Catholic World – An Irish Saint

detail of a stained glass window depicting Saint Columba, created c.1900 by Meyer and Co; Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry, Northern Ireland; photographed on 17 September 2013 by Andreas F Borchert; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsIt is consoling in these gloomy days to think of the time when Ireland was the Island of Saints, and gloried in the patronage of Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget, and Saint Columbkill.

It is to a foreigner that we owe the biography of Saint Columbkill – named “Columba” from the Dove of Peace, and “kill,” from the many cells or monasteries that he founded. He was descended, says Montalembert, from one of those noble races in Ireland whose origin is lost in the night of ages – the Nialls or O’Donnells of Tirconnel, who were monarchs of Ireland from the sixth to the twelfth century. The child was instructed in religion by the priest who had baptized him, and the legends tell of angels who watched over him from his birth; and they say that he asked familiarly of his guardian angel if all the angels were as bright and young as himself. From the house of the priest he was sent to the monastery of Saint Frinan at Clonard, where he studied and labored like the rest, and, though a prince, he ground the corn they ate. One of his companions, afterward a saint, was angry at the influence which Columba naturally possessed over the rest; but an angel appeared to him, and showed him the hatchet of his father, the carpenter, bidding him remember that he had only left his tools, but that Columba left a throne to enter the monastery. Clonard, says Montalembert, was vast as the monastic cities of the Thebais, and 3000 Irish students learnt there from the “Master of Saints.” Among the crowds who came to learn was an aged bard, who was a Christian. He asked Saint Frinan to teach him, in return for his verse, the art of cultivating the soil. Columba was a poet, and studied with the bard. One day a young girl, pursued by a robber, was murdered at their feet, and Columba foretold his death, and was renowned through the island as a saint. He was ordained a priest in 546, and became, when scarcely twenty-five, the founder of monasteries, of which thirty-seven are reckoned in Ireland alone. The most ancient of these was in the forest of Durrow, or the Field of Oaks, where a cross and well yet bear the name of Columba. It stood in Clenmalire, now in King’s county; and the noble monastery, as Bede calls it, became the mother of many others; so that Dermach as well as Hy became nurseries for the hundred monasteries founded by Columba. It has been said that Saint Patrick had kindled such a flame of devotion that the saints were not satisfied with monastic life without retiring to the solitude of the surrounding forests, and there, under the canopy of the vast oaks, which had for ages possessed the wilderness, they found a more silent and solemn cloister. Such had been the monastery of Saint Bridget at Kildare, and such was Durrow; and in the forest of Calgachus, in his native country, Columba built Derry, in a deep bay on the sea which separates Ireland from Scotland. There he dwelt, and he would not permit one of the oaks to be felled unless it was injured by age or storms, and then it was used as fuel for the stranger or the poor. Here he wrote poems, of which, says Montalembert, only the echo has reached us. The following verses might be written by his disciples, but they are in the most ancient Irish dialect, and perhaps convey the thoughts, it not the words, of Columba:

“Had I all countries where the Scottish tribes
Have made their dwelling, I would choose a cell
In my own beauteous Derry, which I love
For its unbroken peace and sanctity.
There, seated on each leaf of those old oaks,
I see a white-winged angel of the sky.
O forests dear! home and cell beloved!
O thou Eternal in the highest heaven!
From hands profane my monasteries shield,
My Derry and my Durrow, Rapho sweet,
Drumhorne in forests prolific. Swords, and Kells,
Where sea-birds scream and flutter o’er the sea,
Sweet Derry, when my boat rows near the shore,
All is repose and most delicious rest.”

There are traces of the saint in these beloved foundations: among the ruins of Swords are still seen the chapel of Saint Columba, and a round tower and holy well, but not the missal written by himself and given to the church. We have the rule he wrote for the monasteries, but it is said to have been borrowed from the oriental monasteries. He founded Kells in 550, and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin. Saint Columba’s devotion was not confined to his own monasteries; he loved that founded not long before by Saint Eudacus in Arran, the Isle of Saints:

“Arran, thou art like sunshine, and my heart
Yearns on thee in thine Ocean of the West;
To hear thy bells would be a life of bliss;
And, if thy soil might be my last abode,
I should not envy those who sleep secure
Beside Saint Peter and Saint Paul. My light,
My sunny Arran! all my heart’s desire
Lies in the Western Ocean and in thee!”

There are eleven Irish and three Latin poems said to be written by Saint Columba, and one of these is in praise of Saint Bridget, who was living when he was born. Columba was not only a poet himself, but the friend of the bardic order, who held from Druidic times so high a rank in society, and who frequented monasteries as well as palaces. Columba received even the wandering bards of the highways into his monasteries, and especially in one which he founded in Loch Key, which was afterward the Cistercian House of Boyle. He employed them to write the annals of the monastery, and to sing to the harp before the community. He loved books as well as poetry; and his passion was transcribing manuscripts which he collected in his travels, and he is said to have made with his own hand three hundred copies of the gospels or psalter. One of these remains. It is a copy of Saint Jerome’s translation of the four evangelists, and an inscription testifies that he wrote it in twelve days. He was once refused by an aged hermit the sight of his books, and the legend says that, in consequence of his anger, the books became illegible at the hermit’s death. The anger of Columba about another manuscript led to more important consequences – his own conversion from a literary monk to an ascetic missionary. While he visited his old master, Saint Frinan, he shut himself up by night in the church to make a secret copy of the psalter. His light was seen, and the abbot claimed possession of the copy. Columba appealed to his kinsman, the supreme monarch Dermot, who was the friend of monks; for, when an exile, he had found a refuge in the monastery of Saint Kieran, the schoolfellow of Columba, which they both had built in an islet of the Shannon, and which became Clonmacnoise. Dermot decided that the copy belonged to the abbot. Columba was indignant. The murder of a prince of Connaught, whom he had protected, increased his anger against Dermot, and he foretold his ruin. His own life was in danger, he fled toward Tirconnel, and the monks of Monasterboys told him that his path was beset. He escaped alone, and passed through the mountains, singing as he went his song of confidence; and, as tradition says, these verses will protect all who repeat them on their journeys:

“I am alone upon the mountain, O my God!
King of the sun! direct my steps, and guard
My fearless head among a thousand spears;
Safer than on an islet in a lake
I walk with thee; my life is thine to give
Or to withhold, and none but thou canst add
Or take an hour from its appointed time.
What are the guards? they cannot guard from death.
I will forget my poor and peaceful cell,
And cast myself on the world’s charity;
For he who gives will be repaid, and he
Who hoards will lose his treasure. God of life.
Woe be to him who sins! The unseen world
Will come when all he sees has passed away.
The Druids trust to oaks and songs of birds:
My trust is in the God who made me man,
And will not let me perish in the night.
Him only do I serve, the Son of God,
The Son of Mary – Holy Trinity,
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, with him
Is my inheritance; my cell
Is with the monks of Kells and Holy Moen.”

Columba reached his country, and stirred up his clan, the Hy Nialls of the north, against Dermot, and the Hy Nialls of the south; and with the aid of the king of Connaught, whose son had been slain, Dermot was defeated, and fled to Tara. The victory was attributed to the prayers and fasts of Columba, and the manuscript which had caused this civil war became a national relic with the O’Donnells. It was a Latin psalter, and was enclosed in a portable altar, and carried by a priest into all these battles, and has been miraculously preserved to the present times.

But in the midst of his triumphs, Columba himself was conquered. He felt the pangs of remorse, and suffered the reproaches of the religious. He was summoned to a synod at Tailtan, and condemned, when absent, for having shed Christian blood. But Columba had always shared the contests of his clan, and, though a monk, was still a prince of the O’Donnells. He went to the synod which had condemned him unheard, to dispute their decision. When Columba entered, the abbot Brendan, founder of Berr, rose up and gave him the kiss of peace. All wondered, but the abbot said: “If you had seen, as I did, the fiery column and the angels who preceded him, you would have done the same. Columba is destined by God to be the guide of a nation to heaven.” The excommunication was reversed, and the sentence of Columba was, that he should convert as many heathens as he had caused Christians to die in battle. Columba was safe, but not at rest; he went from desert to desert, and from monastery to monastery, to seek some holy teacher of penance. One hermit reproached him as the cause of war.

“It was Diarmid,” he replied.

“You are a monk,” said the hermit, “and should be patient.”

“But,” said Columba, “it is hard for an injured man to repress his just anger.”

He went to Abban, founder of many monasteries, one of which was called the Cell of Tears. This meek soldier of Christ had often parted warriors in battle and gone unarmed to meet a pagan brigand, whom he converted to be a Christian and a monk. Columba asked him to pray for those whose death he had caused, and Abban told him their souls were saved. He then sought Saint Molaisse, who was renowned for his study of the Holy Scriptures, and whose monastery is yet traced in the isle of Inishmurray, on the coast of Sligo. The stern solitary renewed the sentence of the synod, and added that of exile for life from his too beloved country. Columba obeyed. He told his warlike kinsmen, the Nialls of Tirconnell, that an angel had bidden him go into exile, on account of those whom they had slain on his account. None of them opposed the sentence, and twelve disciples determined to follow him. One was Mochouna, prince of Ulster. Columba refused at first the voluntary sacrifice, but yielded at last; and the devoted band left Ireland for ever.

It was in 563 that Columba left Ireland. Some say that he had offended King Diarmid by the severity with which he reproved vice. This is not the reason given by Adamnan, who succeeded him in his monastery of Hy, and left a collection of records, written at the end of the seventh century, which reveals the intention of the heroic apostle; and, as it contains facts related by competent witnesses, this precious relic of antiquity is more valuable than a well-arranged biography. It must have been from the traditions of his monastery that he describes the saint, who was by nature so warlike and impatient, as retaining a tender and passionate love for his country, and a sympathy with all his national habits, while he quitted Erin, in expiation of the crime to which that love had led him. Columba did more than this; he sacrificed his poetic tastes and learned pursuits to convert not only the half-Christian Dalirads, who had early left Erin for Scotland, but more especially the heathen Picts of the North, the descendants of the brave opponents of Agricola under Galgacus, who were not of his own Milesian race.

Saint Columbkill was forty-two when he left his country in a wicker coracle covered with leather, in which he trusted himself with his twelve disciples, confiding solely in God, to brave the tempests and the enormous waves of the sea which parts the two countries, with only the light of faith and the strength of prayers to guide them through the rocks and whirlpools which beset the misty archipelago of isles lying below the mountains and deep bays, or fiords, of Lochaber. Adamnan describes his Irish tonsure, which showed an Eastern rather than a Roman teaching; the top of his head shaven, and his hair hanging down his back; his majestic countenance, whose pride was softened only by religion; his princely features, whose severity was mingled with a cast of irony; and his voice, whose tone commanded while it penetrated the heart, so that it is considered to have been one of the most miraculous of his gifts. Thus he braved the future, trusting in the simplicity of charity for safety in a savage land and savage tribes, to whom he brought the knowledge of truth and morals and the hope of heaven. His fiery temper, and the courage that fitted him for a soldier, and the genius which marked him for a poet or an orator, were devoted to the conversion of hostile chiefs; and the violence of his own feelings enabled him better to influence the people, while it was softened by the great sorrow of his life, the exile from his country. With a heart yearning for Erin and its noble clans, he reached the desolate island of Oronsay; and, ascending the highest part of the rock, he saw in the south the distant mountains of Dalreida. He rejected the consolation, and left the island for Iona. Then, finding that he could not from its highest point see the country he had abandoned, he fixed there his place of exile, and a heap of stones yet marks the spot where he discovered that the sacrifice was complete, and it is still called the Farewell to Ireland.

The island of Hy is low though rocky, and not a tree nor bush can live there; for not only do the winds sweep over it, but the very spray of the Atlantic moistens it with salt showers. It lies amid the islets on the coast of Morven, already celebrated by Ossian; Staffa and its basaltic columns are on the north, and Mull with its lofty mountains on the south. Barren islands lie on every side, separated by deep channels; and so narrow are the bays which run up between the mountains of the mainland that the water becomes a lake and the land a peninsula. Forests then clothed their sides; and the clouds, which almost always hang on their summits, fall and rise above the precipices and waterfalls of that lofty coast, peopled by unrecorded emigrants from Erin, whence Ossian had gone to Tara, and Fingal had made war and peace with the kindred tribes of Inisfail.

It was within sight of this repulsive field of labor, where his penance was to convert souls, that Columba and his missionaries founded a monastery destined to be the centre of religion and civilization to Europe. The first building was of twisted boughs inlaced with ivy, and it was many years before they cut down oaks in the forest of Morven to make the wooden edifices in use till the twelfth century. Thus Columba prepared for the future, but he had not forgotten the past. He felt the bitterness of exile, and wrote verses, in which he prefers “death in Erin to exile in Albania;” and then, in a plaintive but resigned tone, he sings:

“Alas! no more I float upon thy lakes
Or dance upon the billows of thy gulfs,
Sweet Erin; nor with Comgall at my side
Hear the strange music of the wild swan’s cry!
Alas that crime has exiled me, and blood –
Blood shed in battle – stains my guilty hand!
My guilty foot may not with Cormac tread
The cloisters of my Durrow, which I love;
My guilty ears may never hear the wind
Sound in its oaks, nor hear the blackbird’s song,
Nor cuckoo, and my eyes may never see
The land so loved but for its hated kings.
‘Tis sweet to dance along the white-topped waves,
And watch them break in foam on Erin’s strand;
And fast my bark would fly if once its prow
To Erin turned and to my native oaks;
But the great ocean may not bear my bark
Save to Albania, land of ravens dire.
My foot is on the deck, my bleeding heart
Aches as I think of Erin, and my eyes
Turn ever thither; but while life endures –
So runs my vow – these eyes will never see
The noble race of Erin; and the tear
Fills my dim eyes when looking o’er the sea
Where Erin lies – loved Erin, where the birds
Sing such sweet music, and the chant of clerks
Makes melody like theirs. O happy land!
Thy youths are gentle, thine old men are wise,
Thy princes noble, and thy daughters fair.
Young voyager, my sorrows with thee bear
To Comgall of ‘eternal life,’ and take
My blessing and my prayer, a sevenfold part,
To Erin; to Albania all the rest.
My heart is broken in my breast; if death
Should come, it is for too much love of Gaels.”

Time never effaced this passionate regret, and, as the legend says, when he was aged, he foretold that a wearied bird would be cast on Iona, and he bade his monks feed it till it could return to Ireland. But these regrets strengthened instead of dissipating his missionary ardor; and, while his natural disposition was unchanged, he became the model of penitents and ascetics and the most energetic of abbots. He received strangers and converted sinners. He established a rule for his monks, and dwelt himself like a hermit, lying on the bare ground upon a bed of planks. There he prayed and fasted, and there he continued to transcribe the sacred text, and to study the Holy Scriptures, so that three hundred copies of the gospel were written by his hand. Crowds of pilgrims visited him there, and many did penance; but one in particular received from him the same penance he was performing himself, an exile to the isle of Tiree and a banishment from the sight of Columba.

Saint Columba was among his kindred in Lochaber. The Scots were a Dalradian colony, allies of the O’Neills; and he was the kinsman of their king, Connall, and from him he obtained a grant of the island of Iona, and he labored among these halt-formed Christians. Then, as if he would break even this last tie to Erin, he became the apostle of the Picts, by descent Scythians, by habits savages and heathens. Unconquered by Romans or Christians, they dwelt in glens, inaccessible except by water, and deserved, like their ancestors, the description of Tacitus, as dwelling at the extremity of the earth and of liberty; and to them he devoted the remaining thirty-four years of his life. He crossed the mountains which divide the Scots from the Picts, and reached the chain of lakes which extends from sea to sea. He was the first to launch his fragile boat upon Loch Ness, and he penetrated to the fortress of their king, Brude, which occupied a rock north of Inverness. The king closed the doors of his fortress; but Columba made the sign of the cross, the doors rolled back on the bolts, and Columba entered as a victor. The king trembled in the midst of his council, and rose to meet the missionary; he spoke to him with respect, and became his friend, though it is not said that he became a Christian. But the Druids were his enemies. They were not idolaters, but worshipped the hidden powers of nature, the sun and stars, and believed the waters and springs had the powers which were attributed by the Druids of Gaul and Britain to oaks and forests. Columba drank their sacred water in defiance, and they tried to hinder him when he went out of the castle to sing vespers. He chanted the psalm “Eructavit cor meum;” and they were silenced.

Saint Columba preached and worked miracles among the Picts, and, though he spoke by an interpreter, he made converts. One day on the banks of Loch Ness he cried: “Let us make haste to meet the angels, who are come down from heaven and await us beside the death-bed of a Pict, who has kept the natural law, that we may baptize him before he dies.” He was then aged himself, but he outstripped his companions, and reached Glen Urquhart, where the old man expected him, heard him, was baptized, and died in peace. And once, preaching in Skye, he cried out, “You will see arrive an aged chief, a Pict, who has kept faithfully the natural law; he will come here to be baptized and to die;” and so it was.

He once healed a Druid by miracle; but he attempted to arouse the powers of nature against the saint, and, as he foretold, a contrary wind opposed the departure of Columba. But he bade the sailors spread the sail against the wind, and sailed down the Loch Ness in safety. Nor did he end his labors till he had planted churches and monasteries throughout these wild valleys and islands.

In 574, Connall was succeeded by Aidan on the throne of the Scots, and he desired to be consecrated by the abbot of Iona. Columba refused till he was commanded by an angel to perform the sacred ceremony at Iona – the first time it had been done in the West.

Montalembert observes that among the Celts the monastic was superior to the episcopal office, and therefore the abbot consecrated the first of the Scottish kings on a stone called the Stone of Destiny, which was ultimately carried to Westminster Abbey by Edward I, and is now the pedestal of the English throne. The Dalriads in Scotland were subject to the Irish kings, and it was to free them from their tribute that Columba was sent to Erin, which he thought never to see again. The new king went also, and they met the monarch and chiefs at Drumheath. Aed or Hugue II was now reigning, and he it was who had given to his cousin Columba the site of Derry. Columba and Saint Colman obtained the independence of Scotland; and afterward Saint Columba attended another assembly, which was to decide the existence of the Bardic order. There were three kinds of bards: the Fileas, who sung of religion and war; the Brehons, who versified the laws; and the Sennachies, who preserved the history and genealogy of the ancient races, and decided on boundaries. These last frequented courts and even battle-fields, and their influence was now so much feared that the monarch proposed to abolish or to massacre the bards. They were, in truth, a Druidic order, but they became Christians, though they were independent of all but their own laws. Columba was a poet even to his old age, and he saved the bards from the anger of the king by proposing to regulate and diminish, instead of destroying, the order. His eloquence prevailed, and thenceforth the bards and monks were united in spirit. Fergall, their blind chief, sung to Columba his hymn of gratitude; and Baithan, one of his monks, admonished his abbot for his self-complacence. This Baithan was declared by Fririan, his brother monk, to be superior to any one on this side of the Alps for the knowledge of the Scriptures and the sciences. “I do not compare him to Columba,” said he; “for he is like the patriarchs and prophets and apostles; he is a sage of sages, a king among kings, a hermit, a monk, and also a poor man among the poor.”

Columba made afterward, several visits to his monasteries in Ireland, working miracles as he went; as when he went from Durrow to Clonmacnoise, and healed a dumb boy, who became Saint Ernan. He was received there by the religious, who walked in procession to meet him, chanting hymns. He had not only a jurisdiction over all his monasteries, but a preternatural knowledge of all that went on there; and he once interrupted his labors at Iona to pray with his monks for the safety of some workmen at Durrow, and for softening the heart of its abbot, who was too severe on his monks. Columba was by nature impetuous and vindictive, and was still an O’Neill in party spirit. Often in the monastery of Iona he would pray for victory to his clan in battle, or he would pray for the men of his race or the kinsmen of his mother; and once, when aged, he bade them sound the bell of the monastery, (a little square bell, such as now hung round the necks of cattle,) and sound it quickly. The religious hastened around him, and he bade them pray for Aidan, his Dalraid kinsman, then in battle; and they prayed till he said, “Aidan has conquered.”

Adamnan tells us of his own sanctity. One day he retired alone to a distant part of the island, and he was seen with his hands and eyes lifted up to heaven, and surrounded by angels, and the place was named “The Mount of Angels.” As he grew older, he increased his austerity. He plunged himself into frozen water; and, seeing a poor woman gathering bitter herbs to eat, he forbade that any other food should be brought to him. He used to pray alone in the little isle of Himba, and his hut was lighted up by night from heaven, while he sang hymns in a tongue unknown to his hearers. Having been there three days and three nights without food, he came out rejoicing that he had discovered the mysterious sense of several passages of Scripture. He returned to die at Iona, and was already surrounded by a halo of glory; so that, when he prayed in the church at night, the brightness blinded the beholders.

One day in his cell his attendants saw him in heavenly joy, and then in deep sadness, and they asked the cause.

“It is thirty years,” he said, “since I began my pilgrimage in Caledonia; and I have long prayed that I might be released this year. I saw the angels come for me, and I rejoiced; but they stood still down yonder on that rock, as if they could not come near me; for the prayers of many churches have prevailed, and I grieve that I must live four more years.”

At the time appointed he was drawn on a car by oxen to take leave of the monks who were working in the fields. Another day he blessed the granary of the monastery, and foretold his death. This was on Saturday, and he said it would be the Sabbath of his repose. As he returned he met the old horse which carried the milk to the monastery, and the horse laid his head upon the shoulder of his master, as if to take leave of him, and the saint caressed and blessed him. Then, looking down from a hill on the monastery and isle, he stretched out his hands to bless it, and prophesied its future sanctity. Then he entered his cell, and was transcribing the thirty-third psalm, where he came to the words, “Those who seek the Lord shall want no good thing;” and he said, “Here I must end; Baithan will write the rest.” He went into the church for the vigil of Sunday, and, returning, he sat down on his bed of stone, and sent a message to his monks, and exhorted them to charity. After that he spoke no more.

Hardly had the midnight bell rung for matins when he ran first to the church, and knelt before the altar. It was dark, and one monk followed him, and placed his venerable head upon his knees. When the community came with lights, they found their abbot dying. He received the last sacraments, and opened his eyes, and raised his right hand in silence, to bless his monks. His hand fell, and he expired. He lay calm, and with the gentle sweetness of a man asleep in a heavenly vision. That very night two holy persons in Ireland beheld Iona enveloped in light; and then miracles began to be done while his body lay in the little church of Iona.

In the ninth century, when pirates ravaged the coasts, the body of the saint was removed to Down, and laid between those of Saint Patrick and Saint Bridget. The pirates were punished by sudden death. The Norman, Strongbow, died of a wound after destroying the churches of Columba and the saints, and De Lacy perished at Burrow while he built a castle against the monastery.

– text taken from Catholic World magazine, August 1867