Feast Day : June 9
Patronage: bookbinders; computer hackers; Knights of Columbus (Columba); plagiarists; poets; Ireland; Scotland
Also known as: Colmcille, Columcille, Columkill, Colum, Columbus, Combs
Most of what is known about and attributed to Columba comes from the Vita Columbae (Life of Columba), a three-volume work composed between 688 and 692 by Adamnan, an abbot of Iona who was regarded in his own time as “the High Scholar of the Western world.” Columba (the Latinized form of Colmcille) was born on December 7, 521—or 60 years after St. Patrick died—in Gartan, County Donegal, Ulster, to the royal clan of Ui Neill, also known as Clan Conaill or O’Donnell. His mother was Eithne and his father Fedhlimidh, a descendant of the great fourth-century king Niall of the Nine Hostages. Columba’s birth name was Crimthann, “the fox,” and the boy may have had red hair. He expressed an interest in the Church early on, taking the name Colmcille, or “dove of the church,” after his baptism by the priest Cruithnechan. After learning all Cruithnechan could teach him, Columba entered the monastic school of Moville under St. Finian. After completing his training and ordination as a deacon, Columba left Moville to study Irish poetry and history under the aged bard Gemman in Leinster. He then joined the monastery at Clonard, headed by another Finian, a student of St. David of Wales. Columba became one of 12 disciples at Clonard known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He also received priestly orders from Bishop Etchen of Clonfad. Legend tells that the bishop meant to consecrate Columba as a bishop but mistakenly designated him only a priest. Leaving Clonard, Columba went to the monastery of St. Mobhi Clarainech at Glasnevin, where he stayed until an outbreak of disease caused the monastery’s closing in 544. Columba returned to Ulster, where he founded monasteries at Derry in 546, Durrow in 556 and Kells not long after. Altogether, Columba reportedly established 27 monasteries and founded approximately 40 churches. According to his biographer St. Adamnan, Columba’s missionary zeal and love of Christ led him to leave Ireland in 563 with 12 companions and settle on the small island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. They established a monastery there that flourished as a center of scholarship, art and Christianity until the Viking raids of the ninth century. But Columba’s desire to spread the Gospel was perhaps not the only impetus for his travels to Iona. At some point, Columba made an illicit copy of a psalter owned by St. Finian (supposedly the one at Moville) and attributed to St. Jerome. Writing surreptitiously in the dark, with the fingers of his left hand allegedly burning like candles so he could see, Columba made the copy. He was found out, and Finian demanded that the young monk return the copy. Columba refused, and Finian referred the case to High King Diarmait (Dermott). Diarmait, a member of a clan unfriendly to Columba’s clan, ruled in what amounts to the first copyright case: “Le gach buin a laogh” (“to every cow her calf”), or to every book its copy, and Columba was forced to relinquish the psalter. Resentment over King Diarmait’s decision later turned to rage, when Columba was sheltering his kinsman, Prince Curnan, who had fatally injured an opponent in a hurling competition. King Diarmait ordered his men to ignore the right of sanctuary and to seize Curnan and kill him. Columba demanded revenge and gathered his clan’s army against Diarmait’s at Cuil Dremne (Cooldrevny) in 561. When the battle was over, King Diarmait’s clan had lost 3,000 men; Columba’s clan had lost one. Columba regained his psalter as a spoil of war, and ever after the book was known as the Cathach, or “warrior,” and served as the sacred Battle Book of the Clan O’Donnell. The Cathach is preserved at the Irish Academy and is the oldest surviving example of Irish majuscule writing. Convening a synod at Telltown in Meath, church fathers condemned Columba for the 3,000 deaths and excommunicated him for a time—the standard punishment for a monk who had taken up arms. But Columba’s conscience supposedly pained him more than the group’s judgment, and he turned to his confessor, St. Molaise of Devenish, for guidance. Molaise ordered Columba to leave Ireland and never return, and to bring as many new souls to Christ as had been lost at Cooldrevny. Columba and his 12 companions left Ireland in a wicker currach covered with hide and landed on Iona (“holy island”) in May 563—a place just far enough north to have no view of Ireland. Columba first ministered to the Irish in Scotland— emigrants from the Dalriada region of Ulster—but eventually began converting the Northern Pictish people of Scotland. One of his first converts was King Brude at Inverness. When Columba and his monks arrived at the castle, the doors were shut and barred. Columba raised his arm to make the sign of the cross, and the bolts reportedly flew out and the doors opened—a scene reminiscent of St. Patrick’s entrance to King Laoghaire’s castle at Tara. Columba also reputedly anointed King Aidan of Argyll on the famous Stone of Scone. Even the name Scotland comes from Columba, for in those days Scoti or Scotus meant Irish. Although Columba never again lived in Ireland, he traveled there often. In 580, Columba returned to Ulster for the assembly at Druim-Cetta, a conference to determine the obligations of the Irish in Scotland to the mother country. Participants decided that the Scottish- Irish should furnish a fleet, but not an army, to the Irish high king. Perhaps more important, Columba convinced the assembly not to suppress the Bardic Order—the bards and poets who sang and wrote about Celtic history, legend and culture. Columba retained leadership of the monasteries and churches he founded in Ireland as well as those he established from Iona. This situation led to the development of a governing system unique to Celtic Christian churches and at odds with the Roman model for over 70 years following Columba’s death: The abbots—and abbesses—had jurisdiction over the monastery and environs, even superior to the bishops. The Celtic churches finally bowed to Rome’s authority in 664. By spring of 597, Columba knew he was dying. On June 8, he was copying the line from Psalms that says, “They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing” (Ps. 34:10), when he put down his pen and said, “Here I must stop; let Baithin [Columba’s cousin and successor] do the rest.” When the monks returned to the chapel for Matins prayers after midnight, they found Columba on the floor before the altar. The saint blessed the brethren and died on June 9 at age 77. He was buried at Iona for 200 years, then his relics were moved to the abbey at Down in Ireland to rest near SS. Patrick and Brigid. According to lore, a Viking stole his coffin from Iona and carried it onto his longship, hoping to find treasure inside. Finding only the saint’s remains, he threw the casket and its contents overboard. They washed ashore at Down. Thus was fulfilled a prophecy of both Patrick and Brigid that Columba would rest with them. For centuries afterward, Iona enjoyed prestige as a great center of Celtic learning, and attracted numerous religious exiles. Adamnan’s Vita Columbae gives considerable attention to the prophecies and miracles of Columba. The saint is credited with prophetic visions of wars, battles, deaths of kings and others, weather calamities and so forth. His miracles included healing the sick, driving out “armies” of disease-causing demons, taming wild beasts, calming violent weather, causing rain to fall, raising the dead, and turning water into wine. Columba was often seen surrounded by a brilliant holy aura. He enjoyed frequent visionary visits from angels. He saw angels carry the souls of the righteous to heaven and demons carry souls of the condemned to hell.