Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, 'church dove';[a]; Scots:
Columbkille; 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish abbot and
missionary credited with spreading Christianity in what is today
Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. He founded the
important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and
political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron
Saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the
Gaels of Dál Riata
and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Christian saint and one of
the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Columba studied under some of Ireland's most prominent church figures
and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his
twelve companions crossed to Dunaverty near
Southend, Argyll in
Kintyre before settling in
Iona in Scotland, then part of the Ulster
kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for
spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who
were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most
of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early
Latin hymns may be attributed to him.
1 Early life in Ireland
4 Vita Columbae
4.1 Book one (Of his Prophetic Revelations)
4.2 Book two (Of his Miraculous Powers)
4.3 Book three (The Apparitions of Angels)
5 Other early sources of Columba's life
6 See also
9 Further reading
9.1 Primary sources
10 External links
Early life in Ireland
Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the
Cenel Conaill in
Gartan, a district beside Lough Gartan, in
Tír Chonaill (mainly
modern County Donegal) in the north of Ireland. On his father's side,
he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish
high king of the 5th century. He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in
County Donegal parish of Conwal (midway between
Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint
Crunathan. It is not known for sure if his name at birth was
Columba or if he adopted this name later in life;
Adomnán (Eunan) of
Iona thought it was his birth name but other Irish sources have
claimed his name at birth was Crimthann (meaning 'fox'). In the
Irish language his name means 'dove', which is the same name as the
Prophet Jonah (Jonah in Hebrew is also 'dove'), which
Adomnán of Iona
as well as other early Irish writers were aware of, although it is
not clear if he was deliberately named after Jonah or not.
The remains of St. Columba's Church, Gartan, County Donegal.
When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monastic school
of Movilla, at Newtownards, under St. Finnian who had studied at St.
Ninian's "Magnum Monasterium" on the shores of Galloway. He was about
twenty, and a deacon when, having completed his training at Movilla,
he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an
aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him,
Columba entered the monastery
of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, noted for sanctity and
learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for
Finnian had been trained in the schools of St. David.
In early Christian
Ireland the druidic tradition collapsed due to the
spread of the new Christian faith. The study of
Latin learning and
Christian theology in monasteries flourished.
Columba became a pupil
at the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne
in modern County Meath. During the sixth century, some of the most
significant names in the history of Irish Christianity studied at the
Clonard monastery. It is said that the average number of scholars
under instruction at Clonard was 3,000.
Columba was one of twelve
students of St. Finnian who became known as the Twelve Apostles of
Ireland. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a priest.
Another preceptor of
Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at
Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St.
Comgall, and St. Ciarán. A pestilence which devastated
Ireland in 544
caused the dispersion of Mobhi's disciples, and
Columba returned to
Ulster, the land of his kindred. He was a striking figure of great
stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could
be heard from one hilltop to another. The following years were
marked by the foundation of several important monasteries: Derry, at
the southern edge of Inishowen; Durrow, County Offaly; Kells, County
Meath; and Swords. While at
Derry it is said that he planned a
pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than
Tours. Thence he brought a copy of those gospels that had lain on the
bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years. This relic was
deposited in Derry.
Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a
Finnian of Movilla
Abbey over a psalter. Columba
copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under
intending to keep the copy.
Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep
the copy. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cúl
Cairbre Drom Cliabh
Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in County Sligo) in 561, during
which many men were killed. A second grievance that led him to induce
the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at
Cooldrevny in 561 was the king's violation of the right of sanctuary
belonging to Columba's person as a monk on the occasion of the murder
of Prince Curnan, the saint's kinsman. Prince Curnan of Connaught,
who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken
refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms and slain
by Diarmaid's men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary.
A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for
these deaths, but St.
Brendan of Birr
Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf with the
result that he was allowed to go into exile instead. Columba's own
conscience was uneasy, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise,
he resolved to expiate his offence by going into exile and win for
Christ as many souls as had perished in the terrible battle of Cúl
Dreimhne. He left Ireland, to return only once, many years later.
Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with
the Cathach of St. Columba.
In 563, he travelled to
Scotland with twelve companions (said to
include Odran of Iona) in a wicker currach covered with leather.
According to legend he first landed on the
Kintyre Peninsula, near
Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land, he moved
farther north up the west coast of Scotland. The island of
made over to him by his kinsman
Conall mac Comgaill King of Dál
Riata, who perhaps had invited him to come to
Scotland in the first
place. However, there is a sense in which he was not leaving his
native people, as the
Gaels had been colonising the west coast
Scotland for the previous couple of centuries. Aside from the
services he provided guiding the only centre of literacy in the
region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat
among the tribes. There are also many stories of miracles which he
performed during his work to convert the Picts, the most famous being
his encounter with an unidentified animal that some have equated with
Loch Ness Monster
Loch Ness Monster in 565. It is said that he banished a ferocious
"water beast" to the depths of the
River Ness after it had killed a
Pict and then tried to attack Columba's disciple named Lugne (see Vita
Columbae Book 2 below). He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of
Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning Bridei's respect, although
not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the
politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his work as a
missionary, and, in addition to founding several churches in the
Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at
Iona into a school for
missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several
hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books. One of the
few, if not the only, times he left
Scotland was towards the end of
his life, when he returned to
Ireland to found the monastery at
Columba died on
Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey
he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba's relics
were finally removed in 849 and divided between
Ireland. The parts of the relics which went to
Ireland are reputed
to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with
St. Patrick and St.
Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick. (Names of Iona),
Inchcolm and Eilean Chaluim Chille.
Columba is one of the three chief saints of Ireland, after Saint
Saint Brigid of Kildare.
Columba is the patron-saint of
the city of Derry, where he founded a monastic settlement in c. 540.
The name of the city in Irish is Doire Colmcille and is derived from
the native oak trees in the area and the city's association with
Catholic Church of
Saint Columba's Long Tower, and the
Ireland St Augustine's Church both claim to stand at the
spot of this original settlement. The Church of
Ireland Cathedral in
Derry is dedicated to St Columba. St. Columba's Primary School in
Drumcondra is a girl's school named after the saint. St. Colmcilles
Primary School and St. Colmcilles Community School are two
schools in Knocklyon, Dublin, named after St. Colmcille, with the
former having an annual day dedicated to the saint on 9 June. The
Columba Press, a religious and spiritual book company based in Dublin,
is named after St. Columba. Aer Lingus, Ireland's national flag
carrier has named one of its
Airbus A330 aircraft in commemoration of
the saint (reg: EI-DUO).
Columba is credited as being a leading figure in the revitalisation of
monasticism. The Clan Malcolm/Clan McCallum claims its name from
Columba and was reputedly founded by the descendants of his original
followers. It is also said that
Clan Robertson Clan Donnachaidh /
Duncan are heirs of Columba.
Clan MacKinnon may also have some claim
to being spiritual descendants of St Columcille as after he founded
his monastery on Isle Iona, the MacKinnons were the abbots of the
Church for centuries. This would also account for the fact that Clan
MacKinnon is amongst the ancient clans of Scotland.
The cathedral of the
Catholic Diocese of Argyll and the Isles is
placed under the patronage of St. Columba, as are numerous Catholic
schools and parishes throughout the nation. The Scottish Episcopal
Church, the Church of Scotland, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of
England also have parishes dedicated to him. The village of Kilmacolm
in Renfrewshire is also derived from Columba's name.
Columba currently has two poems attributed to him: "Adiutor
Laborantium" and "Altus Prosator". Both poems are examples of
Abecedarian hymns in
Latin written while
Columba was at the Iona
The shorter of the two poems, "Adiutor Laborantium" consists of
twenty-seven lines of eight syllables each, with each line following
the format of an
Abecedarian hymn using the Classical
save for lines 10-11 and 25-27. The content of the poem addresses God
as a helper, ruler, guard, defender and lifter for those who are good
and an enemy of sinners whom he will punish.
"Altus Prosator" consists of twenty-three stanzas sixteen syllables
long, with the first containing seven lines and six lines in each
subsequent stanza. It uses the same format and alphabet as "Adiutor
Laborantium" except with each stanza starting with a different letter
rather than each line. The poem tells a story over three parts split
into the beginning of time, history of Creation, and the Apocalypse or
end of time.
As of 2011, Canadians who are of Scottish ancestry are the third
largest ethnic group in the country and thus Columba's name is to be
found attached to Catholic, Anglican and
Presbyterian parishes. This
is particularly the case in eastern Canada apart from
Quebec which is
Throughout the US there are numerous parishes within the
Episcopalian denominations dedicated to Columba. Within the Protestant
Presbyterian Church (which has its roots in Scottish
Presbyterianism) also has parishes named in honour of Columba. There
is even an
Orthodox Church monastery dedicated to the saint in the
Massachusetts town of Southbridge. St.
Columba is the Patron
Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, OH. The Cathedral there is
named for him.
Iona College, a small
Catholic liberal arts college in New Rochelle,
NY, is named after the island on which
Columba established his first
monastery in Scotland, as is
Iona College in
Windsor, Ontario and Iona
Presentation College, Perth.
There are at least four pipe bands named for him; one each from
Tullamore, Ireland, from Derry, Northern Ireland, from Kearny,
New Jersey, and from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
St. Columba's School one of the most prominent English-Medium schools
India run by the Irish Christian Brothers is also named after the
The Munich GAA is named
St. Columba's Feast Day, 9 June, has been designated as International
Celtic Art Day. The Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, great
medieval masterpieces of Celtic art, are associated with Columba. 
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The main source of information about
Saint Columba's life is the Vita
Columbae (i.e. "Life of Columba"), a hagiography written in the style
of "saint's lives" narratives that had become widespread throughout
medieval Europe. Compiled and drafted by scribes and clergymen, these
accounts were written in
Latin and served as written collections of
the deeds and miracles attributed to the saint, both during his or her
life or after death. The canonization of a saint, especially one who
had lived on the fringes of the medieval Christian world like Saint
Columba, required a well-written hagiography to be submitted to Rome,
but popular belief and local cults of sainthood often led to the
veneration of these men and women without official approval from the
Writing a century after the death of
Saint Columba, the author
Adomnán (also known as Eunan), served as the ninth
Abbot of Iona
until his death in 704 A.D.
James Earle Fraser asserts that
Adomnán drew extensively from an
existing body of accounts regarding the life of
Latin collection entitled "De uirtutibus sancti Columbae",
composed c. 640 A.D. This earlier work is attributed to Cummene Find,
who became the abbot of
Iona and served as the leader of the monastic
island community from 656 until his death in 668 A.D. or 669 A.D.
While the Vita Columbae often conflicts with contemporaneous accounts
of various battles, figures, and dates, it remains the most important
surviving work from early medieval
Scotland and provides a wealth of
knowledge regarding the
Picts and other ethnic and political groups
from this time period. The Vita also offers a valuable insight into
the monastic practices of
Iona and the daily life of the early
medieval Gaelic monks.
The surviving manuscripts include:
Generalia 1 (A), Stadtbibliothek Schaffhausen, Switzerland; vellum,
probably written before 713
British Library MS Add. 35110 (B1), folios 96v-143r, probably written
British Library MS Cottonian Tiberius D III (B2), folios 192r-217r,
written end of 12th to early 13th century. Due to fire damage in 1731,
there are missing illegible portions on every page, and six folios
[Book I, ch. 2 (diebus) to 22 (genibus) and 36 (viro) to 49 (omnia
quae)] are missing completely.
British Library MS Royal 8 D IX (B3), folios 1r-70r, written in the
fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The first 8 folios, [to I, 3
(haec puro pectore)] are missing.
Instead of relying on chronological order,
Adomnán categorises the
events recorded in the Vita Columbae into three different books:
Columba’s Prophecies, Columba’s Miracles, and Columba’s
Book one (Of his Prophetic Revelations)
In the first book, the author
Saint Columba's prophetic
revelations, which come as a result of the saint's ability to view the
present and the future simultaneously. Most of the short chapters
Columba informing his fellow monks that a person will
soon arrive on the island or an event will imminently occur.
In one notable instance,
Columba appears in a dream to King Oswald of
Northumbria, and announces the king's incoming victory against the
King Catlon (Cadwallon of Wales) in the Battle of Heavenfield. The
people of Britain promise to convert to Christianity and receive
baptism after the conclusion of the war. This victory signals the
re-Christianization of pagan England, and establishes King Oswald as
ruler of the entirety of Britain.
Columba's other prophecies can be considered vindictive at times, as
when he sends a man named Batain off to perform his penance, but then
Columba turns to his friends and says Batain will instead return to
Scotia and be killed by his enemies. Several of
prophecies reflect the scribal culture in which he was immersed, such
his miraculous knowledge of the missing letter "I” from Baithene's
psalter or when he prophecies that an eager man will knock over his
inkhorn and spill its contents.
Book two (Of his Miraculous Powers)
In the second book,
Columba performs various miracles such as healing
people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild
beasts, calming storms, and even returning the dead to life. They have
also made many schools in honour of St.Columba, one was founded by the
Sisters of Charity.
He also performs agricultural miracles that would hold a special
significance to the common people of
Ireland and the British Isles,
such as when he casts a demon out of a pail and restores the spilt
milk to its container.
The Vita contains a story that has been interpreted as the first
reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnán, Columba
came across a group of
Picts burying a man who had been killed by the
Columba saves a swimmer from the monster with the sign of the
Cross and the imprecation, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the
man; go back with all speed." The beast flees, terrified, to the
amazement of the assembled
Picts who glorified Columba's God. Whether
or not this incident is true, Adomnan's text specifically states that
the monster was swimming in the
River Ness – the river flowing from
the loch – rather than in Loch Ness itself.
Book three (The Apparitions of Angels)
In book three,
Adomnán describes different apparitions of the Saint,
Columba receives and those that are seen by others regarding
him. He mentions that, "For indeed after the lapse of many years, ...
Columba was excommunicated by a certain synod for some pardonable
and very trifling reasons, and indeed unjustly" (P.79- 80).
In one of the accounts,
Saint Columba, in this period of
excommunication, goes to a meeting held against him in Teilte. Saint
Brendan, despite of all the negative reactions among the seniors
toward Columba, kisses him reverently and assures that
Columba is the
man of God and that he sees Holy Angels accompanying
Columba on his
journey through the plain.
In the last Chapter,
Columba foresees his own death when speaking to
This day in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath, which means
rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day
of my present laborious life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of
my labours; and this night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn
Lord's Day, I shall, according to the sayings of Scripture, go the way
of our fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite
me; and to Him, I say, in the middle of this night shall I depart, at
His invitation. For so it hath been revealed to me by the Lord
And when the bell strikes midnight,
Columba goes to the church and
kneels beside the altar. His attendant witnesses heavenly light in the
direction of Columba, and Holy angels join the saint in his passage to
And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately
breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body,
his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by
his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the
appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping.
Other early sources of Columba's life
Both the Vita Columbae and the Venerable
Bede (672/673-735) record
Columba's visit to Bridei. Whereas
Adomnán just tells us that Columba
Bede relates a later, perhaps Pictish tradition,
whereby the saint actually converts the Pictish king. Another early
source is a poem in praise of Columba, most probably commissioned by
Columba's kinsman, the King of the
Uí Néill clan. It was almost
certainly written within three or four years of Columba's death and is
the earliest vernacular poem in European history. It consists of 25
stanzas of four verses of seven syllables each.
Through the reputation of its venerable founder and its position as a
major European centre of learning, Columba's
Iona became a place of
Columba is historically revered as a warrior saint, and
was often invoked for victory in battle. His relics
were finally removed in 849 and divided between
Alba and Ireland.
Columba were carried before Scottish armies in the reliquary
Iona in the mid-8th century, called the Brecbennoch. Legend
has it that the Brecbennoch was carried to the Battle of Bannockburn
(24 June 1314) by the vastly outnumbered Scots army and the
Columba helped them to victory. It is widely
thought[by whom?] that the
Monymusk Reliquary is the object in
Inchcolm Abbey, the "
Iona of the East" (situated
on an island in the Firth of Forth), a 14th-century prayer begins O
Columba spes Scotorum... "O Columbus, hope of the Scots".
Early Christian Ireland
List of people on stamps of Ireland
Old High St Stephen's, Inverness
Scotland in the Early Middle Ages
St. Columba's School (other)
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the Cursing of Tarah with Bell, Book and Candle; the Visions
St. Patrick and St. Bridget, and the Prophecies Ascribed
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^ Book two, Chapter 28
^ Book three, Chapter 3
^ Book three, Chapter 23
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Columba.
Iona Orthodox Monastery
CELT: On the Life of
Columba (Betha Choluim Chille) (tr. W.
CELT: The Life of Columba, written by Adamnan (tr. W. Reeves)
Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913.
BBC: St Columba
The Church of St Michael and All Angels website: St
Columba of Iona,
Apostle to the Picts
Columba on SaintsAlive
Photo of the birthplace of Columcille at Gartan
St Columba's Church of
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The Life of
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Mobhí of Glasnevin
Rowan of Lorrha
Senan of Iniscathay
Ninnidh the Saintly of Loch Erne
Laisrén mac Nad Froích
Cainnech of Aghaboe
Clann Cholmáin &
Síl nÁedo Sláine
Óengus Tuirmech Temrach
Lugaid Riab nDerg
Crimthann Nia Náir
Conn of the Hundred Battles
Art mac Cuinn
Cormac mac Airt
Niall of the Nine Hostages
Columba of Iona
Crínán of Dunkeld
Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair
Brian Ua Néill
Finn and Gráinne
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
An sluagh sidhe so i nEamhuin?
Hill of Tara
Dal Fiachrach Suighe
List of High Kings of Ireland
O'Rahilly's historical model
Gaelic nobility of Ireland
Flight of the Earls
ISNI: 0000 0001 1678 7811
BNF: cb12343033g (data)