The Everyday Colmcille. By Dr M.J. Fox

Traditionally it has been believed that St. Columba, or Colmcille, left this world on 9 June 597, marking his departure from this world and entering a new life. Throughout those 77 years on this earth, according to his first hagiographer, Adomnán, he is reported to having performed many ‘prophecies, miracles and visions’[1] some of them astounding and others quite the opposite. Although much has been made of his more breathtaking and spectacular feats of saintliness, his less notable achievements have garnered significantly less consideration, though they might be worth reflecting on too. Here we take a few examples directly from Adomnán’s writings – one example from each of his three parts or books – and determine if they have any currency today, 1425 years later. (This article is published to mark St Colmcille’s Day on 9 June. Wishing our President Helen Bracken and all who have worked hard to see Durrow fully restored to public health and public access. Ed.)

Adomnán’s work is divided into three books, and according to the title, the first concerns prophetic revelations, the second miracles, and the third visions. There is no chronological order to most of it. He is sometimes painfully clear about some of his sources, and vague or silent about others. Over the centuries it has been added to, and the veracity of his writing has been the subject of much debate, with some researchers more disparaging than others. Here, we are only concerned with the original Adomnán work, and nothing later than that.[2] It was written at least 60 to 100 years after Colmcille’s death. It is worth adding that the version used in this article is a 1995 translation with extensive and informative notes by Richard Sharpe.

The Penguin edition edited by Richard Sharpe

Book I, Chapter III

This chapter includes a detailed description of Colmcille’s visit to Clonmacnoise while he was based at Durrow, probably between 585 and 597. The route was simple and direct, perhaps a five-hour walk, but significantly less if available water routes were taken along the way.[3] Even walking from Clara, however, one just followed the Slighe Mor’s east-west route of the gravel ridge called the Eiscir Riada. The opening passage begins with Colmcille’s arrival, everyone leaving their work in the fields and the monastery itself, spilling out beyond the boundaries of Clonmacnoise and following their abbot Alither to greet him ‘as an angel of the Lord.’ They sang hymns of praise, kissed him, and had made a canopy ‘borne by four men walking in pairs’ to protect him from the throngs. It must have been a sight to behold.

Peter Harbison at Durrow in 2011 as part of the annual heritage seminar

However, during all of this

a boy belonging to the community approached from behind, hiding himself as much as possible. He was generally looked down on for his outward expression and his attitude, and was not well thought of by the seniors. This boy hoped that he might secretly touch the hem of the cloak that the saint was wearing, if possible, without St. Columba’s feeling or knowing it.[4]

Colmcille stopped, reached behind himself and grabbed the boy by the neck and pulled him around to face him. Yet the monks who had come to greet Colmcille were jeering the boy and demanding Colmcille send  the ‘unfortunate and mischievous boy’[5] away. At this point the boy was terrified, and Colmcille told him to show his tongue. He did, and Colmcille blessed it, saying

Although this boy may seem to you now worthless and to be scorned, do not let that make you despise him. For from this hour he will cease to displease you; indeed, he will please you greatly, and grow little by little day by day in goodness of life and greatness of spirit. Wisdom and judgement will increase in him from today, and he will be an outstanding figure in your community. God will endow his tongue with eloquence to teach the doctrine of salvation.[6]

His name was Ernéne mac Craséni, and he did indeed become well known throughout Ireland’s churches for the next century or so.[7] We return to him in the conclusion.

The cross was moved into the church in 2004, opened in 2011 and closed now for several years for repairs.

Book II, Chapter XXXIII

When Colmcille was spending some days among the Picts, it came to his attention that a wizard[8] named Broichan had an Irish slavegirl in his possession. Colmcille tried to convince Broichan to grant her freedom, as he took pity on her. Broichan was ‘hard and unbending’ and Colmcille warned Broichan that he would die soon if the girl was not released. This was said in the company of Briochan’s son, King Bridei, understood to be king of the Picts at that time. Before Colmcille left he repeated his threat, and walked to the nearby River Ness with his traveling companions. At the river he picked up a white stone and predicted it would heal many people. He then said:

Now Broichan has suffered a heavy blow. For an angel sent from heaven has struck him, breaking into fragments the glass cup in his hand just as he was drinking from it. He is now struggling to get his breath and is near to death. But we should wait here a little while. The king will send two messengers hurrying out to us to call on our help for Broichan, and urgently, for he is dying. This seizure has put fear into him. Now he is willing to release the slave-girl.

When the king’s messengers arrived, Colmcille listened to them patiently and subsequently sent two of his own companions back to the king, along with the white stone. He instructed them to tell the king that if Broichan would promise to give the Irish girl her freedom, he should dip the white stone in water and drink it.This would result in an immediate cure. If he refused to do so, he would ‘die on the spot’. Needless to say, the girl was quickly released to Colmcille’s companions, and Broichan drank the water and recovered.

Monastic remains at Tihilly close to Durrow, but with access from Clara Road.

Book III, Chapter III

At one point Colmcille had the experience of being ‘excommunicated for some trivial and quite excusable offenses by a synod that, as eventually became known had acted wrongly.’ He chose to attend the Oenach Tailtenn[9] in which his detractors had convened against him. Among them was Brendan, the founder of Birr monastery. As Brendan saw Colmcille approaching, ‘he rose quickly to meet him, bowed his face and kissed him with reverence.’ Some of the elders objected to this and openly questioned Brendan regarding why he did not ‘shrink from rising before an excommunicate and kissing him?’

Brendan’s retort was sharp, telling them that their judgement of him had been wrong, and that ‘in no sense does God excommunicate him in accordance with your wrong judgement, but rather glorifies him more and more.’ They bristled at his impertinence and questioned what proof he had. Brendan’s response was a description of a vision he had of ‘a very bright column of fiery light’ preceding Colmcille en route, with ‘holy angels’ travelling with him, conveying Colmcille was ‘predestined to lead the nations to life.’ This convinced the elders to change their opinion and forego the excommunication proceedings.

The cross at Tihilly with Dr Peter Harbison in 2011

Prophecies, Miracles and Visions?

In recent years, for all the criticism heaped upon Colmcille and his primary hagiographer, Adomnán, perhaps there is a different perspective worth considering. Although the three examples chosen for this blog have ‘miracle’ elements to them, they also have a more worldly and everyday messages in them too. After all, we are hardly equipped to quell stormy seas or have apparitions of angels or predict events. Each of these selections also seem to have a message or lesson behind them. For example, all of us at some time or another have met someone like young Ernene, the downtrodden boy who secretly wanted to touch the hem of Colmcille’s cloak. Colmcille made sure to face him in front of the throngs that had gathered, and pronounce how Ernene would grow in ‘goodness of life and greatness of spirit.’ A positive and robust public representation from someone of high regard can go a long way in influencing a person. The second example was a demonstration of helping someone in need who might not be able to speak for themselves. Sometimes to help someone in such circumstances, a person would need to deliver a threat to their possessor, or at least appear to. This might be out of one’s comfort zone, but to help someone in great need, there might be little other choice. And the third example was one of standing up for what is known to be true, even if it means while in the presence of ‘authorities’ who are ready for a quarrel. In such a situation, sometimes the one being shouted at and reviled becomes the ‘new’ authority! All in all, Colmcille is not so much about miracle stories, but more about finding the inner strength to stand up and help others.


[1] The title of Adomnán’s work, Prophcies, Miracles and Visions of St. columba (columcille), First Abbot of Iona, A.d. 563-597.

[2] Reference to page numbers is avoided due to brevity of chapters, many versions of the Life, and printed or digital format.

[3] The water levels were higher 1500 years ago; see Bernie Moran, ‘From Lynally to Durrow…by boat? An Exploration’, Offaly History Journal 6, (2010), 84.98; and Bernia Moran, Offaly History Blog, ‘River systems – the super highways of Early Christian Ireland,” April 7, 2018: https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/07/river-systems-the-super-highways-of-early-christian-ireland-by-bernie-moran/  ; see also https://www.westmeathindependent.ie/2010/04/07/was-it-possible-to-travel-from-tubber-to-ballymore-by-boat/

[4] Book I, Chapter III.

[5] Ibid,.

[6] Ibid,.

[7] Sharpe discusses this more fully in his Note 58.

[8] Sharpe is clear in his choice of the word wizard; see his Note 291.

[9] Teltown Fair.

Our thanks to Dr Mary Jane Fox for this article. Pics and caps from OHAS.