Columba, son of Eithne, daughter of Mac Naue, and Fedelmid mac Ferguso, is one of the most important Irish saints, and the strength of his saint’s cult in the centuries after his death on June 9th, 597 attests to this. Columba, or Colmcille, meaning the dove of the church, was born around 520 as a prominent member of the Cenél Conaill, This was a branch of the northern Uí Néill, a powerful dynastic grouping tracing its origins back to Niall of the Nine Hostages and based in north-western Ireland (Tír Chonaill takes its name from the Cenél Conaill). Columba’s influence extended into political matters as well as the religious sphere, but he is remembered as a monastic saint above all else. Like most early Irish saints, he was never formally canonised.
Sources for Columba’s life
We have a range of sources for details on Columba’s life, career, and legacy. The earliest of these is the account by Cumméne, monk of Iona and abbot of the foundation 657-669, who wrote his Book on the Miracles of Saint Columba (Liber de Virtutibus Sancti Columbae) in the second quarter of the seventh century. An excerpt from this account is in some of the manuscripts of Adomnán’s Life of Columba (Vita Columbae), including the earliest manuscript of that text, the Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen.1, written c. 700, and Cumméne’s record of the saint’s miracles is evidence of early efforts to preserve traditions about Columba.
Image citation: Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 1 : Adamnanus de Iona, Vita Columbae. https://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/9200211/en_list_one_sbs_0001.html. Adamnanus, de Iona. e-codices – http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/sbs/0001. CC BY-NC – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
The Old Irish Elegy of Colmcille (Amrae Coluimb Chille) is another source which contains interesting, if at times confusing, details about the saint; it has recently been dated to the ninth-century, though with probably far earlier origins. The Irish annals’ links with Iona also ensure that information on Columba, though not contemporary, was inserted. The most famous and most detailed resource is Adomnán’s Latin Vita Columbae, a masterful piece of hagiography that helped to solidify Columba’s saintliness for a wide audience and was probably written to commemorate the first centenary of the saint’s death.
To add to these early sources, we also have a twelfth-century Irish life of Columba which includes a wealth of names and places associated with the saint (some of which may even be accurate!), and the sixteenth-century Life (Betha Colaim Chille) by Maghnus Ó Domhnaill further celebrates him in Irish. These later texts locate Columba’s birthplace as Gartan, Co. Donegal, and Ó Domhnaill’s text describes the famous white clay associated with that place. It is said to have been created by the blood lost by Columba’s mother as she gave birth to him and offers protection against burning, drowning and labour pains to those who carry or eat(!) it. Little bags of it are still to be found in cars Donegal.
Columba’s monastic career
Columba is said to have been an excellent student, mentored by Bishop Finnian of Moville in Co. Down and Mo Bí at Glasnevin. He is credited with founding a multitude of monasteries, from Kells to Derry and everywhere in between, though only Durrow in Offaly and Iona off the coast of Mull in Scotland can be reliably attributed to him personally.
Later stories state that Columba left Ireland in 563 due to an error of judgement: without permission, he made a copy of a Gospel book belonging to Finnian and refused to hand over the copy. The matter came before the Uí Néill king, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, who, in a pronouncement that has been described as the first copyright reference, famously declared:
‘To every cow her calf, so to every book its copy.’
Columba’s refusal to accept this ruling is said to have led to a great battle and, as penance for the lives lost, Columba was exiled from Ireland. Contemporary sources make no reference to this story, and he almost certainly left Ireland in 563 as a voluntary peregrinus (exile or pilgrim), founding a monastery on the small island of Iona where he acted as abbot, prophet and spiritual leader until his death. Iona was part of the kingdom of Dál Riata, based around Argyll in Scotland, and Irish in language and culture. Although he had left the island of Ireland behind, Columba lived very much in an Irish milieu.
The monastery of Durrow
Columba founded the monastery of Durrow before his move to Iona, probably in the 550s. Situated (though un-signposted) just off the N52, the site is owned by the OPW and accessible to the public. The church now standing on the site dates from the eighteenth century, and houses the excellent carved Durrow high cross. A short walk through a field brings you to Colmcille’s Well. In Irish called Dearmach or Dairmagh, the Latin name used for the foundation is a direct translation – Campus Roborum, meaning plain of oaks. Although it cannot be confirmed that the Book of Durrow now held in Trinity College Dublin was made at Durrow, it was certainly located there by the tenth century and is strongly connected to that foundation. Bede, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon historian whose appreciation for Irish Christianity is evident in his work, describes Durrow as monasterium nobile in Hibernia (a respected monastery in Ireland), and its renown travelled well beyond the Irish midlands in the early medieval period.
Adomnán’s Life of Columba
Durrow is a likely location for the early career of Adomnán, distant cousin to Columba and ninth abbot of Iona. Adomnán was the promulgator of the Cáin Adomnáin (the Lex innocentium, or law of the innocents) at a synod in the Offaly monastery of Birr in 697. This law gained a list of notable religious and political guarantors who agreed to uphold its rules regarding the protection of non-combatants, among other things. He also wrote a widely read, widely copied and widely distributed Life of Columba in Latin.
Durrow appears in that life when Columba, located on Iona, wept as he could see in a vision the abbot of Durrow, a cousin of his named Laisran, working the Durrow brethren too hard in harsh winter weather. Luckily, Laisran miraculously felt his cousin’s distant disapproval and released his monks from their tasks (Book 1.23).
Adomnán’s work covers the usual gamut of saintly achievements, from prophesying kingly succession to miraculous visions and healing the sick. Some of the miracles described are more interesting than others, however. He manages to persuade a woman who hates the sight of her husband that she actually loves him above all else (Bk 2.42), and blessed Iona to ensure no poisonous reptiles or snakes could ever hurt anyone on it (Bk 2.29), in a story reminiscent of earlier tales that made similar claims about Ireland.
Adomnán’s life also contains the earliest reference to the Loch Ness monster (Bk 2.28). Adomnán writes that Columba was crossing the River Ness when he saw some locals burying a man who had been mauled by Nessie, here called a water monster – a bestia aquatalis. Columba could not let this lie, and asked Lugne Mocumin, whose recurring nosebleed he had cured in a previous, more mundane, miracle (Bk 2.7), to swim across to fetch a boat. His companion did not hesitate to be used as bait and, when the beast predictably emerged to attack, Columba drove him back underwater with the sign of the cross and some strong words.
Adomnán ends his work with a reflection on Columba’s importance, noting that though he lived on a tiny and remote island, his fame had rightfully spread throughout Ireland and Britain, into Spain and Gaul and, finally, as far as Rome itself, the chief of cities.
As one of the patron saints of Ireland, Columba’s significance continues to this day. Every year on June 9th, Columba’s feast day, Durrow parish commemorates the saint with pattern day celebrations. It is the traditional day that local children make their first communion and, this year, mass will be held at the high cross at noon before a procession down to Colmcille’s Well.