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Iona: A History of the Island
Chapter III. Columba in Ireland

Of the lives of Ninian, Bride, and Patrick, and even of Columba’s contemporary, St. Mungo, we have scanty knowledge, but of Columba’s achievements a remarkably clear record exists. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba is one of the treasures of history, and “the most complete piece of such biography that Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period, but even through the whole Middle Ages”.—(Pinkerton: Lives of Scottish Saints.) It was written in Iona by Adamnan, the ninth Abbot, at the urgent request, as he tells us, of the brethren. The biographer was born in 624, twenty-seven years after the death of the saint. He conversed with men who had been Columba’s monks, had access to all the literary remains, and embodied in his book the fragmentary record of an earlier Abbot. The book is in part hagiology rather than biography, and the reader must make what allowances his training and temperament demand for the prophetic and miraculous elements in the narrative.

Columba was born on 4th December, 521, at Gartan, a wild, mountainous district in Donegal, the haunt of the wolf, and, to this day, of the eagle. He was descended from the royal house of Neill, his father, Phelim MacFergus, being a great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostings, High King of Ireland at Royal Tara from 379 to 405. In Niall’s day, Ireland was a pagan land, but a certain British lad, named Patrick, was a slave in Connaught. Patrick escaped to Gaul, and in the course of time returned to Ireland, which he converted from Druidism to Christianity, and of which he became later the patron saint. Niall’s son, Conall, Columba’s great - grandfather, was baptized by St. Patrick.

Columba’s mother, Eithne, was also of royal descent. The old Irish life of the saint says that he. was eligible for the throne of Erin, which would have been offered him had he not abandoned it for the service of Christ.

There is a legend that, before her son was born, Eithne dreamed one night that an angel stood before her and offered her a robe of exquisite beauty. Scarcely was it hers than the angel took it from her and spread it out till it covered mountain and lough and forest, reaching even to Scotland. From this sign Eithne knew that her child was the child of the prophecies, and destined to lead innumerable souls to Heaven.

Columba’s education was accordingly directed to fit him for his mission. He received two names: Crimthan, a wolf, and Colum, a dove, each of which seems appropriate to one element of his complex character. His early education was entrusted to Cruithnechan, an aged presbyter, renowned for sanctity, who lived near by. The child’s love for the offices of the church was so marked that the children of the neighbourhood, whom he would join on coming from the cell in which he read his psalms, named him Columcille, Colum of the cell or church. Columba is, of course, the Latin form of Colum.

When his fosterage under Cruithnechan was ended, Columba was placed under the care of Finnian at an ecclesiastical school in Moville, where he was ordained deacon. Thence he proceeded to Leinster, where he studied the native literature under Gemman, the venerable Bard of that province. According to Irish tradition, he retained throughout his life the love he there acquired for the old, poetic tales of his race; and, himself a poet, he probably became a member of the Order of Bards. From Master Gemman, he went on to the monastic school of St. Finnian—the most famous school in Ireland—situated by the waters of the Boyne.

Finally, after a period at the monastery of Glasnevin, near Dublin, where he probably pronounced his monastic vow, he returned to his native Ulster.

In 545, Columba founded the monastery of Derry on a site given him by his kinsmen of the Clan Neill. He came to realize, however, that monasticism did not fully satisfy the needs of the time. Refreshed with a period of prayer and fasting—a visit, too, to Tours, in Gaul, took place about this time—he left Derry, and began to preach up and down Ireland, attacking paganism where it still existed, and strengthening the faith in other parts. Everywhere he founded churches, of which over three hundred are ascribed to him; and monasteries, of which the most famous are Durrow and Kells. The power of organization was one of his many gifts, and Scotland reaped the fruits of his Irish experience. His method was to find a suitable site where a church was needed, and go boldly to the owner and ask for it; then, when permission was given, he erected the requisite buildings—not scrupling to work with his own hands when necessary—installed carefully trained workers and passed on; and, in spite of his constant journeyings, he continued to keep in touch with all his foundations.

Why Columba left Ireland for Scotland is not known with certainty. A popular account has it that the saint, who was a fervent scribe and highly skilled in the art of illumination, secretly copied for his own use a beautiful manuscript of the book of Psalms, belonging to his old master, Finnian of Moville. The owner demanded the copy, which was refused. Finnian appealed to Diarmaid, King of Ireland, and chief of the southern Clan Neill. The king gave judgment in these words: “To every cow belongs her calf, and to every book its copy”. Columba, filled with wrath at the decision, incited his kinsmen of the northern Clan Neill to battle, and Diarmaid was defeated with great slaughter. Columba was then summoned by Diarmaid before a synod and excommunicated; but the sentence was afterwards annulled. Full of remorse for his deed, Columba sought his “anmcara”, his soul-friend or spiritual adviser, who counselled him that, as a penance, he should go into perpetual exile, and win as many souls for Christ as he had caused bodies to be slain in battle.

This narrative is not reliable. Adamnan not only does not mention it, but he speaks of Columba’s having revisited Ireland on ten different occasions. It is more likely that his departure from Ireland was concerned with the position of his kinsfolk in the Scottish Dalriada (Argyllshire), so named after the Irish Dalriada (Antrim), whence they came.

(The channel which separates the two countries is only twelve miles wide, and the houses in Kintyre can be seen from the Irish coast opposite). The northern Picts were at this time a barbarous and pagan race; the southern Britons had lapsed sadly since the days of Ninian; and the Scots were the only Christian people in North Britain. In 560 the Scots settlers suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Brude, King of the Northern Picts; their king, a kinsman of Columba, was slain; and there was a danger that the whole colony might be extirpated. In Skene's opinion (and in accordance with a prophecy in the Chronicle of the Picts and Scots) it was this reverse which called forth the mission of St. Columba, and led him to select North Pictland as his first field. Christianity was to be the bopd which should unite these turbulent nations, and establish among them an abiding peace.

Adamnan puts the reason for Columba’s departure quite simply: “In the forty-second year of his age, desiring to seek a foreign country for the sake of Christ, he sailed from Ireland to Britain".

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