Who was St. Columba?

Patron of Derry, Peacemaker, Poet, Prophet, Scholar and Artist
St. Columba was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and much more...

Scroll left-right to explore the timeline of St. Columba's life



Birth &
Early Childhood

Columba was born in Gartan in Donegal, probably in 520. His extended family, the Cenél Conaill, were powerful local aristocrats, some of whom became kings of Tara – the most powerful office in Ireland. His mother's name is believed to have been Eithne, his father's Fedelmid. We know about other members of his family including three sisters and one brother, but he may have had more.

Columba as a young monk. Guildhall, Derry.

Birth

Christian Education

Although he inherited much from pagan Irish culture, Columba was brought up as a Christian in Donegal and educated first by a priest called Cruithnechán. Later he studied divine wisdom in Leinster with a master Gemmán. Later again he studied sacred scripture with a bishop Vinniau or Finnian, who may have been a famous British cleric. Eventually he became a monk and priest.

Lough Akibbon, Gartan - St. Columba was said to have played as a child on the island.

Christian Education
Foundation of Iona

Foundation of Iona

With the support of king Conall mac Comgall and probably a grant of the land from him, in 563 Columba founded a monastery on the tiny Hebridean island of Iona which became one of the most influential centres of religion and culture in Britain and Ireland in the early Middle Ages. The name Iona is a medieval spelling mistake – its real name was Í. At first Iona was a small, enclosed monastery but over time it grew into a major institution with a significant public role.

St John's and St Martin's crosses at the abbey on Iona.

Travelling to Scotland

Although there are fabulous fictional legends which claim to explain it, Columba actually went to Scotland in 562 as a 'pilgrim for Christ', to find a secluded or 'desert' place for a contemplative life. He is said to have gone with twelve companions, some of whom were close relatives. He probably went first to to obtain the support of the Scottish Gaelic king Conall mac Comgall, most likely to his fortress at Dunadd, in Argyll.

A beach on the west coast of Iona.

Travelling to Scotland
Founds Durrow and Other Monasteries

Convention of Drum Ceat

The Convention of Drum Ceat was held near Limavady between the Scottish king Conall mac Comgall and the Cenél Conaill king Áed mac Ainmerech. Columba probably arranged the meeting which was held to forge an alliance against the east Ulster king Báetán mac Cairill. A collection of marvellous legends grew up around it, e.g. the two sods of Scottish turf attached to Columba's shoes, so that he didn't need to 'stand' on Irish soil; and Columba's defense of the poets, etc.

The Mullagh, Limavady - said to be the site of the Convention of Drum Ceat.

Founds Durrow and Other Monasteries

We know that from shortly after Columba's arrival in Scotland other churches and monasteries were founded on the nearby islands and mainland. He had probably founded churches and monasteries in Ireland before he left in 562; Derry is usually claimed as one of those. However, the only monastery for which we have definite evidence that he founded in Ireland was Durrow (Co. Offaly) in 586. The 'family' of Columban churches in Britain & Ireland eventually numbered hundreds.

Holy Well, Durrow, Co. Offaly, which Columba founded - one of his miracles was to make bitter apples sweet.

Founds Durrow and Other Monasteries
Foundation of Iona

Columba's death in Iona

Columba probably died in 593, although 597 used to be the accepted date. He was in his 70's. There are many stories about his death, the lead up to it, and the days afterwards. He was said to be copying the psalms just before he died. His renown began to be cultivated immediately. The most important contribution to this was Adomnán's Vita Columbae, 'Life of Columba', written about 700. His reputation as a saint grew over time, especially in Scotland, Ireland and the north of England.

'Street of the Dead', Iona.

St. Columba - A Lasting Legacy...

The Man

We need to distinguish between two aspects of the story of St Columba: (i) what we can know factually about his life; and (ii) the huge amount of accreditations, legends and folklore that were subsequently developed by his devotees. For example, the name Colmcille ('Columba – "dove" – of the church') is almost certainly part of that secondary growth. He may have been first called Crimthann (meaning something like 'fox') before acquiring the (literally) Christian name Columb (in Irish) or Columba
(in Latin).

We actually know very little about the real person but the fact that we know anything about someone who lived in the 6th century is a tribute to his major significance. The 'facts' come from the Irish chronicles known as the 'annals' (themselves almost certainly begun on Iona in Columba's time) and from Adomnán's Vita Columbae written about 100 years after his death, although even that text contains propaganda and distortions. Much more was written about Colmcille in the 1400 years since he died, blending various degrees of fact and fiction.

Iona

With the support of Conall mac Comgall, the king of Scottish Dál Riata (a Gaelic speaking people who also had territory in what is now Co. Antrim), and probably in 563, Columba founded a monastery on Iona, a tiny island off the Scottish west coast. Iona would grow into one of the most important and influential religious and cultural centres in Britain and Ireland, and many subordinate churches and monasteries were linked to it throughout Ireland, Scotland and the north of England. Many of those were actually founded later than Columba's life, or by other associates. In Ireland the only monastery we can definitely say he founded was Durrow (Co. Offaly).

Drum Ceat

Columba returned to Ireland on a number of occasions, for instance for the so-called Convention of Drum Ceat, just outside Limavady. This was probably held in 578/9 to forge an alliance between the Cenél Conaill and the Dál Riata against their common enemy the powerful king of east Ulster, Báetán mac Cairill. Columba possibly organised the meeting. Other things were probably discussed also but the grandiose – if entertaining – legends about the Convention are a later fiction.

Writing

Literacy arrived in Ireland with the spread of Christianity. Christian monks or 'clerics' became the first practitioners and teachers of writing in Ireland. Early Irish monasteries such as Derry - and most especially Columba's principal foundation on Iona – had the first scriptoriums (writing offices), libraries, archives, and schools which used reading and writing. Columba's monasteries placed literary activity at the forefront of their work. Columba himself is credited with being a poet and a writer. He was said to be copying the Psalms just before his death and the oldest Irish manuscript in existence – a copy of the Psalms known as the Cathach – is said to be in his hand. It is definitely of the right date although the attribution to the saint can neither be proven nor disproven.

History

Other material besides church books began to be written soon in early Irish monasteries. Of great importance is that on Iona the monks – perhaps even Columba himself – began to write what we would now call 'history', i.e. the factual recording of the past rather than legendary and mythical versions. These very early records developed into what we now call the 'annals'. Because dating was so crucial the monks needed to have some knowledge of astronomy. In fact the Columban monasteries were at the forefront of early medieval learning and scientific enquiry of various kinds.

Illuminated Manuscripts

As well as copying existing texts such as the Bible or composing new ones – such as the annals, hymns and poems, or the Vita Columbae – the monks also began to 'illuminate' or decorate important manuscripts. Some of the most ancient and important examples of these from Ireland and Britain were made in Columban monasteries: such as the Cathach, the Book of Durrow, the Book of Lindisfarne and – the most important of them all – the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells (created on Iona around 800) may have been made either to celebrate the second centenary of Columba's death or to mark the foundation of the monastery of Kells which, after Iona (and before Derry), was the headquarters of all the Columban churches in Ireland.

Art and Literature

Some of the oldest poetry in the Irish language (and that means in any European non-classical language) is about Colmcille. Some of the earliest and loveliest high ('Celtic') crosses come from the Columban churches in Britain and Ireland. Some of the greatest early medieval treasures of Ireland, Scotland and England derive from the Columban monasteries. One of the oldest western European narrative Latin texts from outside the Roman Empire is the Vita Columbae by Adomnán. The first medieval description ['guide'?] to the Holy Land is Adomnán's De Locis Sanctis.The oldest authored prose narrative text in Irish – Manus Ó Domhnaill's Betha Colaim Chille is about Colmcille. There are many other firsts, bests and oldests in the Columban patrimony.

St Columba

Various pieces of evidence show that Columba's cult was known in medieval times in what are now parts of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland, as well as – in various garbled forms – in parts of eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Columba's cult does not survive to the present widely outside Ireland (and to a lesser extent Scotland) although references to his name can be found on churches, schools and other institutions in many parts of the world where missionaries from Ireland and Scotland have workd in modern times.

Colmcille was one of the three patron saints of medieval Ireland (along with Brigid and Patrick) and, except for the intervention of medieval ecclesiastical politics, he – rather than the apostle Andrew, brother of St Peter – might have been patron of Scotland also.