Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Columbkille, The Apostle of Caledeonia

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 CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 597.

Saint Columbkille, whose glory is embalmed in legend and history, was born at Gartan, in the county of Donegal, Ireland, on 7 December A.D. 521. His father was descended from the famous King Niall of the Nine Hostages, supreme monarch of Ireland at the close of the fourth century. Before the child’s birth his mother, who also belonged to a distinguished Irish family, had a dream which posterity has accepted as a graceful and poetical symbol of her son’s career.

An angel appeared to the lady, bringing her a veil covered with flowers of rare beauty and wonderful variety of colors; but all at once she saw it carried away by the wind, and rolling out as it fled over plain and wood and mountain.

“Woman,” said the bright spirit, “you are about to become the mother of a son who will blossom for heaven, who will be reckoned among the prophets of God, and who will lead numberless souls to the celestial country.”

Saint Bute, one of those holy monks whose lives light up the pages of Erin’s ancient history, died on the day of Columbkille’s birth. He spoke of the event. “Today,” said the departing old saint, “a child is born, whose name is Columbkille. He shall be glorious in the sight of God and men.”

The good priest who baptized the child was his first instructor. It is recounted that from his earliest years Columbkille was accustomed to heavenly visions. Often, when his guardian angel appeared to him, the happy boy would ask if all the angels in heaven were as young and shining as he.

Later on the same sweet spirit invited him to choose among all the virtues those which he would like best to possess. “I choose,” said the youth, “chastity and wisdom” And immediately three young girls of dazzling beauty appeared and threw themselves on his neck, embracing him. The pious youth frowned and repulsed them with indignation.

“What!” they exclaimed, “do you, then, not know us?”

“No,” he replied, “not the least in the world.”

“We are three sisters,” said the lovely visitors, “whom our Father betroths to you.”

“Who is your Father?” enquired Columbkille.

“Our Father,” they gracefully answered, “is God.”

“Ah!” said he, “you have indeed an illustrious Father. But what are your names?”

“Our names,” replied the sisters, “are Virginity, Wisdom, and Prophecy. We come to leave you no more, but to love you with a love pure and everlasting.”

Columbkille passed into the great monastic schools, which were nurseries not only for the clergy of Ireland, but also for young laymen of all conditions. Here manual labor was joined to study and prayer. Like all his young companions, he had to grind over night the corn for the next day’s food; but when his turn came the work was so well and quickly done that his companions suspected him of having been assisted by an angel. On completing his course of studies and monastic training he was ordained priest by his reverend master, the Abbot Saint Finnian, founder of the renowned monastic school of Clonard.

A remarkable incident is related of the royal Saint’s student career at Clonard, when he was only a deacon. A famous old bard named Gemman came to live near the monastery. Columbkille, who was at all times in life a poet and passionate admirer of Irish poetry, determined to join the bard’s school, and to share his labors and his studies. One day the two were reading together, at a little distance apart, out of doors. A young girl ran towards them, pursued by a robber. She hoped, no doubt, to find safety in the authority of the venerable bard. Scarcely, however, had the poor girl reached the spot than her hard-hearted pursuer, running up, struck her with his lance, and she fell mortally wounded.

Gemman called to his pupil for assistance. “How long,” he exclaimed in accents of horror, “shall God leave unpunished this crime which dishonors us?”

“Only for this moment,” replied the indignant young monk. “At this very hour, as the soul of this innocent creature ascends to heaven, the soul of the murderer shall go down to hell!” The words were hardly uttered when the wretched assassin fell dead.

Soon, far and wide, Columbkille’s name became famous. As he was closely allied to the reigning monarch of all Ireland, and, indeed, eligible himself to the same high office, it was very natural that his influence increased with his years. Before reaching the age of twenty-five he had presided over the erection of a crowd of monasteries. As many as thirty-five in Ireland honored him as the founder. Of these the chief were Derry and Durrow.

The young Columbkille was especially attached to Derry, where he habitually lived. He superintended with care not only the discipline and studies of his community, but also external matters – even so far as to watch over the preservation of the neighboring forest. He would never permit an oak to be cut down. Those that fell by natural decay, or were struck down by the wind, were alone made use of for the fire which was lighted on the arrival of strangers, or distributed to the neighboring poor. The poor had a first right in Ireland – as everywhere else – to the goods of the monks; and the monastery of Derry fed a hundred applicants every day with the most careful regularity.

Derry was the spot that Columbkille loved best. In the poem attributed to his old age he says so touchingly:

“Were all the tribute of Scotia mine,
From its midland to its borders,
I would give all for one little cell
In my beautiful Derry.

“For its peace and for its purity,
For the white angels that go
In crowds from one end to the other
I love my beautiful Derry.”

Columbkille, it may be noted, was as much a bard as a monk during the first part of his life; and he had the roving, ardent, and somewhat quarrelsome character of the race. He had a passion for traveling, but a still greater one for books. It must be said, in truth, that his intense love of books brought him into more than one misadventure. The poet-monk went everywhere in search of rare works, which he would borrow or copy; but occasionally he met with refusals, which he sharply resented.

At the time of which we write there was in Ossory a holy recluse, very learned doctor in laws and philosophy, named Longarad. Columbkille paid him a visit and asked leave to examine his books. The uncourteous old scholar gave a direct refusal. Columbkille was indignant.

“May your books,” he said, “no longer do you any good – neither you nor those who come after you – since you have taken occasion by them to show your inhospitality.” The curse was heard, according to the legend. As soon as Longarad died his books became unintelligible. “They still exist,” wrote an author of the ninth century, “but no man can read them”

But another event in the career of our Saint leads us to that turning-point in life which for ever changed his destiny and transformed him from a wandering poet-monk and ardent student into a glorious missionary. While visiting his old master, the Abbot Finnian, Columbkille found means to make a secret and hurried copy of the abotf s Psalter by shutting himself up at night in the church where it was deposited, and illuminating his work by the light which escaped from his left hand while he wrote with the right.

Finnian, however, discovered what was going on by means of a curious wanderer, who, attracted by the singular light, looked in through the keyhole. But the poor fellow’s curiosity met with swift punishment. While his face was pressed against the door he had his eye suddenly plucked out by a crane, one of those familiar birds that were permitted by the Irish monks to seek a home in their churches.

The abbot, for some reason or other, was much displeased, and declared that Columbkille had taken an unwarranted liberty with his book. He even claimed the copy when it was finished, on the ground that a copy made without permission ought to belong to the owner of the original. But the poet-monk refused to give up his work, and the question was referred to the king at Tara.

King Diarmid, at that time supreme monarch of Ireland, was related to Columbkille, but he pronounced against his kinsman. Diarmid’s decision was given in a rustic phrase which has become a proverb in Ireland: “To every cow its call, and, therefore, to every book its copy.”

Columbkille vigorously protested. “It is an unjust sentence,” he exclaimed with indignation. All parties were hot and prepared for an open rupture. The occasion soon came. A young prince, son of the king of Connaught and a hostage at Tara, had a dispute, during a game of hurling, with the son of one of Diarmid’s officers. It ended in a quarrel, and the prince killed the youth by striking him with his hurley. He fled at once for sanctuary to our Saint, who was standing in the king’s presence.

But King Diarmid – contrary to all precedent – refused to respect the undoubted right of Columbkille to protect his client, and he ordered the unhappy prince to be torn from the very arms of his protector and immediately executed.

The noble, fiery nature of the Saint revolted at this last outrage. “I will denounce your wicked judgment to my family and my friends,” said he to the king, “and the violation in my person of the immunity of the Church. My complaint shall be heard and you will be swiftly punished. No longer shall you see my face in your province until the Almighty Judge has subdued your pitiable pride. And as you have humbled me to-day before your friends and nobles, God will humble you on the battle-day before your enemies!”

Diarmid attempted to retain him by force, but, evading his guards, the poet-monk escaped by night from Tara and hastily directed his steps to his native Tyrconnell. As he pushed along on his lonely way his agitated soul found utterance in the “Song of Trust”:

“Alone am I upon the mountain,
O God of Heaven! prosper my way,
And I shall pass more free and fearless
Than if six thousand were my stay,
My flesh, indeed, might be defended,
But when the time comes life is ended.
If by six thousand I was guarded,
Or placed on an islet in a lake,
Or in a fortress strong protected.
Or in a church my refuge take,
Still God will guard His own with care,
And even in battle safe they fare.
No man can slay me till the day
When God shall take my life away;
And when my earthly time is ended
I die – no matter how defended.”

Columbkille arrived safely in his native province. His words like a trumpet-blast, aroused the powerful clans of Ulster; nor was it hard to procure the aid of the king of Connaught, the father of the executed young prince. The combined forces marched against Diarmid, who met them at Cul-Dreimhne. The battle was short. Diarmid’s army was routed, and he fled, taking refuge, at Tara. According to the historian Tighernach, the victory was due to the prayers and hymns of Columbkille, who for days had fasted and appealed to heaven for the punishment of royal insolence.

Who art and shall be
As the ages go by,
With Christ and the Spirit,
In glory supernal.
Who art God evermore,
Unbegotten, eternal;
We preach not three Gods,
But the unity, One,
The Father, the Spirit,
And co-equal Son.”

The Noli, Pater is also a famous Latin hymn from the gifted pen of our Saint. Colgan says that two graces are believed to be granted to the recital of this hymn: (1) that those who recite it should be preserved from the effects of thunder and lightning; (2) that those who recite it at night before going to rest and in the morning when they rise shall be preserved from all adversity.

THE NOLI, PATER.

“Father, keep under
The tempest and thunder,
Lest we should be shattered.
By Thy lightning’s shafts scattered.
Thy terrors while hearing,
We listen, still fearing,
The resonant song
Of the bright angel throng,
As they wander and praise Thee,
Shouts of honor still raise Thee.
To the King ruling right,
Jesus, lover and light.”

“As to the manuscript,” says Montalembert, “which had been the object of this strange conflict of copyright elevated into a civil war, it was afterwards venerated as a kind of national, military, and religious palladium. Under the name of Cathac, or Fighter, the Latin Psalter transcribed by Columbkille, and enshrined in a kind of portable altar, became the national relic of the O’Donnell clan. For more than a thousand years it was carried before them to battle as a pledge of victory, on the condition of being supported upon the breast of a cleric free from all mortal sin. It has escaped as by miracle from the ravages of which Ireland has been the victim, and still exists, to the great joy of all learned Irish patriots.

As with wine and clear mead,
Filled with God’s grace indeed,
Precursor John Baptist’s words
Told of the coming Lord,
Whom, blessed for evermore,
All men should bow before,
Zacharias, Elizabeth,
This Saint begot.
May the fire of thy love live in my heart yet
As jewels of gold in a silver vase set.”

– Nun of Kenmare’s translation

Columbkille was victorious; but victory is not always peace. He soon felt the double reaction of personal remorse and the condemnation of many pious souls. In the Synod of Teilte, held in 562, he was accused of having occasioned the shedding of Christian blood. Though absent, he was excommunicated. But our poet-monk knew not that timidity which draws back before accusers or judges. He suddenly presented himself to the synod, which had struck without hearing him Nor did he fail to find a defender in that assembly.

When Columbkille made his appearance the famous Abbot Brendan arose, met, and embraced him “How can you,” exclaimed the members of the synod, “give the kiss of peace to an excommunicated man?”

“You would do as I have done,” answered the noble Brendan, “and you would never have excommunicated him, had you seen what I see – a pillar of fire which goes before him, and the angels that are his companions. I dare not distain a man predestined by God to be the guide of an entire people to eternal life.”

The synod gracefully withdrew the sentence of excommunication, but Columbkille was charged to win to Christ, by his preaching, as many pagan souls as the number of Christians who had fallen in the battle that he had occasioned.

The soul of the Saint was troubled. The voice of an accusing conscience touched his manly heart. He wandered from solitude to solitude, from monastery to monastery, seeking masters of Christian virtue, and asking them anxiously what he should do to obtain the full pardon of God for the blood of those who had fallen on the field of Cul-Dreimhne. At length he found a holy monk named Abban, to whom he poured out the troubles of his sad soul. To Columbkille’s earnest enquiries Abban assured him that those killed in the battle enjoyed eternal repose; and, as his soul-friend, or confessor,” he condemned him to perpetual exile from Ireland.

It is now that the second and grandest part of the Saint’s life commences. He took a loving leave of his warlike kindred, to whom he was intensely attached, and directed his course towards Scotland. The new scene of his toils was to be among its pagan inhabitants. Twelve of his devoted monks accompanied him; and thus, at the age of forty-two, Columbkille bade a last farewell to his native land.

The bark of the holy exiles of Erin put in at that little isle which our Saint immortalized, and which took from him the name I-Colm-Kill, now, perhaps, better known as Iona . 11 On that small spot, surrounded by foaming, sombre seas, overshadowed by the bare and lofty peaks of other islands, and with a wild, romantic scenery greeting the eye in the far-off distance, Columbkille, poet, prince, monk, and missionary, founded the first monastery in Scotland, and began the gigantic labors of a new life more than heroic, more than apostolic. Over thirteen hundred years ago this became the monastic capital and centre of faith learning, and Christian civilization in North Britain.

In the midst of his community the Saint inhabited, instead of a cell, a sort of hut built of planks and placed upon the most elevated spot within the monastic enclosure. Up to the age of seventy-six he slept there upon the hard floor with a stone for his pillow.

This hut was at once his study and his oratory. It was there that he gave himself up to those prolonged prayers which excited the admiration, and almost the alarm, of his disciples. It was there that the princely Abbot retired after sharing the outdoor labor of his monks, like the least among them, to consecrate the rest of his time to the study of Holy Scripture and the transcription of the sacred text.

It was in the same hut that he received with unwearied patience and gentle courtesy the hundreds of visitors of high and low degree who flocked to see him Sometimes, however, he was obliged to complain mildly, as of that indiscreet stranger who, desirous of embracing him, awkwardly overturned his ink on the border of his robe.

But who shall describe his labors as a great missionary? For over a third of a century he traversed the wild regions of Caledonia – regions hitherto inaccessible even to the Roman eagle. At his preaching and miracles the fierce pagan Piets 13 bowed beneath the cross.

Skimming Loch Ness with his little skiff, the Saint soon penetrated to the chief fortress of the Pictish king, the site of which is still shown upon a rock north of the town of Inverness. Brude was the name of the hardy and powerful ruler. At first he refused to receive the Catholic missionary, and gave orders that the gates of the fortress should be closed on the unwelcome visitors.

But the dauntless Columbkille was not alarmed. “He went up to the gateway,” says Montalembert, “made the sign of the cross upon the two gates, and then knocked with his hand. Immediately the bars and bolts drew back, the gates rolled upon their hinges and were thrown wide open, and the Saint entered like a conqueror. The king, though surrounded by his council, was struck with panic; he hastened to meet the missionary, addressed to him pacific and encouraging words, and from that moment gave him every honor.” Thus obstacles vanished at the very glance of the illustrious Irish Abbot.

He accomplished the conversion of the entire Pictish nation, and destroyed for ever the authority of the Druids in that last refuge of Celtic paganism Before he closed his glorious career he had sown their forests, their defiles, their inaccessible mountains, their savage moors and scarcely-inhabited islands with churches, schools and monasteries. Out of the many monasteries which he founded in Scotland – over which Protestantism afterwards passed its devastating hand – the remains of fifty-three are to be seen to this day.

No pen can describe the great, gentle, loving heart of Columbkille. It is told that a poor man once sheltered him under his roof for the night. In the morning the Saint enquired what worldly goods his host possessed. He was informed that the whole capital was five cows, poor and small; “but,” added the man, “if you bless them they will increase.” The Saint requested the cows to be driven into his presence. It was done. “Your cattle,” said he, “will increase to one hundred and five, and you shall be blessed with many good children.” It happened just as he predicted.

One morning at Iona the Abbot hastily called a monk. He told him to prepare at once for a voyage to Ireland. A good young lady named Mangina, he explained, had fallen in returning from Mass and broken her thigh-bone. “She is now,” said he, “calling on me earnestly, hoping that she may receive some consolation from the Lord.”

He then gave the monk a piece of blessed bread in a little casket of pine wood, and ordered him to have it dipped in water, and to let the water be poured on the injured limb. All was done as commanded, and the injured member was instantly healed. On the cover of the casket the Saint wrote the words twenty-three years, and to a day Mangina lived twenty-three years after her cure.

On another occasion he suddenly stopped while reading, and said with a smile to his monks: “I must now go and pray for a poor little woman who is in the pains of childbirth, and who suffers like a true daughter of Eve. She is down yonder in Ireland, and reckons upon my prayers; for she is my cousin and of my mother’s family.” Whereupon the great priest hastened to the church, and when his prayer was ended returned to his spiritual sons, saying: “She is delivered. The Lord Jesus, who deigned to be born of a woman, has come to her aid, and this time she will not die.”

Another incident is suggestive of Columbkille’s great veneration for the sign of the cross. A certain youth was carrying home a vessel of new milk, and on passing the door of the Abbot’s little cell, where, as usual, he was writing, he asked a blessing on his burden. But when the man of God made the sign of the cross, a strange commotion seemed to move the contents of the vessel; the lid was suddenly flung off, and the greater part of the milk was scattered around.

The youth laid down the pail, and, kneeling, he began to pray. The Saint, however, desired him to rise. “To-day you have acted unwisely,” he said, “in not making the sign of the cross of our Lord on your vessel before you poured in the milk. It was this omission that caused the demon to enter there, but, being unable to bear the sign of the cross, he has now fled away.” Columbkille then asked him to bring the vessel near, that he might again bless it; and no sooner had he done so than “the benediction of his holy hand” so increased the little milk which remained that the pail was once more filled to the brim.

Towards his last days a celestial light was occasionally seen to surround him as a garment. And once as he prayed his face was first lit up with beatific joy, which finally gave expression to a profound sadness. Two of his monks saw the singular change of countenance. Throwing themselves at the feet of the venerable Abbot, they implored him, with tears in their eyes, to tell them what he had learned in his prayer.

“Dear children,” said he, with gentle kindness, “I do not wish to afflict you. But it is thirty years to-day since I began my pilgrimage in Caledonia. I have long prayed to God to let my exile end with this thirtieth year, and to call me to His heavenly country. When you saw me so joyous, it was because I could already see the angels who came to seek my soul. But all at once they stopped short down there upon that rock at the farthest limits of the sea which surrounds our island, as if they would approach to take me and could not.

“And, in truth, the blessed spirits could not, because the Lord had paid less regard to my ardent prayer than to that of the many churches which have prayed for me, and which have obtained, against my will, that I should still dwell in this body for four years. That is the reason of my sadness. But in four years I shall die without being sick; in four years, I know it and see it, they will come back, those holy angels, and I shall take my flight with them towards the Lord.”

Dear old Saint! his last day on earth came. It was a Saturday in sunny June. Drawn in a car by oxen, the venerable Abbot passed through the fields near the monastery, and blessed his monks at their labor. Then, rising up in his rustic chariot, he gave his solemn benediction to the whole island – a benediction which, according to local tradition, was like that of Saint Patrick in Ireland, and drove from that day all vipers and venomous creatures out of Iona.

He then took his way to the granary of the monastery and gave it his blessing, remarking at the same time to his faithful attendant, Diarmid: “This very night I shall enter into the path of my fathers. You weep, dear Diarmid; but console yourself. It is my Lord Jesus who deigns to invite me to rejoin Him It is He who has revealed to me that my summons will come tonight.”

The holy Abbot departed from the store-house. On the road to the monastery he was met by a good and ancient servant, the old white horse, which came and put his head upon the shoulder of his kind master, as if to take a last leave of him “The eyes of the old horse,” says one of the Saint’s biographers, “had an expression so pathetic that they seemed to be bathed in tears.” But carressing the faithful brute, he gave it a blessing.

He now retired to his cell and began to work for the last time. It was at his dearly-beloved employment – transcribing the Psalter. When the great old man had come to the thirty-third Psalm, and the verse, “Inquirentes autem Dominum non deficient omni bono,” he paused. “I must stop,” he said; “Baithen will write the rest.”

After some time spent in earnest prayer, he entrusted his only companion with a last message for his spiritual sons, advising them, like the Apostle of old, “to love one another.”

As soon as the midnight bell had rung for the Matins of the Sunday festival, the noble old Saint arose from his bed of stone, entered the church, and knelt down before the altar. Diarmid followed him, but as the church was not yet lighted he could only find him by groping and crying out in sad tones: “My father, where are you?” He found Columbkille lying before the altar, and, placing himself at his side, he raised the Abbot’s venerable head upon his knees.

The whole community soon arrived with lights, and wept as one man at the sight of their dying chief and father. Once more the dear Saint opened his eyes, and turned them toward his children on each side with a look full of serene and radiant joy. Then with Diarmid’s aid he raised, as best he could, his right hand to bless them all. His hand dropped, the last sigh came from his lips, and his face remained calm and sweet like that of a man who in his sleep had seen a vision of heaven. And thus died, or rather passed away, at the age of seventy-six, on the 9th of June, in the year 597, the glorious Saint Columbkille, Irish prince, poet, monk, and missionary – a man whose beautiful name and shining deeds will live for ever and for ever.

“The countenance of Columbkille,” says his ancient biographer, Saint Adamnan, “resembled that of an angel. In conversation he was brilliant; in work, holy; in disposition, excellent; and in council, distinguished. Though he lived on earth, his manners were those of heaven. Every hour of his life was passed in prayer, reading, writing, or some useful occupation.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Columbkille, The Apostle of Caledeonia”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>