with 12 disciples in a leather coracle (much like Brendan’s) and travelled north to the isle of I or Hy (Iona). There he established a monastery which, in spite of its austerity, became a center of culture and conversion. People of all ranks, from all over Europe sought Colmcille’s wisdom, prophecies and miracles.
One fable maintains that he drove a great monster from the River Ness out into the Loch where it could do no harm. Four Scottish kings bore the name “Malcolm” (Malcolumb), meaning a devotée of St. Columba.
Colmcille lived on Iona until his death at age 76, and appears to have mellowed in his old age.
St. Adamnan describes him as having “the face of an angel…of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel…loving unto all….”
One nice legend holds that, as Columba sat down to rest, a white horse approached, nuzzled him and shed a tear, thereby letting Columba know his time on earth was coming to an end.
It is a fitting tribute that the earliest existing example of a Celtic illuminated manuscript is the Cathach of St. Columba — written in his own hand. The magnificent Book of Kells was produced at Iona and the brilliant Book of Durrow was created at another of his monasteries.