Saint Columba

The Irish monk St. Columba (ca. 521-597) was a powerful preacher and leader of men. He founded monasteries in Ireland and Scotland, which were influential missionary centers.

The son of a tribal chieftain, Columba was given the name Crimthann when he was baptized shortly after his birth in Gartan, County Donegal. When he was a boy, he was so often found praying in the town church that his friends called him Colm Cille (Dove of the Church), and it was as Colm, or its Latin form Columba, that he was known for the rest of his life.

In his early 20s Columba was strongly influenced by one of his teachers, Finian of Clonard, and asked to be ordained a priest. When a prince cousin gave him some land at Derry, he decided to start a monastery. Because of his love of nature Columba refused to build the church facing east, as was the custom; he wanted to spare the lives of as many oak trees as he could. His foundation of another monastery at Durrow 7 years later was the beginning of an extraordinary decade during which he traveled through northern Ireland teaching about Christianity and inspiring many people by his personal holiness. He founded some 30 monasteries in those 10 years.

Columba's strong personality and forceful preaching aroused considerable antagonism. He was accused in 563 of starting a war between two Irish tribes and was sentenced by the high king never to see Ireland again, to spend the rest of his life in exile. With 12 companions he sailed from the shores he loved, and settled on a bleak island called Iona off the coast of Scotland. The monks made occasional visits to the Scottish mainland, where they preached their kind of Christianity. Soon their community had 150 members.

In 575 Columba was persuaded to visit Ireland to mediate a dispute between the high king and the league of poets. Insisting on remaining faithful to the terms of his exile, that he never see Ireland again, he traveled blindfolded. Although his sympathies were with the poets, his reputation was respected by everyone. He spoke to the assembled nobles and clergy with such force and authority that the king was persuaded to reverse his original decree, and the hostility between the two parties was calmed.

Columba spent the rest of his life on Iona, praying, fasting, and teaching his monks to read and copy the Scriptures. He provided inspiration for their missionary efforts and was influential for a time in the politics of Scotland. Long before his death in 597 he was regarded as a saint by his fellow monks and is today a beloved figure in Irish tradition.


Further Reading on St. Columba

The Life of Saint Columba, written about a hundred years after his death by a monk of his community, Adamnan of Iona, describes him as a poet and miracle worker. It was edited and translated into English by Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson (1961). Benedict Fitzpatrick, Ireland and the Making of Britain (1922), pays tribute to Columba's influence in shaping the character of the British Isles. There is a charming chapter on Columba (Colm Cille) in Seumas MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (1921).

Additional Biography Sources

Adamnan, Saint, 625?-704, Adomnan's life of Columba, Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Finlay, Ian, Columba, London: Gollancz, 1979.

Jenkin, Roger, Two local patron saints, Ilfracombe: Stockwell, 1975.