Summary of Principal Events in the Life of Saint Columba, by Wentworth Huyshe

cover of the ebook 'Summary of Principal Events in the Life of Saint Columba', by Wentworth Huyshe

A.D. 521 – Columba Born at Gartan, County Donegal

Columba was born at Gartan (Little Field) on the night in which Saint Buite, the Founder of Monasterboice, died, namely, December 7th, 521. His father was Fedhlimidh (Phelim), a chieftain of the clan O’Donnell, grandson of Connall Gulban, from whom the north-west of Ulster takes its name of Tirconaill (Tyrconnel). Conall Gulban was son of Nial Naighiallach, ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’, King of Ireland from 379 to 405. Columba’s mother was Ethne, eleventh in descent from Cathair Mor, King of Leinster, so that he was of royal lineage by both parents. ‘Noble was the family of Colum-Kille in respect of the world’, says the Old Irish Life, ‘namely of the race of Conall son of Niall was he. He was eligible to the Kingship of Eriu, according to family, and it was offered to him, if he himself had not abandoned it for God.’ Gartan, his birthplace, is on a hillside, at the foot of which are three lakes, overhung by dark wild mountains, once the haunt of numerous wolves. Cruithnechan, the priest, baptized him at Tulach Dubhglaise (Temple Douglas) by the two names of Colum (dove) and Crimthain (wolf). At the time of Columba’s birth, Justinian was Emperor at Constantinople, and Benedict, founder of monastic orders, had established his order at Monte Cassino. The Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain a hundred years, and the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons were pouring into Britain in successive waves of invasion, driving the Christianized Britains westward. In Ireland Christianity had long been established, and Columba was a born and baptized Christian.

Fosterage and Early Education

An Irish child of royal birth was always brought up by foster-parents. Columba’s foster-parent was the priest Cruithnechan (Adamnan, Book 3, chapter 2), and he was also brought up by the O’Firghils. His childhood, says Dr. Moore, was spent with them at Doire Ethne, a place so wild to this day that the eagle, the raven, the badger, and the pine marten have their homes in it. Some of the tribe that fostered him still live at Kilmacrenan, as their ancient home is now called. While he was under the care of Cruithnechan his mind became imbued with the deeply religious feeling which was to lead to such great results, and he received the name of ‘Colum-Kill’ – ‘Colum of the Kill, or cell’ – given to him, says the ancient Irish record in the Leabhar Breac, because he so often came from the cell in which he read his psalms to meet the children of the neighbourhood. And the children would say: ‘Has our little Colum come today from the cell in Tir-Lughdech in Cinell Conaill?’

He Studies Under Saint Finnian and Gemman, the Bard

After leaving the good priest Cruithnechan, Columba became a pupil at Moville, County Down, the Ecclesiastical School founded by Saint Finnian in 540, and there he was ordained deacon. The incident described by Adamnan, Book 2, chapter 1, occurred at this time.

After leaving Moville he went to Master Gemman, an aged Bard of Leinster, and here he became confirmed in his love for the old poetic tales of Ireland, which according to Irish tradition he retained throughout life. It was while he was with Gemman the Bard that the incident, related in Book 2, chapter 25, happened, when Columba and Gemman tried to prevent the atrocious murder of a young girl.

With Saint Finnian of Clonard and Saint Mobhi of Glasnevin

From Master Gemman, Columba went to the monastic school of the abbot Saint Finnian, the Wise Tutor of Erin’s Saints, the most famous in Ireland, at Clonard, on the head waters of the Boyne, founded about the year 520. Twelve of Saint Finnian’s disciples, among them Columba, were known as the Twelve Apostles of Erin. On the day of his arrival at Clonard, Columba asked Abbot Finnian where he should put up his hut. ‘At the door of the church’ was the answer. Columba built his cell at some distance away from the door. ‘You have not obeyed my directions’, said the Saint. ‘It is true that I have not done so’, said Columba, ‘but the door will hereafter be here.’ And in course of time, as the monastery grew in extent and importance, the door of the church was at that spot.

Columba was ordained priest while at Clonard by Bishop Etchen, of Clonfad, and after his ordination he went with three of his friends and companions, Comgall, Kiaran mac Antsair, and Kairreeh, to Glasnevin, near Dublin, where Saint Mobhi, one of his fellow-students at Clonard, had a school. The pupils were dispersed in consequence of the great plague, known as the ‘Yellow Plague ‘, which prevailed in many parts of Europe in the years 543-544. Columba returned to his native province of Ulster, praying, as he crossed the Bior (Moyola water), that the plague might there be stayed.

A.D. 545 – Columba Founds the Monastery of Derry

‘In the far north, a few miles from Ailech, the stone hill-fortress of the Northern Hy-Neill, there was a fortified hill, the sides of which were clothed with an oak wood. It was called, from some long-forgotten chief, Daire Calgaich, the “Oak Wood of Calgaich.” The fort was given by his admiring kinsmen to Columba, and there he built his first church, one day’s journey from the mountains of his birth, in sight of the sea which was to carry him to the place of his death. In after times the hill acquired the name of its consecrator, and was known for nearly a thousand years as Daire Coluimkille; it then took a prefix from the home of its conquerors, and was called Londonderry, but is now universally known by its oldest name of all, Daire, phonetically spelt Derry. A lane called Longtower still marks the locality of the church built by Columba in 545, and near which for many centuries there stood a tall round tower.’ (Dr. Norman Moore.) While Columba was in Derry he meditated going to Rome and Jerusalem, and he did go to Tours, in France, to Tor-inis of Martin, as the Old Irish Life has it, ‘and brought away the Gospel that had been on Martin’s bosom one hundred years in the earth; and he left it in Derry.’

A.D. 545-562 – Columba Founds Many Churches and Monasteries

During the years between 545 and 562 Columba founded many churches and monastic societies. ‘A hundred churches which the wave frequents is the number of churches he has on the margin of the sea. There was a mass-chalice in every church’, says the Old Irish Life. Durrow, Dair Magh the Oak Plain, on the border of King’s County and Westmeath, was the principal one, founded in 553.

One of the most famous of ancient Irish manuscripts, the ‘Book of Durrow’, the Gospels of the Vulgate, still preserved in Trinity College, Dublin, is attributed to Columba’s own hand. The colophon refers to ‘Columba the writer’ of the work, but Professor Fowler says the colophon and some other parts of the manuscript, seem to be copied from an earlier one, and to contain errors which Saint Columba would hardly have committed. Another of Columba’s foundations was the monastery of Kells, in Meath, and from it is named another famous and beautiful manuscript, the ‘Book of Kells’, of which Professor Fowler says: ‘It is impossible to give any idea of the splendour and elaboration of its ornamental pages and letters, or of the extreme minuteness of the work, which often requires a lens to trace it.’ These two famous manuscripts of Durrow and Kells are the finest extant works of their kind, and both are now thought to be of the seventh and not the sixth century.

Arran, Boyle, Swords, Raphoe, Tory Island and Drumcliff were also Columban foundations. The most remote of his monasteries was that of Glen Columkille, in the westernmost part of Ulster. Here, on the north side of the glen, are the ruins of Columba’s church and traces of the monastic buildings. ‘ Just below it the sea is always covered with foam round the promontory of Garraros, while mists shut out from view for six months the opposite side’ of the glen and the path ascending it into the world. The Saint and his followers always thought the roar of the sea and mists sweeping across desolate moorland incitements to devotion.'(Dr. N. Moore.)

‘Insula Sanctorum’

Such were the foundations of a single holy man in that astonishing age of piety in Ireland, well named Insula Sanctorum. ‘Rich endowments in land, bestowed by princes and chieftains, and skilfully tilled by monks, enabled the monasteries of Erin to grant free education, food, raiment and books to the thousands who flocked to their halls. The monastic schools of the island for two or three centuries were regarded by all Christians as the chief centres of education. In the fifth and sixth centuries, amidst the dreadful shock of the fall of the Roman Empire and the desolation of Europe by barbarous hordes, Ireland, being at a distance from the ruin, became the asylum of learning, and monks from Ireland then carried back the torch to the devastated regions of Gaul and Germany.’ (Golden)

A.D. 561-563 – The ‘Exile’ of Columba and Its Causes

Columba’s greatest work, however, was to be done elsewhere, among peoples who, while unaffected by the fall of the Roman Empire and by invasion, were sunk in paganism – the Picts of Alban, who dwelt beyond the Grampians, in the eastern parts of what is now Scotland. It was in the year 563 that Columba left Ireland two years after a great battle between Diarmait, King of Ireland, and Columba’s kinsmen, the Clan Neill, fought at Culdreimhne (now Cooladrummon), six miles north of Sligo, in 561. It was this battle, according to tradition, that led to his exile from Ireland, and his missionary expedition to Alban. It is said that Columba himself mustered the Clan Neill for the war for the purpose of avenging two grievances against King Diarmait. One grievance was that Diarmait had slain Columba’s clansman, the young Prince Curnan, who had taken sanctuary with him after having caused the death of a playfellow during the sports at Tara. The other was a decision which Columba considered unjust given against him by Diarmait in the matter of the ownership of a book. The incident is thus related by the Rev. John Golden: ‘ In Saint Columba’s thirty-ninth year, while visiting at Clonard, he secretly made a copy of a beautiful book of the Psalms kept by the Abbot Finian in the church. The abbot soon discovered the fact, and demanded the copy as his right. The book had cost Columba many a sleepless night, and he stoutly refused to surrender it. Unable to agree, the disputants appealed to Diarmait, the chief King of Ireland. ‘To every cow belongeth her calf was the judgment of Tara’s king. Sorely grieved at the loss of his copy, which he was obliged to surrender to his old master, he boldly exclaimed: ‘This is an unjust decision, O Diarmait, and I will be avenged!’ It has been claimed that this very manuscript, a psalter enclosed in a shrine, is that known as the Cathach, or ‘Battle’, venerated for more than a thousand years by the Clan O’Donnell (Columba’s clan), who carried it into their battles as a sure pledge of victory. It is now in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy.

But whether the story of Columba’s secret copying of the Abbot’s psalter be true or not, and whether the Cathach be that identical copy or not, the story is but one of many which prove the passionate love of Columba and of the early Irish ecclesiastics for fine manuscripts. Columba is said to have written out more than three hundred copies of the Vulgate and of the Psalter with his own hand. In Saint Adamnan’s narrative we often find him described as writing in his cell.

The Battle and The Penance

King Diarmait, it is said, imprisoned Columba at Tara, but he escaped and made at once for his home and kinsmen in Tyrconnell. On his journey, while in the mountains, he is said to have written the pathetic Song of Trust, ‘Alone am I on the mountain’, in which is the remarkable verse referring to the auguries and magic of the Druids:

I adore not the voice of birds,
Nor chance, nor the love of son or wife,
My Druid is Christ the Son of God,
The Son of Mary, the Great Abbot,
The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

His kinsmen received Columba among them with enthusiastic affection, and all Ulster and Connaught its ally took up arms in his cause. The battle was fought, as has been said, at Cooladrummon, near Sligo. King Diarmait was totally defeated with great slaughter. Diarmait then called a synod at Teltown, in Meath, which excommunicated Columba (see Adamnan, Book 3, chapter 3), but the excommunication was annulled. Then, according to Irish tradition, Columba went to Saint Laisren, his soul friend or confessor, and Saint Laisren laid on him as penance that he must leave Ireland, go and win as many souls for Christ as there had been lives lost in the battle, never look on his native land again or set foot on its soil. Such are the legends and traditions which cluster about the ‘exile of Columba.’ The Old Irish Life says nothing of them, but gives the following perfectly simple and probable statement: ‘When Columkille had made the circuit of all Eriu, and when he had sown faith and religion; when numerous multitudes had been baptized by him; when he had founded churches and establishments and had left in them seniors, and reliquaries, and relics of martyrs, the determination that he had determined from the beginning of his life came into his mind – namely, to go on pilgrimage. He then meditated going across the sea to preach the word of God to the men of Alba and to the Britons and the Saxons. He went, therefore, on a voyage. His age was forty-two when he went. He was thirty-four years in Alba. And the number that went with him was, twenty bishops, forty priests, thirty deacons, and fifty students. He went in good spirits, until he reached the place the name of which today is Hii-Coluim-Kille (I-colm-kill = Iona). On Quinquagesima night, moreover, he arrived.’

A.D. 563 – Iona

It was from Deny that Columba sailed for the north, and probably, as Adamnan says, with twelve followers only at first. In an ancient Irish poem, which is in the form of a Song of Farewell, Columba thus describes his departure from his native land: –

How rapid the speed of my coracle;
And its stern turned upon Derry;
I grieve at my errand o’er the noble sea,
Travelling to Alba of the ravens.
My foot in my sweet little coracle,
My sad heart still bleeding:
Weak is the man that cannot lead;
Totally blind are all the ignorant.
There is a grey eye
That looks back upon Erin;
It shall not see during life
The men of Erin, nor their wives.
My vision o’er the brine I stretch
From the ample oaken planks;
Large is the tear of my soft grey eye,
When I look back upon Erin.

There is in Iona a little bay which indents its southern shore, Port-na-Churraich, the Bay of the Coracle. It was here that Columba landed. Above on the hill, is a cairn known from time immemorial as the Carn-cul-ri-Erin, the ‘Cairn of the Back turned to Ireland’, marking the spot where the exile found that Ireland was no longer in sight, and that here, at last, he had turned his back on that beloved shore. For as the story goes, in his voyage northward, passing the islands of I slay and Jura, he landed first at Oronsay, went up the hill and found that Erin was still there on the horizon, a blue line on the sea. On again, therefore, in his boat with the faithful twelve. True Irishman as he was, he could not bear to live away from Erin, and yet within sight of her, and so, passing the tiny islets which lie off the southern end of Iona, he made straight for the Port-na-Curraich, landed there, ascended the rocky hill on his left, gazed south, and saw – the wide unbroken sea.

Among the Irish manuscripts in the Burgundian Library of Brussels there is an ancient Celtic poem bearing the title Columkille fecit. This poem, says Dr. Skene, so remarkably describes the view from the Carn-cul-ri-Erin, overlooking the Port-na-Curraich, and the emotions it was calculated to excite in one of Columba’s temperament, that it is hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that it contains the genuine expression of his feelings. The poem was transcribed and translated by the late Professor O’Curry, and it runs as follows:

Delightful would it be to me to be in Uchd Ailiun
   On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see
   The face of the ocean;
That I might see its heaving waves
   Over the wide ocean,
When they chant music to their Father
   Upon the world’s course;
That I might see its level sparkling strand,
   It would be no cause of sorrow;
That I might hear the song of the wonderful birds,
   Source of happiness;
That I might hear the thunder of the crowding waves
   Upon the rocks;
That I might hear the roar by the side of the church
   Of the surrounding sea;
That I might see its noble flocks
   Over the watery ocean;
That I might see the sea monsters,
   The greatest of all wonders;
That I might see its ebb and flood
   In their career;
That my mystical name might be, I say,
   ‘Cul-ri-Erin’;
That contrition might come upon my heart
   Upon looking at her;
That I might bewail my evils all,
   Though it were difficult to compute them;
That I might bless the Lord
   Who conserves all,
Heaven with its countless bright orders,
   Land, strand, and flood;
That I might search the books all,
   That would be good for any soul;
At times kneeling to Beloved Heaven;
   At times at psalm-singing;
At times contemplating the King of Heaven,
   Holy the Chief;
At times at work without compulsion;
   This would be delightful.
At times plucking duilisc from the rocks;
   At times fishing;
At times giving food to the poor;
   At times in a carcair [solitary cell].
The best advice in the presence of God
   To me has been vouchsafed.
The King whose servant I am will not let
   Anything deceive me.

In Iona, then, Columba decided to stay, and the little company no doubt soon began their exploration of the island. The late Duke of Argyle, in his little book Iona, will help us to realize what were the first impressions of the pioneer-missionary, who must soon have discovered that the island had other recommendations besides its being out of sight of Ireland. ‘ On the eastern side was the channel, which he had missed, giving much-needed shelter from prevailing w r inds. Above all it was a fertile island, giving promise of ample sustenance for man and beast. It is true Iona is a rocky island, the bones protruding at frequent intervals through the skin of turf. Even there, however, Columba must have seen that the pasture was close and good, and not far from the spot on which he first swept the southern sky he must have found that the healthy and rocky hills subsided into a lower tract, green with that delicious turf which, full of thyme and wild clover, gathers upon soils of shelly sand. This tract is called in Gaelic “The Machar”, or Sandy Plain. A little farther on he must soon have found that the eastern or sheltered side presented a slope of fertile soil exactly suiting the essential conditions of ancient husbandry – a tract of land which was as admirably adapted for the growth of corn as the remainder of it was suited to the support of flocks and herds.’ An additional advantage was that Iona lay on the line which divided the Christian Irish of Britain and the pagan Picts – a desirable strategic centre for the work Columba had in hand. The Irish annals state that Conall, son of Comgill, the sixth king of the Irish colony of Dalriada, in Britain, granted the island to Columba. According to Bede and others, it was Brude, the Pictish king. The probability is that Columba found Iona unoccupied and unclaimed, that Conall promised not to disturb his occupation of it, and that when the Picts were converted to Christianity by Columba, King Brude sanctioned his right and title to the little isle.

The Founding of the Monastery

Having decided upon the eastern slope of the island facing the island of Mull as the site of their future home, Columba and bis companions no doubt at once set to work to put up their dwellings, which Adamnan tells us were of wood and wattles. There was a refectory with its fireplace and vessel of water; a wattled guest chamber; the cells of the monks with the little court which they surrounded; the oaken church with its side chamber; the cell of Columba himself, built of planks, on the higher ground of the settlement. Dr. Skene, in his invaluable work on Celtic Scotland, has given, in the second volume, a most interesting description, with a plan of the site of Columba’s Monastery and an account of its constitution as compiled from Adamnan. Columba’s monastic system, he says, presented the same life of strict submission to a rule enforcing observance of religious duty, ascetic practice and self-denial, which characterized the monastic church in Ireland; and its doctrines in no respect differed from that church. The principal service of the Columbans, as of course of the Church everywhere, was the celebration of the ‘Sacred Mysteries of the Eucharist ‘, or the ‘Mysteries of the Sacred Oblation’ – the Mass; and the chief Festival of the year was the Paschal solemnity – Easter. The practice of making the sign of the Cross is constantly mentioned by Adamnan, and a very important part of the monastic system of Iona was its severe penitential discipline. The ordinary discipline consisted of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Lent. When any one, lay or cleric, desired to enter upon a special course of exercises, it was usual to select an Anmchara, soul-friend, spiritual friend, under whose direction the course was made. The monastic life of Iona, as everywhere, was a special Militia Chris ti; those who adopted it were Soldiers of Christ, and their principles were Obedience, Celibacy (very strictly enjoined and enforced by Columba), Caution and Reason in speech, Humility, and one of the leading features in monasticism especially developed in Iona – Hospitality, with Kindness to Animals. All these monastic characteristics will be found in Adamnan’s narrative, with some remarkable instances of very severe Penitential Discipline.

Early Years of Columba’s Mission in Iona

For two years after his landing in Iona, Columba was busy establishing his community, and no doubt gathering from all available sources information as to his neighbours on the islands around and on the mainland. He would soon have found that Iona was in every way a most suitable centre for his work, and, what was of course of great importance, that it and the islands near it could support his familia. On this point the late Duke of Argyle, of whose ancestral property Iona is a part, gives some interesting information: ‘The island’, he says, ‘now (that is, in 1870) supports upwards of 200 cows and heifers, 140 younger beasts, about 600 sheep and lambs, 25 horses, and some three score pigs. It grows also a considerable quantity of grain. But even these resources, ample as they might seem to be, were not enough for the growing number of the Columban Monastery. Very soon royal grants of neighbouring islands made them tributary to the sustenance of the Abbot and his brethren, and foremost among these came the productive corn-bearing soil and the rich pastures of Tiree [the ‘Ethica terra’ of Adamnan]. Fish were abundant, and could be obtained at all seasons. The large flounders of the Sound of Iona are still an important item in the diet of its people. The rocks and islets all around swarmed with seals, and their flesh seems to have been a favourite article of food. Their oil also doubtless supplied the light with which during the many long winter evenings Columba pored over his manuscripts of the sacred text, or performed midnight services before the altar.’

‘The Saint Main on Which the Sea-Gulls Cry’

There must have been constant life and movement on and around the little isle in those early days of the settlement on it of the Pioneers of the Cross. It is important to remember, as the Duke of Argyle has so well stated, that much of their activity was exercised on the sea. ‘We must not forget’, he says,’Columba’s frequent embarkations – sometimes only in little boats to cross the Sound, or to visit those adjacent islands, some of which were colonized from the parent Monastery; sometimes in larger vessels starting on some distant expedition to preach among the heathen Picts. Columba and his brethren must have been skilled and hardy seamen. How often from the Torr Abb – the Abbot’s Hill – must the monks have watched for their Abbot’s returning bark rounding the red rocks of Mull from the southward, or speeding with longer notice of approach from the north. From the same spot, we may be sure, has Columba often watched the frequent sail – now from one quarter, now from another, bringing strange men on strange errands, or old familiar friends to renew the broken intercourse of youth.’ In that same ancient Irish poem, from which I have already quoted some verses, there is one verse which admirably describes in a few lines Columba the monk, and Columba the seaman. It forms part of the metrical farewell to Erin uttered by himself when on his voyage to Iona. He has sailed down the river Foyle and is on the Lough beneath the mountain range which rises above its western shore:

To behold the fair Loch Feval (Foyle)
The form of its shores is delightful;
Delightful is that; and delightful
The salt main on which the sea-gulls cry.
On my coming from Derry afar
It is quiet, and it is delightful –
Delightful.

The salt main on which the sea-gulls cry! Here, in this fine line, is the real Columban note, here the very atmosphere of Saint Adamnan’s story of Columba – the sea, the rolling blue Atlantic that beats upon the coast of Erin and girds about Iona and the islands. Once more the Duke of Argyle gives us a pen picture: ‘On one side the open ocean, with nothing to break the fetch of waves from the shores of the New World; on the other, innumerable creeks and bays and inlets, which carry the eye round capes and islands, and along retreating lines of shore far in among the hills. Columba may indeed have missed the oaks of Derry, and that intense love of place which is a passion with the Celt, doubtless made all lands but Erin appear to him as lands of exile. But if his eye rested with delight on the “dashing of the wave” and on the “form of shores”, no spot could have been better chosen than that on which he lived and died.’

A.D. 565 – The Mission to King Brude

Saint Columba must have been well aware long before he left Ireland that the spirit of clanship was as strong in North Britain as it was in his native land, not only among his Irish kindred and fellow-countrymen in the over-sea Christian Dalriada (now Argyle), his neighbours to the southeast, but also among the Picts. He well knew that if the Pictish tribes were to be converted to the Faith of Christ he must begin with their king, whose example the people would surely follow. Columba set out, therefore, in the year 565, on the longest journey he had made since his landing in Iona, a journey by land and water, due north-east, straight up that wonderful valley, the Glen Mor nan Albin, the ‘Great Glen of Alba’, with its long, narrow, strung-out lakes, Lochs Linnhe, Lochy and Ness, now united in a continuous watercourse by the Caledonian Canal. His companions were Saint Comgall and Saint Canice, Irish Picts, who would feel more at home with King Brude than would Columba. Saint Adamnan tells us how King Brude barred his gates against the Mission, how the Druids opposed Columba in every possible way, and how, eventually, the Cross triumphed in that far distant citadel of Paganism. Those whom the legions of the Caesars could not subdue by the sword were brought under the yoke of Christ by these few dauntless, unarmed missionaries. The peril and the toil were great. ‘It was a daring adventure’, says Mr. Morrison (Columba: His Life and Times), ‘full of hazard, thus to pierce into the heart of Pictland. It called for undaunted courage and resource and unwavering trust in the leader. Yet how few of the travellers who pass through that glen today – with its deep lochs and its dark and solemn forests and all its mystery of light and shadow – know anything of the little band of heroes who threaded it so many centuries ago? And what was the heathen faith which these Soldiers of Christ overthrew? We often hear it spoken of as Druidism, and Columba was certainly opposed at King Brude’s court, as Adamnan tells us, by Druids or Magi, men who were credited with powers over the spiritual world. But the elaborate Druidism that Caesar and Pliny tell of, with its hierarchies and its human sacrifices and its sacred mistletoe and its serpent egg – of all that there is not one trace in Scotland. It was a vague dread of innumerable spirits; the world of Nature was quivering with life; in every spring and well there was a spirit, in every loch there lived some dreaded being. When the echoes of thunder rolled through the mountain corries, or when the wild storm beat the forests of oak, voices from the Great Mystery were speaking.’ It was a worship of the living powers of Nature – a sort of fetishism, Professor Skene calls it, which peopled all the objects of nature with malignant beings, to whose agency its phenomena were attributed, and the Magi or Druids exercised great influence among the people from a belief that they were able through their aid to practise a species of magic or witchcraft, which might either be used to benefit those who sought their assistance, or to injure those to whom they were opposed. To Columba these living powers of nature were real demons, to be overcome by the power of the true God.

Here, then, among the Picts as well as in the islands, Columba and his followers worked indefatigably for many years. ‘ Everywhere they preached, instructed and baptized; everywhere they planted churches and schools, and everywhere their preaching was confirmed by miracles. The islands round were evangelized in turn. The Orkneys and Shetlands, the Hebrides and the Faroes heard and accepted the Gospel. On distant Iceland missions were established, and even within the lifetime of its great founder, Iona was able to send forth missionaries to the English kingdom of Northumbria, to the Isle of Man, and to South Britain. It had its fleet of boats to visit the various groups of islands and make their way up the bays. With Cormac, the most skilled and daring of the monk navigators [see the remarkable account of his voyage to the North, in Book 2, chapter 42], the venerable Abbot traversed the sombre gulfs and straits regardless of danger, unsparing of toil.’ (Golden)

A.D. 574 – Aedhan is Ordained King of British Dalriada by Columba at Iona

During the first ten years of his missionary labours in North Britain, Columba not only established his ecclesiastical influence and jurisdiction far and wide, on the mainland and in the isles, but also asserted himself as a statesman. It must be remembered that the effects of his mission were largely political as well as religious; his royal blood, his connection with many of the noblest families of Ireland, his kinship with the great Irish colony of Dalriada in North Britain (in what is now Argyle) made him an important factor in the history of northern Britain. An event now occurred which shows to what a height the power of Columba had attained. Conall, son of Comgall, King of the British Dalriada, died in the year 574, and, according to the ancient law, he should have been succeeded by his cousin Eogan, whose claim was favoured by Columba. Adamnan tells us, however (in Book 3, chapter 5), how in a vision Columba was directed to ordain another cousin of Conall’s, Aedhan, and upon Columba’s making this known – and, as Skene says, there was no gainsaying such a statement by one in Columba’s position – Aedhan came to Iona and was there ordained King of Dalriada by Columba – the earliest recorded instance of a royal coronation in Great Britain. The fact of Aidan going to Iona for consecration shows at once the importance of Columba and the already established sanctity of the island. Historians have especially noticed in Adamnan’s narrative the use of the term ordinare regem – to ordain the king. The fact that Saint Columba laid his hand on King Aidan’s head, indicates the affinity between the sacring of a king and the ordination of a priest, and shows that the imposition of hands was part of the ceremonial of the consecration of a king in the seventh century.

A.D. 575 – The Convention Of Drumceatt

In the year 575, Aedh, son of Ainmire, King of Ireland, summoned a great Convention to be held at Drumceatt, a long mound on the river Roe, near Newtownlimavaddy, in the county of Londonderry. It is now called the Mullagh, or Daisy Hill. All the minor kings and heads of tribes, and the principal clergy of Ireland, Saint Columba, and the newly-consecrated King of Dalriada, Aidan, were present. Present also was the chief of the famous Bards of Ireland, Dalian Forgaill, afterwards Saint Dalian, a man of illustrious ancestry, who wrote a poem entitled ‘Amhra Choluim Chille’ – ‘The Praises of Columba’ – still extant in manuscript. In this poem it is stated that Columba’s company consisted of forty priests, twenty bishops of noble worth, thirty deacons, and fifty youths, and that the reasons for which he came to the Convention were three: (1) for the releasing of Scannlan Mor, son of Cennfasladh, King of Ossory, in Leinster, a hostage in the hands of Aedh, Columba being surety for him that he would be released at the end of a year; (2) for the staying of the poets in Ireland – for they were under sentence of banishment on account of their burdensomeness; (3) for pacification between the men of Ireland and Alban about Dalriada. In all these objects Columba was successful.

Scannlan the Thirsty

The account of the release of Scannlan is one of the most curious passages in the Old Irish Life of Columba. The end of the year found Scannlan still a prisoner in the hands of Aedh. ‘He was not released, and no hostage was accepted in his stead. And a wicker hut was constructed round him, without any passage out of it save a way through which a little salted food and a small allowance of ale used to be given to him. And fifty warriors were used to be around the hut, outside, guarding him. And there were nine chains upon him in the hut. And when he would see anyone going past, what he would say is: “A drink”, says he. And this thing was reported to Columkille to Hii (Iona), and he wept greatly at what he heard; and this it was that brought him quickly from the East.’ When at the Convention Columba demanded the release of Scannlan. ‘I shall not release him’, said King Aedh, ‘until he dies in the hut in which he is’; whereupon the Saint said, ‘We will not pursue the subject further, but, if it be pleasing to God, may it be he that shall take off my shoes tonight at Matins in whatsoever place I may be.’ Then Columba left the Convention and went to the Dubh-regles, the Black Abbey Church, at Derry. Not long after his departure a thunderbolt fell among the members of the assembly on the hill of Drumceatt, and they all ‘turned their faces to the ground.’ Scannlan, set free by an angel, made his way straight to the Black Church at Derry, and while Columba, at Matins, was going past the chancel screen, Scannlan assisted to take off his shoes. Then ensues the following strange dialogue:

Columba asks, ‘Who is this?’

‘Scannlan’, answered he.

‘Hast thou any news?’ asked Columkille.

‘A drink’, said Scannlan.

‘Hast thou brought us a blessing?’ asked Columkille.

‘A drink’, said Scannlan.

‘Say how earnest thou?’ said Columkille.

‘A drink’, said Scannlan.

Columba loses patience, and utters the imprecation:

‘Delay in answering attend thy successors!’

‘Speak not so’, said Scannlan. ‘Thou shalt always have their rents and their tributes and customs.’

The Saint is pacified, and exclaims, ‘May bishops and kings be of thy race for ever! Here is one drink for thee, to wit, a vessel of ale containing enough for three.’

Scannlan then lifted the vessel between his two hands and drank the contents in one drink. And he afterwards ate his meal, to wit, seven joints of old bacon and ten wheaten cakes; after which he lay down and [it is not surprising to learn] was three days and three nights in one sleep. He then arose, and was conducted to Ossory, and the great bachall [crozier] was sent with him. The day he arrived was the day his father, the King of Ossory, died through grief for him. And he afterwards assumed the kingship of Ossory, and granted a tribute from the Ossorians every seventh year from that day to Columkille. And it is in this wise that Scannlan was released.

It should be noted, in connection with this quaint narrative, which bears upon it the stamp of human nature and of veracity, that Scannlan was not only imprisoned but tortured, for his diet of salted food with a ‘small allowance’ (the Celtic word is teirci, lit. ‘scarcity’) of ale, can only be regarded in that light. Hence his intolerable thirst, his appeals to the passers-by, and his reiteration of ‘drink, drink’ when he was kneeling – half dead, no doubt, from hunger and thirst – to take off Columba’s shoes at the chancel screen of the church. Then, as to the impatient imprecation of the Saint, that delay in answering, i.e. hesitation of speech or stuttering, might afflict his posterity, it is interesting to know that the tradition of [this imprecation is not yet extinct in Scannlan’s country of Ossory, and it is even asserted that stuttering is still a characteristic of Scannlan’s descendants there. And, lastly, the interesting statement that the great bachull or pastoral staff of Columba was sent with Scannlan, no doubt as a sign of confirmation of his rights, tells surely of the widespread influence and authority of the Saint. ‘He handed over to him [Scannlan] his crook as a sure staff in slippery places and a safeguard njevery adversity; faithfully promising in the Lord^that by its help, Christ granting it that virtue, he should come safe and sound out of the dangers that beset him; and admonishing him that he should eventually send back the staff to Saint Laisren, his disciple, then ruler of the Monastery of Durrow.’

The ‘Staying’ of the Bards

The burdensomeness of the poets arose from the fact, as Dalian (the Ollamh, or chief poet) tells us, that there used to be thirty of them in the company of each Ollamh, and fifteen in that of each Anrad, or poet of the second rank; and that they had a right to exact coinmed or refection from the tribes for themselves and their retinue. Columba, himself a poet and probably a member of the Bardic Fraternity, naturally sympathized with them. Dalian Forgaill tells us that the influence of Columba ‘stayed the poets’, he having praised their profession to King Aedh. The sentence of banishment was revoked on condition that the right to exact refection was amended, and the retinue reduced to twenty-four for each head poet and twelve for each minor poet. By this the Bards lost much of their early importance, but they were saved from extinction, and a great national Irish institution was preserved. The Bards ‘continued for centuries to perambulate the country, to praise or satirize kings, lords, and squires, farmers and ecclesiastics, till, in the present reign (Victoria’s), their last representatives were reduced, in the general ruin of the literature of Ireland, to a chair by the kitchen fire in winter, and a meal on the doorstep in summer.’ (Norman Moore)

Amhra Columkille: The Praise of Columba

Dalian Forgaill, as chief of all the Bards, expressed his and their gratitude to Saint Columba by composing in his praise and honour the Amhra Columkille, a poem which was held in the utmost reverence in Ireland for centuries.

The high estimation in which Columba was held by the Bards is shown by a passage in the Amhra, in which Dalian tells us that the twelve hundred poets who were at the Convention, when they came into the assembly brought with them a poem of praise for him, that they sang it with music and chorus, ‘and a surpassing music it was’ – so impressive, apparently, that the Saint himself felt sudden emotions of complacency and gave way to vanity. Baithene, one of his companions, who was standing by, beheld a great troop of scoffing demons in the sky above. He directed Columba’s attention to them. The Saint, smitten to the heart, covered his head with his cowl and did penance. The demons fled. But Columba forbade his praises to be further produced or published, adding that no one should be praised in a life which might end badly, that he alone who had run well and ended his race successfully should be praised after death. ‘And Columbkille promised to Dalian the gifts and products of the earth for this praising: but he took not them, but heaven, for himself, and for every one who would recite it each day, and would understand it between sense and sound. As a certain one said:

Columb’s Amhra – every day
Whoever will recite it completely
Will reach the good bright kingdom
Which God granted to Dalian.’

The Mother Country and Her Colony

The third object of Columba in attending the Convention of Drumceatt was the future of Dalriada, the Irish Colony in North Britain, and how far the colony, now that Columba had ordained Aidan as king over it, should be made independent of the mother country. ‘As a colony or subject state’, says Dr. Skene, ‘it was liable to the same burdens as were exacted from all the petty principalities in Ireland. These consisted in the payment of certain rents and tributes known as cain and cobach, and certain military services which consisted of what was called fecht, or the obligation of joining the superior king in expeditions, and sloged, or “hosting”, taking part in the general levy of the country for war.’ Columba assigned to Colman, son of Comgellan, who accompanied him to the Convention, the duty of delivering the judgment between the men of Erin and the men of Alba. And Colman delivered it thus: The expeditions and hostings to be with the men of Erin always, for ‘hostings’ always belong to the parent stock. Their tributes and gains and shipping to be with the men of Alba. And when one of the men of Erin or Alba should come from the East, the Dalriada to entertain them, whether few or many, and the Dalriada to convey them on if they require it. Thus the colony was freed from all tribute to the supreme king of Ireland, but was to join in expeditions or ‘hostings’, with the exception of maritime expeditions; King Aidan of Dalriada became independent, and his country was no longer a subject state to Ireland. It is probable that when Columba returned to Iona he obtained from his friend, King Brude, a recognition of Aidan as an independent king. The results of this treaty were great. Ireland and her great colony in Britain were pledged to mutual assistance against Saxon, Dane, and Norseman, an alliance which continued for centuries, and a friendship was cemented between the Saints and scholars of Erin and Alba. Irish missionaries aided in developing the institutions of the colony, and in conveying the blessings of religion to every portion of northern Britain and the northern provinces of the English.

A.D. c.579 – The Battle of Coleraine

In 577 died Saint Brendan of Clonfert, who had often visited the islands and had been a guest of Saint Columba in his monastery of Hinba [Eilean-na-Naoimh, one of the Garvelloch islands off the coast of Argyle], with three other Abbots, as related by Adamnan, Book II. ch. xvii.; and in 579 Saint Finnian, of Moville, one of Saint Columba’s early preceptors, was lost to him by death.

It was in about that year, 579, that a controversy arose between Saint Columba and Saint Comgall about the church of Ross-Torathair, near Coleraine. The dispute was taken up by their respective clans, the Hy Neill of Saint Columba and the Dal-Araidhe of Saint Comgall, aad a battle – the battle of Cul-Rathain (Coleraine) – was fought. Dr. Reeves says it is very possible that some collision did take place between the Saints about jurisdiction, as Saint Comgall’s abbey church of Camus was close to Coleraine, and Saint Columba is recorded to have been occasionally in that neighbourhood (as in Adamnan, Book 1, chapter 1), and besides, the territory west of Coleraine was the debateable ground between the two clans. It is not known which was victorious in the fight.

A.D. c.585 – Columba Again in Ireland

It was in about the year 585 that, as Adamnan tells us, Columba visited the monasteries of Durrow, his own foundation of 553, and Saint Kiaran’s monastery of Clonmacnoise, which afterwards rose to the highest importance as a seat of religion and culture in Ireland.

A.D. 587 – The Battle of Cuilfedha

In 587 there was a third battle in Ireland, in which Saint Columba was also concerned, and about which an ancient verse is quoted in the annals:

Broken was, as has ben told,
For Colum’s sake, in the famous battle
The bestower of jewels.

The battle fought at Cuilfedha, near Clonard, was between the northern and southern branches of the Hy-Neill. The cause of it is thus given in Keating’s History (1629): ‘This was the cause that occasioned the fighting of the battle of Cuil Feadha [by Aedh] against Colman Mac Diarmada, namely, in revenge for his having been outraged in the case of Baodan, son of Finneadh, King of Erin, who was killed by Cuimin, son of Colman, at Leim-an-eich, in violation of the sanctuary of Colum.’ Aedh was the victor in the battle, and Colman, his adversary, was slain, with five thousand of his men.

The ‘Altus’ of Columba

Now with regard to these three battles in which Columba is said to have been concerned – namely, Cul-Dreimhne in 561, Coleraine in 577, and Cuilfedha in 587 – there is in existence partly preserved in the ancient manuscript the Leabhar Breac – ‘the Speckled Book’ – a fine hymn composed by Saint Columba known from its opening words as the ‘Altus’ of Columba. The preface to the hymn, which is in a mixture of Latin and Irish, gives two different accounts of the circumstances under which the hymn was written: ‘The cause was because he was desirous of praising God. For seven years he was searching out this Hymn in the Black Cell (the Dubh regies, Columba’s church in Derry) without light – that is, beseeching forgiveness for the battle of Cuil Dremhne which he had gained over Diarmait son of Cerball [King of Ireland, 544-65], and the other battles that were gained on his account? According to the other, but not so probable, version, the hymn was composed in Iona while Columba was carrying corn to the mill and watching its grinding. The tradition is a constant one that the strife and bloodshed of Cuil Dremhne had something to do with Columba’s leaving Ireland. Dr. Reeves, in speaking of the martial propensities of Saint Columba, reminds us that we must bear in mind the complexion of the times in which he lived and the peculiar condition of society in his day, which required even women to enter battle and justified ecclesiastics in the occasional exercise of warfare. It was not till the year 804 that the monastic communities of Ireland were formally exempted from military service, though Columba himself, and Adamnan after him, brought about the emancipation of women from the obligation to fight alongside of their husbands and sons. If we may judge from the biographical records which have descended to us, says Dr. Reeves, primitive Irish ecclesiastics, and especially the superior class, were very impatient of contradiction and very resentful of injury. Giraldus Cambrensis, who went to Ireland in 1185 as secretary to Prince John, son of Henry II, and collected there the materials for his Topography of Ireland, devotes one of his chapters to the irascibility of the Irish in general and their Saints in particular, and he accounts for it from the fact that, as there were no great castles in the land, the churches were fortified and served as places of refuge from the bands of marauders of which the country was full. ‘By Divine Providence’, says Giraldus, ‘there was frequent need that the Church should visit her enemies with the severest chastisements, this being the only mode by which evil-doers and impious men could be deterred from breaking the peace of ecclesiastical societies.’ Saint Columba, it must always be remembered, was a man of royal birth, and naturally could not accept injuries or affronts in silence; allied as he was to the leaders in the three battles, and interested in the result of their fighting, it could not be expected in a country where civil faction was, so to speak, a part of its very constitution that Columba could look on with indifference. He was not only Abbot, but also Statesman.

So much, then, for Columba’s connection with the military events of his life. As to what manner of man he was as Abbot and Saint, a fairly com- plete idea can be obtained from the narrative of Adamnan, and particularly from the latter part of his Second Preface, while in the ‘Lives of the Saints,’ given by Colgan in the Acta Sanctorum, are many other details which are an additional evidence of his piety and holiness. He would bathe the feet of the Brethren after their daily labour, he would carry the bags of flour from the mill to the kitchen, he subjected himself to great austerities, sleeping on a hide spread on the ground, with a stone for pillow, most strict and constant in fasting, in prayer, in meditation.

Saint Columba as Bard

Saint Adamnan mentions in his biography that Saint Columba spent much of his time in writing – that is, transcribing the Scriptures and the Psalter. It is stated also in the Old Irish Life of the Saint that he transcribed ‘three hundred splendid, lasting books’, and if the famous manuscripts – the ‘Cathach’, a Psalter (in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy), and the ‘Book of Durrow,’ the Gospels (in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin) – be, as many think, the work of Columba himself, the epithets ‘splendid and lasting’ are amply justified. But Saint Columba was not, like most monks, a transcriber of the Scriptures only, he was, as has already been said, a poet, and in all probability a member of the Order of Bards:

Thrice fifty noble lays the apostle made
Whose miracles are more numerous than grass;
Some in Latin which were beguiling,
Some in Gaelic, fair the tale.

That is the Saint’s literary record as handed down in the Old Irish Life; but of all these poems only a few have come down to us which can with any likelihood be assigned to Saint Columba. There are attributed to him three Latin hymns – ‘Altus Prosator,’ ‘In te Christe,’ and ‘Noli Pater’ – each of which is accompanied by a preface in Irish and Latin describing the circumstances under which it was written. All were printed in his Acta Sanctorum, by Colgan (1645), an d they were reprinted and edited by Dr. J. H. Todd for the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society (1869). The original manuscript used by Colgan is at Saint Isidore’s in Rome, and there is another manuscript, the one used by Dr. Todd, the Liber Hymnorum, in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. The ‘Altus’ is also found in the fifteenth-century manuscript, the Leabhar Breac, the ‘Speckled Book’, in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, and it has been edited, with a prose translation, by the late Marquess of Bute. Dr. Todd says of the ‘Altus’; that ‘there cannot be a doubt that the Hymn is of considerable antiquity, and that it is Irish. It quotes in many places a Latin Version of the Scriptures older than the recension of Saint Jerome [the Vulgate]. It is written in a barbaric style, with many words of rare occurrence, some of them unknown even to the researches of Du Cange.’ The authorship of the poem, as the Marquess of Bute observes, is ascribed by an apparently unbroken tradition to Columba, and does not seem open to any serious doubt; it may be held to be confirmed, he says, by what little internal evidence the poem offers; and as regards its intrinsic merits, he thinks that portions of it would not suffer by comparison with the grand ‘Dies Iras’ of Thomas of Celano, the friend and biographer of Saint Francis of Assisi. Here, by way of example and comparison, are two of the stanzas of the ‘Altus’ done in prose:

The Day of the King of Kings most righteous is at hand, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Wrath and Vengeance, of darkness and clouds, and a Day of thunderings mighty and loud, a Day of distress, of lamentation and sorrow, in which shall cease the love and desire of women and the strife of men and the lust of this world.

We shall be standing trembling before the Tribunal of the Lord, and we shall give an account of all our deeds, beholding also our crimes set before our eyes, and the Books of Conscience laid open before our faces. Into most bitter weeping and sobbing shall we break forth – having no longer the wherewithal to work.

Having no longer the wherewithal to work! There surely is a touch of Columba, of whom Adamnan says that he could not bear to be idle. ‘He could not pass the space even of a single hour without applying himself either to prayer, or reading, or writing, or else to some manual labour.’ Besides these Latin hymns, there are various ancient poems in his own native Irish tongue ascribed to Saint Columba. Four are given by Dr. Reeves in Irish and English: ‘The Dialogue of Columkille and Cormac in Hy (Iona), after escaping from the Coire Brecain (the dangerous channel between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island), and after searching the boundless ocean until he reached the Cold Region (the Arctic Circle)’, as told in the Voyage of Cormac, Adamnan II, chapter 42; and another, ‘The Song of Columkille when Cormac came to him from his own country’; another, a song of Columkille, ‘It were delightful, O Son of my God’; and a fourth on the occasion of his departure from Durrow for the last time, ‘Beloved the excellent seven.’ Besides, there are printed Columba’s ‘Farewell to Aran’ (Transactions of the Gaelic Society, Dublin, 1808), and one said to have been written on his flight from King Diarmait (Miscellany of the Irish Archaeological Society). Besides these printed poems, there are poems bearing Columba’s name in one of the O’Clery Manuscripts in the Burgundian Library at Brussels, and a large collection in the manuscript entitled ‘Laud 615’ in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Of this last collection, Dr. Reeves says that it comprises everything in the shape of poem or fragment that could be called Columba’s which industry was able to scrape together in the middle of the sixteenth century. Finally must be mentioned the Rule of Saint Columba, of which the manuscript exists in the Burgundian Library of Brussels, but which is not really a systematic Rule like Saint Benedict’s, but rather a collection of maxims, by some later Columban monk for the use of hermits.

His Grace – His Soul – His Body

In that same precious Old Irish Life of Saint Columba, handed down to us in the Leabhar Breac, and held in high esteem by all Irishmen from the day it was written, a thousand years ago, there are quoted the following lines upon Saint Columba, made by Saint Brechan:

His grace in Hii (Iona) without stain,
And his soul in Derry;
And his body under the flagstone
Under which are Brigid and Patrick.

In those three places – Iona, Derry, and Down – the author of the Old Life goes on to say, is the ‘full habitation’ of Columkille.

To Iona he gives his ‘stainless grace’ – Iona the remote isle of the British Sea, to which he sailed from his dearly loved Erin ‘to preach the word of God to the men of Alba and to the Britons and to the Saxons.’

To Derry, his soul – Derry, the ‘Oak Grove’, where, in the year 546, he founded in God’s honour his best-loved church, ‘for he loved that city very much’, says the old biographer, ‘as he said:

“The reason why I love Derry is
For its quietness, its purity,
For ’tis full of angels white
From one end to the other.”‘

His body – under the flagstone with Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, at Down, where for many centuries rested the three great Saints of Ireland – the holy three, of whom the triple-leaved shamrock is the national and spiritual symbol – until Lord Grey, Deputy-Governor of Ireland in 1536-1537, in his zeal for the establishing of Henry VIII as head of the Church, and for the destruction of religious houses, gave the ancient church of Down to the flames. ‘He rode to the north’, says Holinshead, ‘and in this journey he razed Saint Patrick, his church in Downe, and burnt the monuments of Patrick, Brigide, and Colme (Columba), who are said to have been there interred. . . . This fact lost him sundry hearts in that country, always after detesting the King and Council.’ Grey was eventually arraigned and tried in London. Among the articles cited against him was this one: ‘Item: That without any warrant from the King or Council he profaned the church of Saint Patrick in Down, turning it to a stable; after plucked it down and shipped the notable ring of bells that did hang in the steeple, meaning to have sent them to England.’ Grey perished by the heads-man’s axe on Tower Hill in 1541.

The ‘Full Habitation’ of Columba

Not one stone upon another remains of Columba’s church of Derry, ‘my Deny’, as he called it:

My Derry, my little Oak Grove,
My dwelling, and my little cell.

Not a trace remains of the humble buildings, whether of timber and wattle, or of dry-piled stone of his monastery of Iona. No longer can be seen at Down the shrines of the three great Saints of Ireland. Yet has Columba his ‘full habitation’; what Adamnan says of him is still true: ‘Though he lived in this small and remote island of the British Sea, his name has not only become illustrious throughout the whole of our own Ireland and Britain, but has reached even to triangular Spain, and to Gaul, and to Italy, which lies beyond the Pennine Alps, and also to the city of Rome itself, the head of all cities.’ Aye! and further, much further has this ‘great and honourable celebrity’ extended, passing over vast oceans to islands and continents of which the good Abbot never dreamed.

But it is to Iona, that standpoint from which, facing to the north, he declared to the heathen the Gospel of the Lord, that we turn with the greatest affection and reverence – Iona, where Columba ‘set up his everlasting rest’, from which he sent back to Ireland a messenger bearing his benediction:

Carry with thee, thou noble youth,
My blessing and my benediction,
One half upon Erin, sevenfold,
And half on Alba.
Take my blessing with thee to the West;
Broken is my heart in my breast;
Should sudden death overtake me
It is from my great love of the Gaedhil;
Gaedhil! Gaedhil! beloved name!

‘And there was not born of the Gaedhil’, says the old biographer, ‘a being more illustrious, or more wise, or of better family than Columkille. There came not of them any person who was more modest, more humble, or more lowly.’

What wonder that wherever Gael or Briton dwelt the name of this, one of the greatest of their race, is revered, Columkille – ‘The Dove of the Churches ‘: that to that name they should have added many other endearing epithets: ‘ The Precious Gem’, ‘The Royal Bright Star’, ‘The Wise’, ‘The Meek’, ‘The Self-denying’, ‘The Divine Branch, who was in the yoke of the Pure Mysteries of God’?

What wonder that the people of the far Hebridean islands of Barra and South Uist, men, women, and children, who still hold the faith Columba held, to this day invoke his aid, and the aid of Mary and Michael, in their annual Shealing Hymn:

Thou, gentle Michael of the white steed,
Who subdued the Dragon of blood,
For love of God and the Son of Mary
Spread over us thy wing, shield us all!
Spread over us thy wing, shield us all!

Mary, beloved! Mother of the White Lamb,
Protect us, thou Virgin of nobleness,
Queen of beauty! Shepherdess of the flocks!
Keep our cattle, surround us together,
Keep our cattle, surround us together.

Thou Columkille, the friendly, the kind,
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit Holy,
Through the Three-in-One, through the Three,
Encompass us, guard our procession,
Encompass us, guard our procession.

Thou Father! Thou Son! Thou Spirit Holy!
Be the Three-One with us day and night,
On the machair plain, on the mountain ridge,
The Three-One is with us, with His arm around our head,
The Three-One is with us, with His arm around our head.

But the boatmen of Barray sing for the last verse:

Thou Father! Thou Son! Thou Spirit Holy!
Be the Three-One with us day and night,
And on the crested wave, or on the mountain side,
Our Mother is there, and Her arm is under our head.
Our Mother is there, and Her arm is under our head.

About This EBook

The text of this ebook was taken from the book The Life of Saint Columba, by Saint Adamnan, newly translated from the Latin with notes and illustrations by Wentworth Huyshe. It was published in London, England by George Routledge and Sons in 1905.

The cover image is a statue of Saint Columba, date and artist unknown. The statue is in the Saint Cuthbert, Earls Court, London, England. It was photographed on 2 August 2015 by Trearddur72, and the image swiped from Wikimedia Commons.