Written by Vladimir Moss







Ireland, the island of the saints, is full of holy and wonderful men.

Marianus Scotus, Chronicle for the year 589.


Columba was a perfect sage, believing in Christ, learned and chaste and charitable;

He was noble, he was gentle, the physician of the heart of every sage, a shelter to the naked, a consolation to the poor: there went not from the world one who was more constant in the remembrance of the Cross.

Dallan Forghaill, Amhra Columcille(6th-7th century).




     St. Adomnan’s Life of St. Columba (best known in Reeves’ translation of 1874, to be found in full at has long been recognized as one of the great glories of Western Orthodox literature, and its subject as perhaps the greatest saint of Northern Britain, the real founder both of the Scottish State and of the Scottish Church. Indeed, the extinguishing of the last traditions of British Orthodoxy may be ascribed to the year 1204, when the last English Orthodox warriors perished fighting the western crusaders on the walls of Constantinople, and the last Scottish Columban monks were removed from the sacred ground of Columba’s most famous monastic foundation, the sacred island of Iona. It is fitting, therefore, for the present generation of British Orthodox, who are striving to resurrect the traditions of Orthodoxy in our native land, to draw inspiration from the Life of this brightest light of the North, who prophesied the return of Orthodoxy to Iona before the end of the world.


     The present work aims to integrate Adomnan’s Life (which I shall refer to by the letter “A”) with the other Lives and sources for the life of St. Columba that we possess, together with the results of recent research into Celtic Christianity and the information we have concerning the later Orthodox saints who continued the Columban traditions and may be said to have been part of his “family”: the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People (early 8th c.) (B), the earliest Life of St. Columba by Cummineus Albus, Abbot of Iona (mid 7th c.) (C), the Old Irish Life of Columba (I), the Life of St. Blaithmaic by Walafridus Strabo (c. 845) (W), the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Innisfarne the  Martyrology of Tallaght, William of Malmesbury’s Early History of Glastonbury and Gesta Regum Anglorum and Jocelyn’s Life of St. Kentigern of Glasgow (12th c.) (K).  I have also used many modern sources, of which I should particularly like to mention Haddan and Stubbs’ Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Northern Ireland (volume II, 1873, 1964), The Catholic Encyclopedia (E), Bellesheim’s History of the Catholic Church of Scotland (volume I, 1887) (H), Lucy Menzies’ Saint Columba of Iona (1920) (M), John Marsden’s The Fury of the Northmen (1996) (N), Fr. Gregory Telepneff’s The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs (1998) (T) and Elizabeth Rees’ Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers (2000) (R).I also acknowledge the help provided by the websites,, and


     It is not always easy to distinguish fact from legend in the very abundant material concerning St. Columba. I have therefore relied most heavily on the earliest Lives and Chronicles, which can be assumed to be the most authentic and Orthodox. However, I have dipped into the later Lives, especially that of Manus O’Donnell (1532) (D),where it seems to me that they provide reliable information about important events in the life of the saint which were overlooked or only cursorily treated in the earlier sources – for example, the Battle of Culdreimhne and the Synod of Telltown, – perhaps because they portrayed the saint acting in ways that do not fit easily into the conventional pattern of sanctity. Nevertheless, I have felt it essential to include these episodes, which show that even the saints had to overcome quickness of temper and other frailties on their way to deification and eternal glory.


     May St. Columba and all the saints of the Columban tradition pray for us to the Almighty God, that the prophecies concerning the return of Orthodoxy to the British land may be speedily fulfilled!



Early Years


     Our holy Father Columba was born on Thursday, December 7, 521 near Gartan Lough, county Donegal, Ireland. On the side of his father, Phelim MacFergus, a chieftain of the Northern Ui Neill clan, he was descended from King Niall “of the nine hostages”, who had reigned as High King of Ireland in the later fourth century (the nine hostages were the kings’ sons he compelled the other powerful clans to give him as hostages). On the side of his mother, Ethna (Eithne), he was descended from Cathair Mor, King of Leinster. His grandmother, Erca, daughter of King Erc, was a sister of Fergus Mor, who led a colony of Irishmen from Dalriada in Ireland to Argyll in Scotland at the end of the fifth century, thus laying the foundations of the Irish colony in Scotland which became known as Dalriada. Columba, therefore, could have become a king if he had not become a monk. As an angel once revealed to his friend, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise: “What you have surrendered for the love of God is nothing but the tools of your father’s trade; what Columba has foregone is the scepter of Ireland, his by ancestral right.” (D)


     Columba’s birth was prophesied by several holy men and women. Thus St. Patrick prophesied the birth of a famous man to the Niall clan:


A man child shall be born of his family,

He will be a sage, a prophet, a poet,

A loveable lamp, pure, clear,

Who will not utter falsehoods.

He will be a sage, he will be pious,

He will be the King of the royal graces,

He will be lasting and will ever be good,

He will be in the eternal Kingdom for his consolation.


St. Brigid also prophesied his birth, as did St. Patrick’s disciple, St. Mochta (Maucta), Bishop of Louth: “In the last ages a son shall be born whose name Columba shall be announced in every province of the isles and shall brilliantly enlighten the last ages of the earth. The little fields of our two monasteries shall be separated by the space of one little hedge; a man very dear to God and of great merit in His sight.” (A)


     As Eithne was sleeping on a stone beside Gartan Lough before her son was born, an angel appeared to her, “and, standing beside her, brought her a certain mantle of marvelous beauty, in which lovely colours of all the flowers seemed to be depicted. After a while he asked for it back, and took it from her hands, and raising and spreading it out, sent it forth into the empty air. She was saddened by its removal and said to the venerable-looking man: ‘Why are you taking this lovely mantle away from me?’ He immediately replied: ‘Because this mantle belongs to someone of such greatness and honour that you cannot keep it with you.’ After these words, the woman saw the mantle gradually receding from her in its flight, and increasing in size until it was wider than the plains and higher than the mountains and forests, reaching from the Inishmore island off the west coast of Ireland to the north-east coast of Scotland. Then she heard the voice: “Do not sorrow, woman, for you will bring forth to the man to whom you are joined in marriage a son so illustrious that he will be reckoned as one of the prophets of God and will lead innumerable souls to the Heavenly Country. As she was listening to this voice, the woman awoke.” (A, C)


     The child was baptized with the name Columba, which means “dove” in Latin, but there is a tradition that he was given another name, Crimthann (or Crimthainn), meaning “wolf”. Later, the suffix Cille, meaning “of the cell” or “of the church”, was added to his name, making “Columkille”, “dove of the cells”, because as a boy “he often cam e out from the cell in which he read the Psalms to meet the children of the neighbourhood. And they would say: ‘Has our little Colum come today from the cell in Tir-Lughdech in Cinell Conaill?’” (I)


     The baptism took place at Temple Douglas, between Letterkenny and Gartan, and was performed by his foster-father Cruithnechan, a priest of admirable life. It seems that Columba had one brother, Eoghan, and three sisters, but that at an early age he was sent to be the foster-child of Cruithnechan. This was commonly done in Ireland at the time; the foster-father would receive land or cows in exchange for looking after the child. Columba went to Cruitnechan because he was destined for the Church. (M)


     Cruithnechan prepared boys for the monastic schools which were such a striking feature of Orthodox Ireland. His school was at Dore-Eithne, which lay in a beautiful valley beside the mountain stream known as the Leanen. St. Angus the Culdee writes in his Martyrology that Columba “from his tenderest years cherished the most ardent love of Christ”. This is shown the fact that one day the priest returned from celebrating the Divine Liturgy, and “found his entire house irradiated by a bright light; for he saw a globe of fire stationary over the face of the little sleeping boy. And seeing it, he immediately trembled with fear, and, falling with his face to the ground in great wonder, he understood that the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured out from heaven upon his foster-child.” (A, C)


     When Columba was ready to begin learning to read, Cruithnechan “went to a certain prophet to ask when the boy ought to begin. The prophet scanned the sky and said: “Write an alphabet for him now.” The alphabet was written on a cake. And Columkille consumed the cake as follows: half to the east of the water, and half to the west of the water. The prophet said: ‘So shall this child’s territory be, half to the east of the sea [Scotland], and half to the west of the sea, that is, in Ireland.’” (I)


     Columba was a gifted pupil, for once when Cruithnechan faltered while reading Psalm 118, Columba took up where he stopped and read it to the end. (M)


     Later the saint was sent to the monastic school of the holy Bishop Finnian at Moville, at the head of Strangford Lough. St. Finnian was an Irish Pict who had brought the monastic ideal to Ireland from St. Ninian’s monastery at Whithorn, in South-West Scotland. We do not know the size of his school, but in general the monastic schools of Ireland were very large: those of Clonard, Bangor and Clonfert all had 3000 students at a time. The students would sit around on grassy slopes listening to the lectures. They were taught classical languages, theology, philosophy, general literature and science. By the eighth century Ireland had a great reputation for scholarship and was called insula sanctorum et doctorum, “the island of saints and scholars”. The students were given degrees, called the Seven Degrees of Wisdom. The first degree was given when the student had mastered all the Psalms in Latin. The seventh degree was that of Ollamh, Doctor, or Sai Litre, Professor of Literature. (M)


     St. Columba was ordained to the diaconate at Moville. One feast day, when St. Finnian was celebrating the Liturgy, he couldn’t find the wine that was necessary for the sacrament. “Columba, hearing the ministers at the altar complaining about this, took the cruet and went to the spring to draw water for the serving of the Holy Eucharist. When he had drawn it, he said to the ministers: ‘Here is wine for you which the Lord has sent for the celebration of His Mysteries.’ When this became known, the holy bishop and his ministers gave great thanks to God. But the holy youth ascribed this, not to himself, but to the holy Bishop Finnian.” (C, A)


     St. Columba’s time at Moville is remembered in an ancient poem on the patron Saints of the various Irish clans:


The Clanna Neil a sheltering oak

Have found in Columcille,

And Uladh’s sons are strong behind

Great Finnian of Moville. (M)


     But Columba now moved south to his mother’s native land of Leinster, to the Christian bard Gemman. Here he learned poetry and literature and music, and probably some Greek. “It happened one day that a certain man, a savage, cruel, persecutor of the innocent, was pursuing a certain young girl who was fleeing from him on the level plain. And when by chance she saw the old man Gemman reading on the plain, she ran straight to him as fast as she could. And he, startled, called Columba, who was reading at a distance, so that both of them could, as far as they were able, defend the girl from her pursuer. But he, coming up immediately, without showing any sign of reverence, killed the girl with a lance as she was hiding under their cloaks; and, leaving her lying dead at their feet, turned to go away. Then the old man, deeply moved, turned to Columba and said: ‘For how long, O holy youth Columba, shall God, the just Judge, allow this crime to go unavenged to our disgrace?’ The saint then pronounced this sentence on the criminal, saying: ‘In the same hour in which the soul of the girl he has killed mounts to heaven, the soul of the killer himself shall sink to hell.’ And quicker than it takes to tell it, with the very word, like Ananias before Peter, so also the killer of the innocent fell dead on the spot before the eyes of the holy youth. The news of this sudden and terrible vengeance at once spread abroad through many parts of Ireland, together with the wonderful fame of the holy deacon.” (A)


     Seeking to improve his education still further, Columba moved on to the famous school of St. Finnian at Clonard. When he arrived he asked where he should build his hut. Finnian replied: “At the door of the church.” This shows that Columba was not one of the poorest students, for the poorest would either be given free lodging by local landowners or would work for the richer students in return for board and lodging. The students took it in turn to grind the corn for the next day’s bread. Columba’s corn was ground so quickly that his fellow-students suspected that he was being helped by his guardian angel. Studying under St. Finnian, “Master of the Saints of Ireland”, at this time were several great Saints, who were known as “The Twelve Apostles of Ireland”, and included, besides Columba himself: Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Brendan “the Navigator” of Clonfert, Brendan of Birr, Mobhi Clairenach of Glasnevin, Cainnech (Kenneth) of Aghaboe, Ruadhan of Lothra and Comgall of Bangor. (M)


     St. Finnian wanted Columba to be his domestic bishop at Clonard, and to that end sent him to be consecrated to his cousin Echten (or Etchan), Bishop of Clonfad in Meath. However, according to the story, instead of making him a bishop, Echten ordained him to the priesthood a second time! Columba then said: “I regret that you have conferred this order upon me, but I shall never change this order while I live. For this reason, however, nobody shall ever again come to have orders conferred upon him in this church.” However, it is possible that Columba never wanted to be a bishop out of humility. And it is known that he never allowed any of his abbots to become bishops. (M)


     When Columba was about to leave Clonard, St. Finnian had a vision. He saw two moons in the sky, one of silver and the other of gold. The golden moon went to the north of Ireland and both Ireland and Scotland basked in its light. The silver moon went to the River Shannon and lit up the centre of the island. The golden moon signified St. Columba, who went north and then east to Scotland, and the silver moon signified St. Ciaran, who founded his great monastery at Clonmacnoise on the Shannon.    


     Columba now followed his friends Saints Ciaran, Kenneth and Comgall to Glasnevin, where St. Mobhi had just founded a monastery. There the friends continued their studies. But in 544 the school was broken up because of an outbreak of the yellow plague (although some sources believe it was because of war). So Columba traveled north, to his native land.



Monastic Founder


     King Aedh of Ireland now offered him a fort at Derry, “Place of the Oaks”, within sight of the sea some thirty miles from Gartan Lough, to build a monastery. However, the saint at first refused because the place was in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of St. Mobhi. However, as he was coming out of the fort, he met two of Mobhi’s monks, who told him that their master had just died, and they brought his girdle to Columcille as a sign that he could take possession of the land.


     So Columba took the land and founded his first monastery at Derry in about 545, filling it mainly with his relatives, including his cousin and foster-son, St. Baithene, his successor as abbot of Iona.


     Columba loved Derry – “my soul to Derry,” he said as he was dying. He loved the sea at Derry, “the salt sea where the sea-gulls cry”, and also the oaks, and would not allow any of them to be cut down. They would be used only if they had fallen by natural decay or been struck down by lightning, to light a fire on the arrival of pilgrims.


     ”While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours. Thence he brought a copy of those gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years.” (E)


     St. Columba wrote poetry in both Latin and Irish, and one of his poems was about Derry:


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

For its quietness and its purity,

For heaven’s angels that come and go,

Under every leaf of the oaks,

I love my beautiful Derry.


     Other monasteries he founded in this period were Durrow (c. 556) in central Irealnd, Raphoe, Drumcliffe in Sligo, Swords near Dublin, Glen Columcille in Donegal (whose ruins can still be seen), Tory island, Moone in Kildare and Kells in Meath. At Raphoe he “brought to life a wright who had been drowned in a mill-pond”. At Swords, “he marked out a well, named Sord, that is, ‘pure’, and dedicated a cross. For it was his custom to make crosses and writing tablets and book-satchels and other church implements”. It is claimed that he founded no less than 27 Irish monasteries, as well as some 40 churches.


     Kells was formerly a fort of Diarmada, son of Cerbaill. “Columcille marked out the city in extent as it now is, and blessed it all, and said that it would become the most illustrious possession he should have in the land, although his resurrection would not be there” (I). This prophecy was fulfilled when, in 804, as the Annals of Ulster record, Kells was “given, without dispute, to Columcille the musical” – in other words, to the monks of Iona who had been driven out of their monastery by the Vikings.


     Columba is called “the musical” here because he was famed for his singing voice, which was so strong that it could be heard on Iona by a man on the neighbouring island of Mull:


The sound of the voice of Columcille,

Great its sweetness above all clerics.

To the end of fifteen hundred paces,

Though great the distance, it was clearly heard. (I)


      The monasteries built by Columba and other monastic founders at this time were not constructed of stone, but of wood. The name given to this ancient Irish wooden church was Duirthech, from dairthech, a house of oak, or Deirthech, from dear, a tear – that is, a house in which tears are shed.


     The saint went all over Ireland visiting and strengthening his monastic communities. He even founded a church on the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland. It is said that he discovered there the grave of an abbot of Jerusalem, who had come to Aran to visit St. Enda, and died there. (M)


     It was on a visit to the Aran islands that he wrote his Farewell to Aran:


Farewell! A long farewell to thee,

Oh Aran my sun!

My heart is in the west with thee.

It is the same to lie beneath thy pure soil

As to be buried in the land of Peter and Paul.

Paradise is with thee,

The Garden of God within the sound of thy bells.

The angels love Aran,

Each day an angel comes there

To join in its services.

Oh Aran my sun!

My love is in the west with thee!


     It was at about this time that St. Columba composed the following poem in Old Irish:


O Son of my God, what a pride, what a pleasure,

To plough the blue sea!

The waves of the fountain of deluge to measure,

Dear Eire, to Thee.


We are rounding Moy-n-Olurg, we sweep by its head, and

We plunge through Loch Foyle,

Whose swans could enchant with their music the dead, and

Make pleasure of toil.


The host of the gulls come with joyous commotion

And screaming and sport,

I welcome my own “Dewy-red” [Columba’s boat] from the ocean

Arriving in port.


O Eire, were wealth my desire, what a wealth were

To gain far from thee,

In the land of the stranger, but there even health were

A sickness to me!


Alas for the voyage! O high King of heaven,

Enjoined upon me,

For that I on the red plain of bloody Cooldrevin

Was present to see.


How happy is the son of Dima [St. Cormac of Durrow], no sorrow

For him is designed.

He is having, this hour, round is own hill in Durrow,

The wish of his mind.


The sounds of the winds in the elms, like the strings of

A harp being played,

The note of the blackbird that claps with the wings of

Delight in the glade.


With him in Ross-Grench [Durrow] the cattle are lowing

At earliest dawn.

On the brink of the summer the pigeons are cooing

And doves on the lawn.


Three things things am I leaving behind me, the very

Most dear that I know,

Tir-leedach [his people] I’m leaving, and Durrow and Derry,

Alas, I must go!


Yet my visit and feasting with Comgall have eased me

At Cainneach’s right hand,

And all but thy government, Eire, has pleased me,

Thou waterfall land.


     Columba was able to see his guardian angel, and once the angel asked him what virtues he most longed to have. Columba said: wisdom, prophecy and chastity. Soon afterwards three lovely maidens appeared to him and would have embraced him. The saint frowned and pushed them away. “What!” they cried. “Don’t you know us? We are three sisters whom our Father is giving you as your brides!” “Who is your Father?” asked the saint. “Our Father is God, He is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world,” they replied. “And our names are Virginity, Wisdom and Prophecy. We have come to leave you no more, but to love you with an incorruptible love.”


     “Columba could not spend even a single hour without devoting himself to prayer, reading or writing, or to some other similar work. He was so occupied day and night, without the slightest intermission, in the unwearied exercise of fasting and watching, that the burden of each of these austerities seemed beyond the possibility of human endurance. And still in these he was beloved by all, always exhibiting in his countenance that holy cheerfulness with which the joy of the Holy Spirit was gladdening his inmost soul.” (A)



The Battle of Culdreimhne


     Columba loved to copy manuscripts. It is said that once he asked a hermit called Longarad-of–the-hairy-legs if he could examine his manuscripts. When Longarad refused, Columba was angry and said: “May your books no longer do you any good, neither to you nor to those who come to you, since you use them to show inhospitality!” (M)


     Once St. Finnian of Moville returned from Pope Pelagius (555-560) in Rome with many beautiful manuscripts, once of which was a copy of the Psalter and probably also the whole Gospel in St. Jerome’s translation. Columba visited his old master and asked to see the manuscripts. Then he secretly began to copy the Gospel, remaining in the church after the services to do it. “At night while engaged in that transcription, the fingers of his right hand were as candles which shone like five very bright lamps, whose light filled the whole church. On the last night when Columcille was completing the transcription of that book, Finnian sent for it. When the messenger arrived at the door of the church, he was astonished at the great light he saw within, and a great fear seized him. Timorously he glanced through a hole which was in the valve of the door of the church, and when he beheld Columcille… he dared not address him nor demand the book of him. It was revealed to Columcille, however, that the youth was thus watching him, whereat he became very angry, and, addressing a pet crane of his said: ‘If God permits, you have my permission to pluck out that youth’s eyes, who came to observe me without my knowledge.’ With that the crane immediately went and drove its beak through the hole of the valve towards the youth’s eye, plucked it out and left it resting on his cheek. The youth then returned to Finnian and related to him the whole of his adventure. Thereupon Finnian was displeased and blessed the youth’s eye, so that it was as well as ever and without being injured or affected in any way.” (D)


     Finnian was angry with Columba for copying the manuscript without his permission, and claimed the copy Columba had made as his own property. Columba disagreed. So the two saints went to the High King Diarmait, son of Cerbaill, chief of the southern clan of the Ui-Neill, who lived at Tara, the traditional capital of Ireland. Finnian said that it was though Columba had cut his corn without permission. Columba admitted he had copied the book, but said that it was his own labour, the book had not diminished in value by virtue of being copied, and that it was not right prevent it from being copied and read by others for the glory of God. However, Diarmait, although he was a relative of Columba’s, decided in favour of Finnian, saying: “To every cow her calf, to every book its transcript. Therefore the copy you have made, O Columcille, belongs to Finnian.” At this Columba rose up and said: “It is a wrong judgement, and you will be punished for it.”


     Another incident made the situation worse. Staying at Tara at the time was a son of the King of Connacht, Curnan, who was being held as a hostage for his father. He was playing a game of hurling, and had an argument with another player. Curnan got angry and struck the other player on the head, at which he fell down dead. The young man fled to Columba, invoking the right of sanctuary with the Church which Columba represented. But the men of King Diarmait pursued him, dragged him away and executed him.


     This was not the only time that Diarmait violated the right of sanctuary. Once he violated the sanctuary of Ruadhan of Lothra, and carried off a person under Ruadhan’s protection to Tara. On refusing to give him up, he was cursed by Ruadhan. For Ruadhan and a bishop that was with him took the bells they had and cursed the king and Tara, and prayed God that no king or queen should live in Tara ever again, and that it should be waste for ever, without court or palace. And this is what happened in fact…


     Columba immediately set off for his homeland in the north. Sending his followers by another route, he set off alone over the mountains, composing the famous poem known as The Song of Trust, which contained the line: My Druid is Christ, the Son of God. Why the reference to the Druids, the priests of the pagan religion of Ireland? Because King Diarmait, though nominally a Christian, would use Druid spells in his struggle against Columba…


Alone am I on the mountain,

O royal Sun! prosper my path

And then I shall have nothing to fear.

Were I guarded by six thousand,

Though they might defend my skin,

When the hour of death is fixed,

Were I guarded by six thousand,

In no fortress could I be safe.

Even in a church the wicked are slain,

Even in an isle amidst a lake;

But God’s elect are safe

Even in the front of battle.

No man can kill me before my day,

Even had we closed in combat;

And no man can save my life

When the hour of death has come.

My life!

As God pleases let it be;

Nought can be taken from it,

Nought can be added to it,

The lot which God has given

Ere man dies must be lived out.

He who seeks more, were he a prince,

Shall not a mite obtain.

A guard!

A guard may guide him on his way;

But can they guard

Against the touch of death?…


Forget thy poverty awhile;

Let us think of the world’s hospitality.

The Son of May will prosper thee

And every guest shall have his share.

Many a time

What is spent returns to the bounteous hand.

And that which is kept back,

None the less has passed away.

O living God!

Alas for him who evil works!

That which he thinks not of, comes to him,

That which he hopes, vanishes out of his hand.

There is no Sreod (magic) that can tell our fate,

No bird upon the branch

Nor trunk of gnarled oak…


Better is He in Whom we trust,

The King Who has made us all,

Who will not leave me tonight without refuge.

I adore not the voice of birds,

Nor chance, nor the love of a son or a wife.

My Druid is Christ, the Son of God,

The Son of Mary, the Great Abbot,

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…


     Also attributed to St. Columba is the following:


Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when Thou art near,
Oh King of night and day?
More safe am I within Thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.


     Columba gathered the clans of his father, the Ui-Neill, and his mother, and together with the King of Connacht, who joined them in 561, they took arms against the High King of Ireland. On the eve of the battle, Columba spent the night in prayer and fasting, and while he prayed the holy Archangel Michael appeared to him and said that in answer to his prayers he and his men would win the battle, but since he had asked for such a worldly favour, the blessing of God would not be upon him until he had exiled himself beyond the sea, never to return to Ireland, never to partake of her food and drink, never more to behold her men and women… (D)


     Before the battle, which took place at Culdreimhne (Cooldrevin), King Diarmait prepared himself with Druidic rituals, marching his men around a cairn in the direction of the sun, and drawing an airbhe, a kind of invisible fence, between the two armies so that the enemy could not pass. St. Finnian had been praying for Diarmait’s army, but when he saw how the battle was progressing he ceased praying so that the victory could be more speedily won and bloodshed stopped. On the morning of the battle the Archangel Michael was seen, armed as a warrior with a shield and a sword, leading Columba’s men, who were surrounded with fog. Diarmait was routed, leaving 3000 dead on the battlefield, with only one of Columba’s men killed. Columba now made peace with King Diarmait – and kept the book. (D)


     58 pages of a mutilated 6th century manuscript known as the Cathach, or “Battle Reliquary”, which is now in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, may well be part of the copy Columba made from Finnian’s book. According to Professor Lindsay, it is written in “a half-uncial script reduced in size and made more flowing. In other words, the formal book-hand of the time seems to have been modified so as to enable the writer to get through his task more quickly and to use less parchment.” It is the oldest surviving example of Irish majuscule writing. In the 11th century Columba’s O’Donnell clan made a silver and bronze shrine for it. At all future battles of the clan, this shrine with the Psalter was carried in front of the army. (M)


     The 7th century illuminated Gospel book known as the Book of Durrow has an inscription saying: “I pray thy blessedness, O holy presbyter Patrick, that whosoever shall take this book into his hands may remember the writer Columba. I wrote this Gospel for my own use in the space of twelve days, by the grace of our Lord.” Following this inscription is an addition, probably by an Abbot of Durrow, to the effect that he had transcribed it from the original written by the hand of Saint Columba. It is possible that this book was copied from the Cathach.


     The battle disturbed many churchmen in Ireland, and at a Synod in Telltown in Meath St. Columba was formally accused of having caused the deaths of 3000 soldiers and was excommunicated even before he had arrived to present his case.


     However, God intervened to change the sentence. For as the Saint was coming to the assembly, he was seen from a distance by St. Brendan of Birr. “He rose quickly, and with face bent down reverently kissed him. And when some elders of that assembly, apart from the rest, rebuked him, saying: ‘Why did you not refrain from rising up to a person who is excommunicated and kissing him?’… He said: ‘If you had seen those things which the Lord has not disdained to show me today regarding this, His chosen one, you would never have excommunicated one whom not only does God in no way excommunicate, according to your unjust sentence, but continues to exalt more and more.’ But they said: ‘We would like to know how, as you say, God glorifies him whom we have excommunicated, and not without reason.’ ‘I have seen,’ said Brendan, ‘a very bright, comet-like pillar going before this same man of God, whom you despise, and also holy angels accompanying him as he walks across the plain. So I do not dare to offend this man whom I see has been fore-ordained by God to be the leader of nations to life.’ When he had said these words, not only did they stop, not daring to excommunicate him further, but even honoured him with great veneration.” (A)


     Having revoked the sentence of excommunication on Columba, the Synod imposed the following penance on him: to win as many souls for Christ as had fallen on the battle-field. Still not recognizing his guilt, Columba went to St. Molaise (Laserian), his soul-friend or confessor, who lived on the isle of Innishmurray. St. Molaise advised him to accept the sentence of the Archangel and exile himself from Ireland. Still not satisfied, Columba went to another friend, who prayed for the souls of those killed in the battle and assured Columba that they “now enjoyed eternal repose”.


     Before leaving Ireland, St. Columba traveled to Moville to be reconciled with his old teacher. Finnian was walking outside his monastery one April night when he saw Columba coming towards him. And he also saw “an angel of the Lord accompanying him. Then he said to those of his brothers who were with him: ‘Behold! Look at Columba as he approaches. He has been deemed worthy of having an angelic inhabitant of heaven to be his companion on his wanderings!’”


     Eventually bowing to the verdict of the Church and of the holy Archangel Michael, St. Columba exiled himself from his native land which he loved so much. It must be said, however, that not all authorities agree with the above account of Columba’s leaving Ireland. Adomnan does not mention it, saying only that he “resolved to seek a foreign country for the love of Christ”, and the Old Irish Life only says that “the illustrious saint left his home for the love and favour of Christ”, adding that “this was the resolution which he had determined on from the beginning of his life”, which is also confirmed by Bede. Moreover, Adomnan says that he returned ten times to Ireland, which suggests that if he had been exiled as a penance, it was soon relaxed. Nevertheless, the balance of probability rests with O’Donnell’s account.



The Founding of Iona


     In May, 563 the saint set out from Derry with twelve companions on an exile which was to bring the Faith of Christ to Scotland again, over one and a half centuries since the first mission of St. Ninian of Whithorn. The names of his companion monks were: Baithene (or Conin), his cousin and foster-son, who succeeded him as Abbot of Iona; Cobthach, Baithene’s brother; Ernan, Columba’s uncle, who became Abbot of Hinba island; Diarmait, his cell-attendant until his death; Rus (or Ruisein), Fiachna (or Fechno), also brothers; Scannal (or Scandal), Lugaid, Eechaid (or Echoid), Mochonna, Caronan (or Cairnaan) and Greallen (or Grilaan).


     Mochonna was the son of an Irish king. Columba spoke to him about his duty to his father and mother and native land. But Mochonna replied: “It is you who are my father, the Church is my mother, and my country is where I can gather the largest harvest for Christ! I swear to follow you wherever you go, until you have led me to Christ, to Whom you consecrated me.”


    As Columba left Ireland in his frail boat, he composed his Song of Farewell:


How swift is the speed of my coracle;

Its stern turned to Derry;

I grieve at my errand o’er the noble sea,

Travelling to Alba [Britain] of the ravens.

My foot in my good little oracle,

My sad heart still bleeding:

Weak is the man who cannot lead;

Totally blind are all the ignorant.

A grey eye looks back to Erin,

A grey eye full of tears;

It shall never see again

The men of Erin nor their wives.

While I stand on the deck of my barque

I stretch my vision o’er the briny sea,

Westwards to Erin.


     Apart from the fulfillment of his penance, there was another reason why Divine Providence had brought Columba to Scotland. In 560, three years before his voyage, Brude (or Bridei) mac Maelchon (or Maclochon), King of the Northern Picts, “a most powerful prince” (B), had defeated the Irish Scots, killing King Gabhran. Columba must have hoped that he could bring peace to his countrymen in their dangerous situation by helping to convert the Picts. And so the travelers stopped first on the Island of Kintyre, where Columba visited his cousin Connall, who had succeeded Gabhran as king of the Irish colony in Scotland.


     From Kintyre, they went on to the island of Colonsay and landed at Oransay, a little islet separated from Colonsay only at high tide. But when he climbed to its highest point, he could still see the hills of Ireland. So he set off once more. That hill is still called Cairn-cul-ri-Erin, “Cairn-of-the-back-turned-to-Ireland”.


     “There is a tradition that Columba sailed up Loch Caolisport in Knapdale and landed at Ellary. Here, he found shelter in a large, airy cave, where there is an altar built of flat stones and a cross carved into the rock wall above, dating from early times. There is a stream with a waterfall nearby, and from the cave Columba could have watched seals playing around the islet at the head of the loch. There are remains of a medieval chapel beside the cave. By the eighth century there was a monastery a mile away, probably founded from Iona, at a place named Cladh a Bhile, or ‘burial ground of the holy tree’. We can glimpse the monks baking bread and conducting funerals, for many early gravestones and querns for grinding corn were found here.


     “Columba is said to have continued northward to Dunadd, whose rocky outcrop had been fortified only sixty years earlier. Rising from flat, boggy land beside the River Add, it made an excellent fortress. A surprise attack was impossible: its main entrance is a natural gully with a timber superstructure. Dunadd was at the centre of Dalriada; the king and his retinue stayed here on royal progress between his other forts.


     “A small peak was used as an inner citadel, and carved into the bedrock in front of it are a ceremonial basin and the impression of a foot, dating from the seventh or eighth century. These may have been used for royal inaugurations, in a ceremony in which the king was anointed and symbolically stepped into the shoes of his predecessor, or perhaps claimed the land on which he stood, since Dalriada can be surveyed in all directions from this spot. Beside the ceremonial footprint is an Irish ogham inscription and a Pictish carving of a boar, possibly relating to a marriage alliance between Gaels and Picts. Dunadd’s chieftains lived in style: a read garnet set in gold filigree from Anglo-Saxon England was found there, and pottery from Gaul. Dunadd’s craftsmen made jewelry, iron tools and weapons. A lump of yellow pigment used to illuminate manuscripts was also discovered there. The fortress was occupied until 1000.” (R)


     On the eve of Pentecost, May 12th, St. Columba and his disciples stopped at the tiny island of Iona, three-and-a-half miles long by one-and-a-half miles broad, which is just off the much larger island of Mull. Columba went to the top of the hill (400 feet), but could not see Ireland. So they dragged their boat to the top of the bay, dug a deep grave, and buried the boat there. To this day the bay is called Port-na-Churaich, “Port-of-the-Coracle”.


     “The sixth-century Annals of Ulster record that King Conall gave Iona to Columba; but the island was on the frontier between Dalriada and the territory of the Picts, and King Brude considered Iona to be his kingdom.” (R)


     Then “Columcille said to his people: ‘It would be good for us if our roots should pass into the earth here. One of you is permitted to go under the earth of this island in order to consecrate it.’ Then Odhran [a Briton] rose quickly and said: ‘If you accept me, I am ready for that.’ ‘O Odhran,’ said Columcille, ‘you shall receive a reward for this: no request shall be granted to anyone at my tomb unless he first ask it of you.’’ (I) Then Odhran “was seized by a bodily illness and brought to the edge of death. And when the venerable man visited him in the hour of his departure, he stood for a short time at his bedside blessing him, and then went quickly out of the house, not wishing to see him die. And at the same moment that the holy man left the house, he ended his life. Then the illustrious man, walking in the little court of his monastery, his eyes lifted up to heaven, was for a long time lost in wonder and admiration. But a certain brother name Aidan, son of Libir, a man of a religious and good disposition, who alone of the brothers was present at the time, began on bended knees to ask the saint to tell him why he was so greatly amazed. The saint said to him: ‘I have just seen holy angels in the air warring against the enemy power, and I give thanks to Christ the Judge that the angels have prevailed, and have borne up to the joys of the Heavenly Country the soul of this exile, the first who has died among us on this island. But I beseech you not to reveal this holy secret to anyone in my lifetime.” (A)


     Odhran’s burial place is still called Relig Oran, and a little chapel built by Queen Margaret of Scotland at the end of the 11th century stands on the spot.


     Columba built his monastery on the eastern side of the island facing Mull. The cells of the monks were built of wood and earth, with the abbot’s cell, or Tuguriolum, on slightly elevated ground in the centre.


     The twelve Irish monks were joined by Britons and Saxons, and soon “the Family”, as Columba called his community, numbered 150 monks. As the Old Irish verse said:


Wondrous the warriors who abode in Hi [Iona],

Thrice fifty in the monastic rule,

With their boats along the main sea,

Three score men a-rowing.


Columba called his monks “Soldiers of Christ”, and he himself was called “the Warrior of the Island”. They were divided into Seniors, the older monks, who were mainly engaged in transcribing manuscripts; the Working Brothers, who did the physical work, made the food, herded the sheep and cattle and worked the farm; and the Juniors or Alumni, who wore the monastic habit but had not yet taken their vows.


     Among the Juniors there were often penitents from other communities. They were led to Columba and required to confess their sins on bended knees in front of the assembled brothers, after which the Saint gave them absolution and a penance. Sometimes their penance would be exile for seven or twelve years on the neighbouring island of Tiree. At the end of their penance, the penitents were led to the chapel where they made their vows on bended knees in front of the Saint.


     Some of the brothers were blessed to lead a solitary life in a disert (a Coptic word), or hermitage. There is a bay at Iona called Port-na-Disert, “the Hermitage”.


     The monks were tonsured by having the whole of the front part of their head shaved from ear to ear. This had become the usual tonsure in Ireland since the time of St. Patrick. They wore cassocks of rough, undyed wool over a tunic of finer texture; on feast-days they wore white robes. St. Columba wore no linen next to his skin, and wore a cowl. In bad weather the monks were allowed an extra outer cloak.


     The meals at the monastery consisted of cereals, porridge, bread, milk, eggs and fish. Sometimes a seal was captured (seal skins were also used for clothing, and the oil for burning), and sometimes a salmon. Once when Columba and five of his companions were fishing in the river Seil and had caught nothing. “Try again,” said Columba. In obedience to his command they hauled in their nets a salmon of astounding size.


     Wednesdays and Fridays were fastdays throughout the years except between Pascha and Pentecost. In Lent the fast was kept until evening of every day except Sunday, when milk, bread and eggs were allowed during the day. Once a sheep was killed for a poor man.


     Wheat was grown on the island, near Temple Glen. The monks, including Columba himself, would carry the wheat in from the fields and grind it in a hand-quern. Later a water-mill was constructed, whose wheel was turned by the water that flowed past the barn and the smithy. Loaves were baked on a flat stone over a fire. Later, as the number of monks increased, there was not enough grain on the island to support the monks, so it was grown on Tiree island, the “Ethica Insula” or “Land of Corn”.


     The monks would go to sleep on pallets of heather or bracken covered by a sheet without taking their cassocks off. Columba himself slept on a stone flag with a granite boulder as his pillow. It can still be seen: it is 20 inches long, and has a cross incised on one side.


     At the end of a hard day’s work, Columba would wash his monks’ feet. There are many stories of his loving care for his monks. Once on a very cold day in winter, Diarmait noticed that his master looked worried. “And with good cause,” said Columba. “I am sad today, my child, seeing that my monks, already tired after their severe labours, have been set to work building a large house by Laisran. With this I am very displeased.” By Divine intuition Laisran felt the saint’s displeasure, and immediately ordered the monks of Derry to stop building and take some refreshment. And he ordered that they should rest also on other days of bad weather. St. Columba, “hearing in spirit these words of consolation… rejoiced with exceeding great joy… while he blessed Laisran for his timely relief to the monks.” (A)


     The saint also loved animals. Once he told one of his monks to go in three days to a far hilltop and wait. "'For when the third hour before sunset is past, there shall come flying from the northern coasts of Ireland a stranger guest, a crane, wind tossed and driven far from her course in the high air; tired out and weary she will fall upon the beach at thy feet and lie there, her strength nigh gone. Tenderly lift her and carry her to the steading near by; make her welcome there and cherish her with all care for three days and nights; and when the three days are ended, refreshed and loath to tarry longer with us in our exile, she shall take flight again towards that old sweet land of Ireland whence she came, in pride of strength once more. And if I commend her so earnestly to thy charge, it is that in the countryside where thou and I were reared, she too was nested.'" The brother obeyed and all happened as Columba had foretold. "And on his return that evening to the monastery the Saint spoke to him, not as one questioning but as one speaks of a thing past. 'May God bless thee, my son,' said he, 'for thy kind tending of this pilgrim guest; that shall make no long stay in her exile, but when three suns have set shall turn back to her own land.'" And so it happened (A).


     Once “the holy man, who was living in Iona at the time, suddenly raised his eyes to heaven one day and said: 'Happy woman, happy for your virtues, you whose soul God's angels are now bearing to Paradise.' Now there was a certain religious brother, Genere by name, a Saxon and a baker, working at the baker's trade, who had heard this word proceeding from the mouth of the saint. And on the same day of the month at the end of the same year, the saint said to the same Genere, the Saxon: 'I see a wonderful thing. Behold, the woman of whom I spoke in your presence last year is now meeting in the air the soul of her husband, a certain religious peasant, and together with the holy angels is fighting for it against the envious powers; and, their assistance and the good life of that poor man recommending him, his soul is rescued from the warring demons and conducted to the place of eternal refreshment.'” (A)


     “On another day, in a similar manner, when the holy man was living in Iona, he called to him early in the morning his attendant Diarmait and commanded him: 'Let the sacred requisites for the Eucharist be made ready quickly, for today is the birthday feast of Blessed Brendan [of Birr].' 'Why,' said the attendant, 'are you ordering that such a solemn celebration of the Liturgy should be prepared for today? For no messenger of the death of that holy man has come to us from Ireland.' Then the saint said: 'Go; you should obey my order. For last night I saw heaven suddenly opened and choirs of angels descend to meet the soul of the holy Brendan. And by their luminous and incomparable brightness the whole world was illumined in that hour.’" (A, C)



The Conversion of the Picts


     For two years Columba was engaged in establishing his monastery. Then, in 565, he set out with some companions along the Great Glen leading to Inverness, to the capital of the Northern Pictish kingdom where the Pictish King Brude lived. “It so happened that that king, elated by royal pride in his fortress, haughtily refused to open the gates when the blessed man first arrived. And when the man of God knew this, he came with his companions to the wicker gate, and first traced on it the Sign of the Lord’s Cross and then laid his hand against the doors and knocked. Immediately the bolts violently shot back and the doors opened in all haste of their own accord, whereupon the saint entered with his companions. When the king and his council heard of this, they were very frightened, and came out from his house to meet the blessed man with all reverence, and addressed him gently with conciliatory words. From that day and for the rest of his life this ruler greatly honoured the holy and venerable man, as was proper.” (A)


     According to other sources, the saint was accompanied by St. Comgall of Bangor and St. Kenneth of Aghaboe (Kilkenny), who were called to help the mission since they were of the Pictish race. When they entered the gate, King Brude tried to draw his sword and kill them. However, St. Kenneth made the sign of the cross and the king’s hand suddenly withered. It remained so until he was baptized by St. Columba.


     Once, “when the blessed man was staying for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Ness; and when he had come to the bank, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man whom, as those who were burying him related, some aquatic monster had seized and savagely bitten a little earlier while he was swimming. Some men belatedly came up in a boat and rescued his unfortunate body by throwing out hooks. However, when the blessed man heard these things, he ordered one of his companions to swim out and bring him from over the water a coble which was beached on the other side. Hearing the command of the holy and illustrious man, Lugne Mocumin immediately obeyed, took off all his clothes except his tunic, and cast himself into the water. But the monster, which was lying on the river bed, and whose appetite was rather whetted for more prey than sated with what it already had, perceiving the surface of the water disturbed by the swimmer, suddenly came up and moved towards the man as he was swimming in mid-stream, and with a great roar rushed on him with open mouth, while all who were there, barbarians as well as brothers, were struck with great fear. Seeing it, the blessed man made the saving Sign of the Cross in the empty air with his holy hand upraised, invoked the name of God, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying: ‘Go no further, nor touch the man; go back at once.’ On hearing this word of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled away again more quickly than if it had been dragged off by ropes, though he had approached Lugne as he was swimming so closely that between man and monster there was no more than the length of one punt pole. Then the brothers marveled greatly, seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne had returned to them in the boat, untouched and unharmed; and they glorified God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous pagans who were there were constrained by the greatness of the miracle which they themselves had seen to magnify the God of the Christians.” (A)


     Again, “a certain peasant, on hearing the word of life through an interpreter as the holy man preached, believed and was baptized, he and his wife and children and servants. A few days later, one of the sons of the family was assailed by a severe illness, and was brought even to the boundary between life and death. And when the Druids saw him dying, they began to rail at the parents with great abuse, and to exalt their own gods as the stronger, disparaging the God of the Christians as weaker. And when all these things were reported to the blessed man, he was stirred up with zeal for God and went with his companions to the house of his friend the peasant, where the parents were celebrating the sad funeral of their child, who was by this time dead. And the saint, seeing their great sadness, consoled them, urging them by no means to distrust the Divine omnipotence. And then he asked: ‘In what room does the body of the dead boy lie?’ The bereaved father then led the saint under his roof of mourning, and he, leaving the whole crowd outside, immediately entered the house of woe alone; where forthwith, on bended knees, his face bathed with copious tears, he prayed to Christ the Lord. Then, rising from his knees, he turned his eyes to the dead one and said: ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, arise and stand upon your feet.’ At this glorious word of the saint, his soul returned to his body, and the dead boy came back to life and opened his eyes, and the apostolic man, holding his hand, raised him up, and, steadying him on his feet, led him out of the house and restored him alive to his parents. Then the shouting of the people rose on high; weeping was turned into rejoicing; the God of the Christians was glorified…” (A)


     “The venerable man asked of the magician Broichan that a certain slave, an Irish woman, should be released as an act of human kindness. And when Broichan, with unyielding and obstinate heart, retained her, the saint addressing him spoke in this manner: ‘Know this, Broichan, that if you will not release for me this pilgrim captive before I depart from this province, you will soon die.’ This he said in front of King Brude; and he left the king’s house and came to the river Ness. From that river he took a white stone, and said to his companions: ‘Mark this white stone. Through it the Lord will work many cures of the sick among this heathen people.’ After pronouncing these words he continued: ‘Now Broichan has received a hard blow. For an angel sent from heaven has struck him heavily, and broken into many piece in his hand the glass vessel from which he was drinking, and has left him breathing with difficulty, and near to death. Let us wait a little in this place for two messengers of the king, sent to us in haste, to obtain our immediate help for the dying Broichan. Now Broichan, terribly stricken, is ready to release the slave-girl.’ While the saint was speaking these words, behold, as he had predicted, two men on horseback, sent by the king, arrived, and told all that had happened concerning Broichan, in the king’s fortress, in accordance with the prophecy of the saint: the breaking of the cup, the magician’s seizure, the intended release of the slave-girl. And they added this: ‘The king and the persons of his household have sent us to you, to obtain your help for his foster-father Broichan, who is near death.’ When he heard these words of the envoys, the saint sent two of his companions to the king with the stone that he had blessed, and said: ‘If Broichan first promises that he will release the slave-girl, then let this stone be dipped in water, and let him drink of it, and he will at once recover his health. But if he refuses, and opposes the slave-girl’s release, he will immediately die.’ The two emissaries went to the king’s castle, in obedience to the saint’s instructions, and repeated to the king the words of the venerable man. When these things had been made known to the king and to Broichan his foster-father, they were very much afraid. And in the same hour the slave-girl was set free and handed over to the envoys of the holy man. The stone was dipped in water, and, in a marvelous manner, contrary to nature floated on the water as though it had been an apple or a nut. And the blessing of the holy man could not be submerged. After he had drunk of the floating stone, Broichan immediately returned from the brink of death, and recovered full bodily health. This stone was later kept among the king’s treasures. When it was dipped in this way in water, and floated, it effected many cures among the people through the mercy of the Lord. Strange to say, when it was sought by people whose time had come, the stone could not by any means be found. It was also sought on the day of King Brude’s death, but was not found in the place where it had formerly been kept.” (A)


     “One day, after the above-mentioned events, Broichan said to the holy man: ‘Tell me, Columba, when do you propose to sail away from us?’ ‘On the third day,’ said the saint, “God willing and life remaining, we propose to begin our voyage.’ ‘You will not be able to do so,’ replied Broichan, ‘for I can make the wind go against you, and bring dark clouds upon you.’ The saint said: ‘The omnipotence of God rules over all things. In His name, and through His dominion, all our steps are directed.’ What more needs to be said? On the same day that he had planned in his heart, the saint came to the long lake of the river Ness with a great crowd following him. But when the Druids saw a great darkness coming over, and contrary wind with a storm, they began to rejoice. That these things can be done by demons, if God permits it, so that even winds and waters are stirred up into a rage, should not be wondered at. For it was in this way that legions of demons met the holy bishop Germanus [of Auxerre] as he was sailing from the English Channel to Britain for the sake of the salvation of men. They stirred up dangerous storms and spread darkness over the sky and obscured the daylight. However, all these storms were stilled, and stopped with the speed of a word, by the prayer of St. Germanus; and the darkness was swept away. Our Columba, therefore, seeing the raging elements stirred up against him, called upon Christ the Lord, and, entering the boat while the sailors were hesitating, with still greater confidence ordered the sail to be rigged against the wind. When this was done, as the whole crowd was watching, the boat was borne along with amazing speed. And soon the contrary winds veered round to the advantage of the voyage to the astonishment of all. And so, throughout the day, the blessed man’s boat was driven along by gentle favouring breezes, and reached the desired haven. Let the reader therefore consider how great and saintly was that venerable man through whom Almighty God manifested His glorious name by such miraculous powers as have just been described in the presence of the pagans.” (A)


     Columba is said to have built two churches at Brude’s capital in Inverness. The Book of Deer tells us that St. Columba and St. Drostan came, as God had shown them, to Aberdur in Buchan, and that Bede, a Pict, who was high steward of Buchan, gave them the town in freedom forever. The preaching of the saint was confirmed by many miracles, and he provided for the instruction of his converts by the erection of numerous churches and monasteries. (E)


     Another saint on the mainland with whom St. Columba was friendly was St. Kentigern, Bishop of Glasgow. Columba “desired earnestly, not once and away, but continually to come into his [Kentigern’s] close intimacy, and to consult the sanctuary of his holy breast regarding the things that lay near his own heart. And when the proper time came the holy father S. Columba went forth, and a great company of his disciples and of others who desired to behold and look upon the face of so great a man, accompanied him. When he approached the place called Mellindenor, where the saint abode at the time, he divided all his people into three bands, and sent forward a message to announce to the holy prelate his own arrival, and that of those who accompanied him.


     “The holy pontiff was glad when they said unto him these things concerning them, and calling together his clergy and people similarly in three bands, he went forth with spiritual songs to meet them. In the forefront of the procession were placed the juniors in order of time; in the second those more advanced in years; in the third, with himself, walked the aged in length of days, white and hoary, venerable in countenance, gesture, and bearing, yea, even in grey hairs. And all sang, ‘In the ways of the Lord how great is the glory of the Lord’; and again they answered, ‘The way of the just if made straight, and the path of the saints prepared’. On S. Columba’s side they sang with tuneful voices, ‘The saints shall go from strength to strength, until unto the God of gods appeareth every one in Sion’, with the alleluia. Meanwhile, some who had come with S. Columba asked him, saying, ‘Hath S. Kentigern come in the first chorus of singers?’ The saint answered, ‘Neither in the first nor in the second cometh the gentle saint.’ And when they loudly asked how he knew this, he said, ‘I see a fiery pillar in fashion as of a golden crown, set with sparkling gems, descending from heaven upon his head, and a light of heavenly brightness surrounding him like a certain veil, and covering him, and again returning to the skies. Wherefore it is given me to know by this sign that, like Aaron, he is the elect of God, and sanctified; who, clothed with light as with a garment, and with a golden crown represented on his head, appeareth to me with the sign of sanctity.’ When these two godlike men met, they mutually embraced and kissed each other, and, having first satiated themselves with the spiritual banquet of Divine words, they after that refreshed themselves with bodily food.” (K)

     “Once when the holy man was making a journey on the other side of the Spine of Britain beside the lake of the river Ness, he was suddenly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and said to the brothers who were traveling with him: ‘Let us hasten towards the holy angels that have been sent from the highest regions of heaven to conduct the soul of a pagan, and who await our coming there so that we may give timely baptism, before he dies, to that man, who has preserved natural goodness throughout his life into extreme old age. Saying this, the aged saint went as fast as he could, ahead of his companions, until he came to the farmland that is called Airchartdan [Glen Urquhart]. And a certain old man whom he found there, Emchath by name, on hearing and believing the word of God with trust, was baptized; whereupon he gladly and confidently departed to the Lord with the angels that had come to meet him. And his son Virolec also believed and was baptized, together with his whole house.” (A)


     “At another time, when the blessed man was staying for some days in the island of Skye, he went on his own far away from the brothers, seeking a place for prayer. On entering a thick wood, he met a boar of extraordinary size whom a hound happened to be chasing. The saint saw him from a distance and stood still watching him. Then, invoking the name of God and raising his holy hand, he prayed earnestly and said to the boar: ‘Come no further in this direction; on the place to which you have now come, die!’ As the sound of the saint’s words rang in the woods, not only was the terrible beast unable to come closer: he immediately fell down before his very face, killed by the power of his word.” (A, C).


     “Another time, when the saint was living on the Rechrena island, a certain man of humble birth came to him and complained of his wife, who, as he said, so hated him, that she would on no account allow him to come near her for marriage rights. The saint on hearing this, sent for the wife, and, so far as he could, began to reprove her on that account, saying: ‘Why, O woman, dost thou endeavour to withdraw thy flesh from thyself, while the Lord says, ‘They shall be two in one flesh’? Wherefore the flesh of thy husband is thy flesh.’ She answered and said, ‘Whatever thou shalt require of me I am ready to do, however hard it may be, with this single exception, that thou dost not urge me in any way to sleep in one bed with Lugne. I do not refuse to perform every duty at home, or, if thou dost command me, even to pass over the seas, or to live in some monastery for women.’ The saint then said, ‘What thou dost propose cannot lawfully be done, for thou art bound by the law of the husband as long as thy husband liveth, for it would be impious to separate those whom God has lawfully joined together.’ Immediately after these words he added: ‘This day let us three, namely, the husband and his wife and myself, join in prayer to the Lord and in fasting.’ But the woman replied: ‘I know it is not impossible for thee to obtain from God, when thou askest them, those things that seem to us either difficult, or even impossible.’ It is unnecessary to say more. The husband and wife agreed to fast with the saint that day, and the following night the saint spent sleepless in prayer for them. Next day he thus addressed the wife in presence of her husband, and said to her: ‘O woman, art thou still ready today, as thou saidst yesterday, to go away to a convent of women?’ ‘I know now,’ she answered, ‘that thy prayer to God for me hath been heard; for that man whom I hated yesterday, I love today; for my heart hath been changed last night in some unknown way – from hatred to love.’ Why need we linger over it? From that day to the hour of death, the soul of the wife was firmly cemented in affection to her husband, so that she no longer refused those mutual matrimonial rights which she was formerly unwilling to allow.” (A)



The Synod of Drumceatt


     In 574, Connall, king of the Irish colony in Scotland, died. Eogan, son of Gabrham was the direct heir. However, through a Divine revelation to St. Columba it was not Eogan, but his brother Aidan who became king through the saint’s ordination. This suggests that the saint may in fact have been a bishop, which is not as unlikely as it sounds if we remember that the abbots of the Irish Church appear to have been more important than the bishops and may also have had episcopal rank, which may explain both why there is hardly a mention of an Irish bishop after the death of St. Patrick (an exception to this rule is Bishop Conleth, who lived in St. Brigid’s monastery in Kildare) and why the writers of the lives of the holy abbots did not think it necessary to mention their episcopate.


     The story of Aidan’s ordination is as follows. When the saint was staying “in the island of Hymba [Eileann-na-Naoimh], he was in an ecstasy of mind one night and saw an Angel of the Lord who had been sent to him, and who held in his hand a glass book of the Ordination of Kings. The venerable man received it from the Angel’s hand, and at his command began to read it. And when he refused to ordain Aidan as king according to the direction given to him in the book, because he loved his brother Eogan more, the Angel, suddenly stretching out his hand, struck the saint with a scourge, of which the livid mark remained on his side all the days of his life, and he added these words, saying: ‘Know for certain that I am sent to you by God with this glass book, that in accordance with the words which you have hast read in it, you may ordain Aidan to the kingship – and if you art not willing to obey this command, I shall strike you again.’ When, then, this Angel of the Lord had appeared on three successive nights, having in his hand that same glass book, and had pressed the same commands of the Lord concerning the ordination of that king, the saint obeyed the Word of the Lord, and sailed across to the isle of Iona where, as he had been commanded, he ordained Aidan as king [by tradition, on the Stone of Scone], Aidan having arrived there at the same time.” (C, A)


     The next year, St. Columba went with King Aidan to the Synod of Drumceatt in Ireland, which had been convened by King Aedh. On the way, as they came to the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, a great storm struck them. Water was pouring over the sides of the boat, and Columba with his fellows was baling it out. But then the monks stopped him. “What you are doing now is of little use to us in our present danger,” they said. “You should rather pray for us, as we are perishing.” Columba the “ceased to throw out the bitter waters of the green wave and began to pour out a fervent and sweet prayer to the Lord. Wonderful to relate! At the very moment that the saint stood up in the prow with his hands outstretched to Heaven and prayed to the Almighty, the whole storm of wind and the fury of the sea ceased more quickly than can be told, and a perfect calm instantly ensued. But those who were in the boat were amazed, and giving thanks with great admiration, glorified the Lord in the holy and illustrious man.” (A)


     When the travelers arrived in Ireland, they were joined by many of Columba’s friends and disciples. According to the Old Irish Life, Columba “came from the East with a cloth over his eyes and his dalmatic above that, and the cape of the cowl over it all, so that he might not see the men of Ireland, nor her women.” And O’Donnell says that he put “a sod of Alba under his feet” so that he might not tread on the soil of Ireland. Be that as it may, he certainly uncovered his eyes later in his trip; and we must assume that his penance was now fulfilled.


     When Columba entered the assembly, everyone stood up. Columba argued for the independence of Dalriada (that part of Western Scotland colonised by the Irish, of which Iona was the spiritual capital). This was agreed upon in exchange for a pledge of assistance to the mother country in the event of invasion from abroad.


     According to the Old Irish Life, however, it was another matter that brought Columba back to his native land. Scannlan Mor, son of King Cennfaedladh of Ossory, was a hostage in the hands of King Aedh, and Columba was surety for him that he would be released at the end of the year. But the end of the year came, and “he was not released, and no hostage was accepted in his stead. And a wicker hut was constructed around him, without any passage out of it except an opening through which a little salted food and a small allowance of ale used to be given to him. And fifty warriors used to be outside the hut guarding him. And there were nine chains upon him in the hut. And when saw anyone going past, he would say: ‘A drink’. And this was reported to Columcille in Iona, and he wept greatly at what he heard; and it was this that brought him quickly from the East.” (I)


     When Columba demanded his release at the Synod, the king said: “I shall not release him until he dies in the hut in which he is.” The saint replied: “We shall not pursue the matter further; but if it be pleasing to God, may it come about that he takes off my shoes tonight at Mattins, wherever I may be.” Then he went to the Black Abbey church at Derry, where Scanlann, who had been released by an angel, met him in front of the screen during Mattins, and helped him take off his shoes. After feeding him, the saint sent him to Ossory with his bachall, or crozier. Scanlann arrived on the day that his father died of grief for him, whereupon he assumed the kingship, and thereafter gave a tribute to Columcille every seventh year.


     At the same Synod, the saint intervened successfully to prevent the extinction of the institution of the Irish bards, of whom he was one. Their leader, Dallan Forgaill, then composed the Amhra Columcille in his honour, which twelve hundred of them sang to music. At this it is said that the saint was overcome by vainglory; and Baithene, who was accompanying him, pointed out to him a group of demons who were scoffing in the sky above. Ashamed, the saint covered his head with his mantle, and the demons fled. But he forbade his praises to be sung any more, saying that one should not praise someone whose life might end badly, and that those who ran well and ended the race successfully should be praised only after their death.


     At the same Synod Columba healed many people. “For many sick people, believing, recovered perfect health, either through the stretching out his holy hand, or through being sprinkled with water blessed by him, or even by the touch of the border of his cloak or of anything – salt, for example, or bread – that had been blessed by him and dipped in water.” (A)


     These materials acquired special properties. Thus a piece of rock salt that had been blessed by him “for the benefit of his sister and nurse, who was suffering from a very severe attack of ophtalmia”, was left unharmed when the whole of her cottage was burned by fire. Again, a book of hymns for the week that had been copied out by the saint was found clean and dry after it had lain in the waters of a Leinster river from the Nativity of the Lord to the end of the Paschal season.



The Repose of St. Columba


     “While the blessed man was living in Iona, his holy countenance one day was lighted up suddenly with strange transports of joy; and raising his eyes to heaven he was filled with delight, and rejoiced beyond measure. After an interval of a few seconds, that sweet and enchanting delight was changed into a mournful sadness. Now, the two men, who at the same hour were standing at the door of his hut, which was built on the higher ground, and were themselves also much afflicted with him-of whom the one was Lugne Mocublai, and the other a Saxon named Pilu,-asked the cause of this sudden joy, and of the sorrow which followed. The saint said to them, ‘Go in peace, and do not ask me now to explain the cause of either that joy or that sadness.’ On hearing this they humbly asked him, kneeling before him in tears, and with faces sunk to the ground, to grant their desire of knowing something concerning that matter which at that same hour had been revealed to the saint. Seeing them so much afflicted, he said, ‘On account of my love to you, I do not wish you to be in sadness; but you must first promise me never to disclose to any one during my life the secret you seek to know.’ They made of course the promise at once according to his request, and then, when the promise was made, the venerable man spake to them thus: ‘On this very day, thirty years of my sojourn in Britain have been completed, and meanwhile for many days past I have been devoutly asking of my Lord to release me from my dwelling here at the end of this thirtieth year, and to call me thither to my heavenly fatherland. And this was the cause of that joy of mine, of which in sorrowful mood you ask me. For I saw the holy angels sent down from the lofty throne to meet my soul when it is taken from the flesh. But, behold now how they are stopped suddenly, and stand on a rock at the other side of the Sound of our island, evidently being anxious to come near me and deliver me from the body. But they are not allowed to come nearer, because, that thing which God granted me after praying with my whole strength-namely, that I might pass from the world to Him on this day,-He hath changed in a moment in His listening to the prayers of so many churches for me. These churches have no doubt prayed as the Lord hath granted, so that, though it is against my ardent wish, four years from this day are added for me to abide in the flesh. Such a sad delay as this was fitly the cause of the grief today. At the end of these four years, then, which by God's favour my life is yet to see, I shall pass away suddenly, without any previous bodily sickness, and depart with joy to the Lord, accompanied by His holy angels, who shall come to meet me at that hour.’ According to these words, which the venerable man uttered, it is said, with much sorrow and grief, and even many tears, he afterwards abode in the flesh for four years.

     “Four years later, in May, 597, the saint went in a cart to visit some of the brethren who were at work. And having found them at work on the western side of Iona, he began to speak to them that day, saying, ‘During the paschal solemnities in the month of April now past, with desire have I desired to depart to Christ the Lord, as He had allowed me, if I preferred it. But lest a joyous festival should be turned for you into mourning, I thought it better to put off for a little longer the time of my departure from the world.’ The beloved monks all the while they were hearing this sad news were greatly addicted, and he endeavoured as well as he could to cheer them with words of consolation. Then, having done this, he turned his face to the east, still seated as he was in his chariot, and blessed the island with its inhabitants; and from that day to the present, as we have stated in the Book above mentioned, the venomous reptiles with the three forked tongues could do no manner of harm to man or beast.

     “After uttering these words of blessing, the saint was carried back to his monastery. Then, again, a few days afterwards, while he was celebrating the solemn offices of the Liturgy as usual on the Lord's day, the face of the venerable man, as his eyes were raised to heaven, suddenly appeared as if suffused with a ruddy glow, for, as it is written, 'A glad heart maketh a cheerful countenance.' For at that same hour he alone saw an angel of the Lord hovering above within the walls of his oratory; and as the lovely and tranquil aspect of the holy angels infuses joy and exultation into the hearts of the elect, this was the cause of that sudden joy infused into the blessed man. When those who were present on the occasion inquired as to the cause of that joy with which he was evidently inspired, the saint looking upwards gave them this reply, ‘Wonderful and unspeakable is the subtility of the angelic nature! For lo, an angel of the Lord, who was sent to demand a certain deposit dear to God, hath, after looking down upon us within the church, and blessing us, returned again through the roof of the church, without leaving any trace of his passage out.’ Thus spoke the saint. But none of the bystanders could understand what kind of a deposit the angel was sent to demand. Our patron, however, gave the name of a holy deposit to his own soul that had been intrusted to him by God; and after an interval of six days from that time, as shall be related further on, he departed to the Lord on the night of the Lord's day.

     “In the end, then, of this same week, that is on the day of the Sabbath, the venerable man, and his pious attendant Diormit, went to bless the barn which was near at hand. When the saint had entered in and blessed it, and two heaps of winnowed corn that were in it, he gave expression to his thanks in these words, saying, ‘I heartily congratulate my beloved monks, that this year also, if I am obliged to depart from you, you will have a sufficient supply for the year.’ On hearing this, Diormit his attendant began to feel sad, and said, ‘This year, at this time, father, thou very often vexest us, by so frequently making mention of thy leaving us.’ But the saint replied to him, ‘I have a little secret address to make to thee, and if thou wilt promise me faithfully not to reveal it to any one before my death, I shall be able to speak to thee with more freedom about my departure.’ When his attendant had on bended knees made the promise as the saint desired, the venerable man thus resumed his address: ‘This day in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath, which means rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day of my present laborious life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of my labours; and this night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord's Day, I shall, according to the sayings of Scripture, go the way of our fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite me; and to Him, I say, in the middle of this night shall I depart, at His invitation. For so it hath been revealed to me by the Lord himself.’ The attendant hearing these sad words began to weep bitterly, and the saint endeavoured to console him as well as he could.

     “After this the saint left the barn, and in going back to the monastery, rested half way at a place where a cross, which was afterwards erected, and is standing to this day, fixed into a millstone, may be observed on the roadside. While the saint, as I have said, bowed down with old age, sat there to rest a little, behold, there came up to him a white pack-horse, the same that used, as a willing servant, to carry the milk-vessels from the cow-shed to the monastery. It came up to the saint and, strange to say, laid its head on his bosom—inspired, I believe, by God to do so, as each animal is gifted with the knowledge of things according to the will of the Creator; and knowing that its master was soon about to leave it, and that it would see him no more—began to utter plaintive cries, and like a human being, to shed copious tears on the saint's bosom, foaming and greatly wailing. The attendant seeing this, began to drive the weeping mourner away, but the saint forbade him, saying: ‘Let it alone, as it is so fond of me, let it pour out its bitter grief into my bosom. Lo! thou, as thou art a man, and hast a rational soul, canst know nothing of my departure hence, except what I myself have just told you, but to this brute beast devoid of reason, the Creator Himself hath evidently in some way made it known that its master is going to leave it.’ And saying this, the saint blessed the work-horse, which turned away from him in sadness.

     “Then leaving this spot, he ascended the hill that overlooketh the monastery, and stood for some little time on its summit; and as he stood there with both hands uplifted, he blessed his monastery, saying: ‘Small and mean though this place is, yet it shall be held in great and unusual honour, not only by Scotic kings and people, but also by the rulers of foreign and barbarous nations, and by their subjects; the saints also even of other churches shall regard it with no common reverence.’

     “After these words he descended the hill, and having returned to the monastery sat in his hut transcribing the Psalter, and coming to that verse of the 33rd Psalm, where it is written, ‘They that seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good,’ ‘Here,’ said he, ‘at the end of the page, I must stop; and what follows let Baithene write.’ The last verse he had written was very applicable to the saint, who was about to depart, and to whom eternal goods shall never be wanting; while the one that followeth is equally applicable to the father who succeeded him, the instructor of his spiritual children: ‘Come, ye children, and hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord;’ and indeed he succeeded him, as recommended by him, not only in teaching, but also in writing.

     “Having written the aforementioned verse at the end of the page, the saint went to the church to the nocturnal vigils of the Lord's Day; and so soon as this was over, he returned to his chamber, and spent the remainder of the night on his bed, where he had a bare flag for his couch, and for his pillow a stone, which stands to this day as a kind of monument beside his grave. While then he was reclining there, he gave his last instructions to the brethren, in the hearing of his attendant alone, saying: ‘These, O my children, are the last words I address to you–that ye be at peace, and have unfeigned charity among yourselves; and if you thus follow the example of the holy fathers, God, the Comforter of the good, will be your Helper and I, abiding with Him, will intercede for you; and He will not only give you sufficient to supply the wants of this present life, but will also bestow on you the good and eternal rewards which are laid up for those that keep His commandments.’ Thus far have the last words of our venerable patron, as he was about to leave this weary pilgrimage for his heavenly country, been preserved for recital in our brief narrative.

     “After these words, as the happy hour of his departure gradually approached, the saint became silent. Then as soon as the bell tolled at midnight, he rose hastily, and went to the church; and running more quickly than the rest, he entered it alone, and knelt down in prayer beside the altar. At the same moment his attendant Diormit, who more slowly followed him, saw from a distance that the whole interior of the church was filled with a heavenly light in the direction of the saint. And as he drew near to the door, the same light he had seen, and which was also seen by a few more of the brethren standing at a distance, quickly disappeared. Diormit therefore entering the church, cried out in a mournful voice, ‘Where art thou, father?’ And feeling his way in the darkness, as the brethren had not yet brought in the lights, he found the saint lying before the altar; and raising him up a little, he sat down beside him, and laid his holy head on his bosom. Meanwhile the rest of the monks ran in hastily in a body with their lights, and beholding their dying father, burst into lamentations. And the saint, as we have been told by some who were present, even before his soul departed, opened wide his eyes and looked round him from side to side, with a countenance full of wonderful joy and gladness, no doubt seeing the holy angels coming to meet him. Diormit then raised the holy right hand of the saint, that he might bless his assembled monks. And the venerable father himself moved his hand at the same time, as well as he was able–that as he could not in words, while his soul was departing, he might at least, by the motion of his hand, be seen to bless his brethren. And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping. Meanwhile the whole church resounded with loud lamentations of grief.

     “I must not omit to mention the revelation made to a certain saint of Ireland, at the very time the blessed soul departed. For in that monastery which in the Scotic language is called Clonifinchoil (now Rosnarea, in parish of Knockcommon, Meath), there was a holy man named Lugud, son of Tailchan, one who had grown old in the service of Christ, and was noted for his sanctity and wisdom. Now this man had a vision which at early dawn he told in great affliction to one called Fergnous, who was like himself a servant of Christ. ‘In the middle of this last night,’ said he, ‘Columba, the pillar of many churches, passed to the Lord; and at the moment of his blessed departure, I saw in the spirit the whole island of Iona, where I never was in the body, resplendent with the brightness of angels; and the whole heavens above it, up to the very zenith, were illumined with the brilliant light of the same heavenly messengers, who descended in countless numbers to bear away his holy soul. At the same moment, also, I heard the loud hymns and entrancingly sweet canticles of the angelic host, as his holy soul was borne aloft amidst the ascending choirs of angels.’ Virgnous, who about this time came over from Scotia (Ireland), and spent the rest of his life in the Hinba island (Eilean-na-Naoimh), very often related to the monks of St. Columba this vision of angels, which, as has been said, he undoubtedly heard from the lips of the old man himself, to whom it had been granted. This same Virgnous, having for many years lived without reproach in obedience amongst the brethren, led the life of an anchorite, as a victorious soldier of Christ, for twelve years more, in the hermitage of Muirbulcmar. This vision above mentioned we have not only found in writing, but have heard related with the utmost freedom by several well-informed old men to whom Virgnous himself had told it.

     “Another vision also given at the same hour under a different form was related to me – Adomnan – who was a young man at the time, by one of those who had seen it; and who solemnly assured me of its truth. He was a very old man, a servant of Christ, whose name may be called Ferreol, but in the Scotic tongue Ernene, of the race of Mocufirroide, who, as being himself a holy monk, is buried in the Ridge of Tomma (now Drumhome, county Donegal), amidst the remains of other monks of St. Columba, and awaits the resurrection with the saints; he said: ‘On that night when St. Columba, by a happy and blessed death, passed from earth to heaven, while I and others with me were engaged in fishing in the valley of the river Fend (the Finn, in Donegal) – which abounds in fish – we saw the whole vault of heaven become suddenly illuminated. Struck by the suddenness of the miracle, we raised our eyes and looked towards the east, when, lo! there appeared something like an immense pillar of fire, which seemed to us, as it ascended upwards at that midnight, to illuminate the whole earth like the summer sun at noon; and after that column penetrated the heavens darkness followed, as if the sun had just set. And not only did we, who were together in the same place, observe with intense surprise the brightness of this remarkable luminous pillar, but many other fishermen also, who were engaged in fishing here and there in different deep pools along the same river, were greatly terrified, as they afterwards related to us, by an appearance of the same kind.’ These three miraculous visions, then, which were seen at the very hour of our venerable patron's departure, show clearly that the Lord hath conferred on him eternal honours. But let us now return to our narrative.

     “After his holy soul had departed, and the Mattins hymns were finished, his sacred body was carried by the brethren, chanting psalms, from the church back to his chamber, from which a little before he had come alive; and his obsequies were celebrated with all due honour and reverence for three days and as many nights. And when these sweet praises of God were ended, the venerable body of our holy and blessed patron was wrapped in a clean shroud of fine linen, and, being placed in the coffin prepared for it, was buried with all due veneration, to rise again with lustrous and eternal brightness.

     “And now, near the close of this book, we shall relate what hath been told us by persons cognisant of the facts, regarding the above-mentioned three days during which his obsequies were celebrated in due ecclesiastical form. It happened on one occasion that a certain brother speaking with great simplicity in the presence of the holy and venerable man, said to him, ‘After thy death all the people of these provinces will row across to Iona, to celebrate thine obsequies, and will entirely fill it.’ Hearing this said, the saint immediately replied: ‘No, my child, the event will not turn out as thou sayest; for a promiscuous throng of people shall not by any means be able to come to my obsequies: none but the monks of my monastery will perform my funeral rites, and grace the last offices bestowed upon me.’ And the fulfillment of this prophecy was brought about immediately after his death by God's almighty power; for there arose a storm of wind without rain, which blew so violently during those three days and nights of his obsequies, that it entirely prevented every one from crossing the Sound in his little boat. And immediately after the interment of the blessed man, the storm was quelled at once, the wind ceased, and the whole sea became calm.” (A)

     The relics of St. Columba were first buried at Iona. But two hundred years later, after the destruction of the monastery by the Vikings, parts were translated to Dunkeld in 849, while parts were taken to Ireland, to Downpatrick, County Down, with St. Patrick and St. Brigid, or at Saul Church in neighbouring Downpatrick.



St. Baithene, Abbot of Iona


     "We know for certain,” writes the Venerable Bede (+735) “that Columba left successors distinguished for their purity of life, their love of God, and their loyalty to the rules of the monastic life.” At least ten out of the first thirteen abbots of Iona belonged to St. Columba’s clan. It was the custom in the Irish Church for these coarbs, or successors of the first abbot, to be of the same clan.


     St. Baithene, who was Columba’s cousin and foster-son, was the first coarb. He was a gentle man, who would often intercede for sinners with whom Columba was angry. All the monks loved him, and Columba compared him to St. John the Apostle. He was also admired for his great learning, which was second only to Columba’s. He was full of the spirit of prayer: while walking his hands would always be clasped round his cassock; while carrying oats from the fields he would pray; and at meals between every two morsels of food he would say: Deus in auditorium meum, “O Lord, hear me”.


     Once, when he had finished transcribing the last page of the Book of Psalms, he brought it to Columba for checking. But Columba replied: “Why trouble me for no reason? There is not one superfluous letter to be found in that Psalter, and not one letter missing except one vowel ‘i’”.


     Once Baithene had a vision. He saw three thrones in Heaven, one of gold, one of silver and one of glass.” “This is clear,” said Columba. “Ciaran son of the wright [St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise] has the throne of gold on account of his honour and because of his hospitality. You yourself, O Baithene, have the throne of silver, because of your purity and the luster of your devotion. The throne of glass is mine, for though my devotion is fair, I am often frail, and I am carnal.”


     Baithene was in charge of Hinba and Mag Luinbe on Tiree, where traces of early churches are still to be found. Once, before sailing to Tiree, he went to Columba for a blessing, and the saint told him that there was a whale in the area. But Baithene was not alarmed. “The beast and I,” he said, “are under the power of God.” “Go in peace then,” said Columba, “your faith in Christ will defend you from this danger. And so Baithene set sail. When they were well on the way to Tiree he and his brother monks saw the whale. The others were terrified. But Baithene was fearless. Standing up in the prow, he raised his hands and blessed the sea and the whale.


     St. Baithene reposed in the year 600.



St. Adomnan, Abbot of Iona


     The next abbots were: Lasren Mac Feradaig (600-605), who was also in charge of Durrow; Fergnae (605-623), who was not a relative of Columba and probably had some British blood; Segene (623-652), who was the nephew of Lasren, and died on August 12, 652; Suibhne moccu Urthri (652-657), who died on January 11, 657; Cumme (657-669), a nephew of Segene who visited Ireland in 661, and died on February 24, 669; Failbe (669-679), a third cousin of Cummene, who spent from 673 to 676 in Ireland, and died on March 22, 679; and then St. Adomnan (679-704).


     St. Adomnan (Adamnan, Aunan, Eunan) was born in Drumhome, Donegal, Ireland, in about 624. Once a chief named Finnachta came with a large company to visit Adomnan’s sister. He met the saint, who was then only a boy, walking along the road with a jar of milk on his head. As Adomnan moved out of the way he slipped and the jar of milk fell to the ground and was broken. Finnachta said: “You will receive protection from me, O student. Do not grieve.” Adomnan replied: “Good man, I have reason to grieve, for there are three fine students in my house, and three more of us are attendants on them. And what we do is this: one attendant goes out to get food for the other five. And it was my turn today, but what I collected for them has been spilled on the ground. And which grieves me more, the borrowed jar is broken, and I do not have the wherewithal to pay for it.” Finnachta remembered the conscientious boy, and later, when Finnachta became King of Ireland, they became soul-friends.


     In imitation of his relative, the great St. Columba, Adomnan left Ireland and in 650 became a monk under Abbot Seghine in the Scottish island monastery of Iona. In 679, Seghine died, and Adomnan succeeded him as abbot. He was also president-general of all the Columban houses in Ireland. In this position the saint displayed great virtue and worked many miracles, and was counted worthy of seeing visions of the Lord Jesus Christ, of heaven and of hell.


     In 686, in response to a request from the Irish, Adomnan went on a mission to King Aldfrid of Northumbria, who had studied under him in Ireland. His aim was to secure the release of sixty-six Irish captives whom Aldfrid’s predecessor Egrid had seized in the previous year. Now he put in at a part of the English coast where the tide was very fast and landing dangerous; so the English tried to persuade him to land there. But Adomnan told his monks: “Push your boats onto the shore; for both land and sea are obedient to God, and nothing can be done without His permission.” The monks did as they were told. Then the Saint drew a circle with his crozier around the boats. Immediately the sea formed a high wall around them so that the land they were on became an island, and the sea went part them without harming them.


     St. Adomnan was the author of a Life of St. Columba, and also of On the Holy Places, based on the account of the French Bishop Arculf who had been shipwrecked in Scotland. He presented the autograph copy to King Aldfrid.


     In 688 Adomnan visited St. Ceolfrith of Wearmouth, who converted him from the Celtic to the Roman-Byzantine method of calculating the date of Pascha. In 692 he took part in the synods of the Irish Church as the ruler of all the Ionan monasteries in Northern Ireland. Then and in 697, at the Synod of Tara, he met with considerable success in persuading the Irish to accept the Roman-Byzantine calendar. Only his own monasteries stood out against him (Iona finally accepted the Roman paschalion in 716). At the same synod, the Cain Adamnain, or Canon of Adomnan was adopted, which ruled that women, children and clergy should be exempted from participation in war and should be treated by all as non-combatants. The Cain Adamnain established legal rights for women for the first time in British history.


     The cult of St. Adomnan flourished in both Ireland and Scotland with dedications to him in Donegal, Derry, and Sligo as well as Aberdeenshire, Banff, Forfar and the Western Isles. In 727 the relics of Adomnan were brought from Iona to Ireland to help make peace between the tribes of Adamnan's father and mother. They were carried round forty churches which had been under Iona's rule: the people swore to obey the Law of Adomnan. His shrines were desecrated by Northmen in 830 and 1030. Feast: 23 September.



St. Blaithmaic of Iona


     The next abbots were Conamail (704-710) and Dunchad (707-717), who died on 25 May, 717. These two abbots were in schism from each other. The schism continued, on and off, until 772. Then came Dorbbene (713-713), who died on Saturday, 28 October, 713, having been abbot for five months; Faelchu (716-724), who received the abbacy at the age of seventh-three on Saturday, 29 August, before whose death Fedlimid, about whom nothing is known, became abbot; Cillene Fota (724-726); Slebine (752-767), who was in Ireland in 754; Suibne (767-772); Bresal (772-801), who visited Ireland in 778; Connachtach (801-802), who was known as “a most excellent scribe”, and may have transcribed the famous illuminated Gospel book known as The Book of Kells from a copy written by Columba himself; Cellach (802-814), who built Kells church in Ireland and died in 815; Diarmait (814-832), who carried Columba’s relics to Ireland.


     “My mind and heart have been sore troubled,” said St. Columba, “by a vision that has been given to me… for at the end of time men will besiege my churches, and they will kill my monks and violate my sanctuary, and ravage and desecrate my burial-grounds.”


     In 804 the monks of Iona were driven out of Iona by the Vikings, and settled in Kells in Ireland. But not all of the monks can have migrated, because in 806, according to the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of the Four Masters 68 monks of Iona were killed by the Vikings.


They were killed at the beach of white sand on the eastern shore of the island a little south of the modern landing-place on Saint Ronan’s Bay. The name Port nam Mairtir, “the Bay of the Martyrs” records the event.


     Some monks must have remained at Iona to guard the tombs of the kings and the shrine of St. Columba, and in 807 Abbot Cellach, after resigning his abbacy in Kells, returned to Iona and died there seven years later.

     St. Blaithmaic (or Blathmacc) was, like St. Columba, of royal blood of the clan of the Ui-Neill. One day he secretly abandoned his exalted position in the world and became a monk. When his father heard this, he was overcome with grief and sent a multitude of people, including a bishop, a general, abbots, soldiers and kinsmen, to try and persuade him to return. But the saint, having set his hand to the plough, did not turn back. In this way he practised the angelic life for several years.


     But then he conceived the desire to suffer “the scars of Christ”, that is, martyrdom. Several times he tried to go abroad with this end in mind, but the people held him back. And when he again tried to flee by night with a few disciples, a crowd of pursuers caught up with him and dragged the shepherd back to his flock.


     The saint especially sought to go to Iona, where he knew that the Vikings frequently came. Eventually he became abbot of Iona, and there awaited the arrival of the Vikings. “Friends,” he said to his monks, “cast within yourselves whether you have the courage to suffer for the name of Christ with me. Whoever of you can wait, I beseech you, steel yourselves with manly courage. But let those whose hearts quake within them flee and thereby escape the danger, preparing themselves for better offerings in the future. The trial of certain death approaches. Let firm faith stand poised and ready, while cautious flight serve the less brave.” At these words, the monks divided. Some rejoiced at the prospect of martyrdom and remained, while others took to flight by a track through the mountains.


     On the morning of July 24 (or January 19), 1825, a golden sun scattered the rain-drenched darkness. The holy abbot celebrated the Divine Liturgy, and then stood as a sacrificial lamb in front of the Holy Table. The rest of the monks stood praying with tears.


     Then suddenly the Vikings poured in a raging torrent into the church. First they slaughtered the monks. Then they came to the holy father and demanded that he give them the precious reliquary of St. Columba. But the monks had taken the shrine from its place and buried it in a grave, covering it with sods. When the pagans demanded this booty, the saint resisted them, saying: “I do not know what gold within you seek, nor where in the ground it may be stored, nor by what it is hidden. And if, Christ willing, I were permitted to know, not to your ears would I tell it. Take your swords, wield them barbarously, and kill me. O Life-giving God, I commend my humble soul to Thy protection.” At this, the pagans cut the holy man to pieces…


     St. Blaithmaic is commemorated on January 19.



St. Indracht of Iona


     St. Indracht [Indrechtact], grandson of Finechta, became abbot in 832. In 849 he came to Ireland with some of the relics of St. Columba. In the same year King Kenneth of Scotland also transferred some of the relics to the church he had built in Dunkeld. On March 12, 854, Indrecht was martyred at Glastonbury on his journey to Rome. One Diarmaid was killed with him.


     “Some years later,” writes William of Malmesbury, “the bodies of the martyr Indract and his comrades were translated from their place of martyrdom and buried in that church by Ine, King of the West Saxons, who had received a divine vision. Indract’s body was put in a stone pyramid to the left of the altar, the others were put under the floor in places either carefully chosen or dictated by chance.” However, William must have made a mistake here, for King Ine lived over a hundred years before St. Indract.


     The saint is commemorated on May 8.



Last Martyrs


     In 878 “the shrine of Columcille and all his mionna (non-corporeal relics) were brought to Ireland” (Annals of Ulster) by Abbot Cellach. In 904 the crozier of Columcille led the Scottish army that defeated the Danish King of Dublin Olaf at Strathearn. From that time the crozier “was called ‘battle-victory’. It was a just name because they often won the victory in battle through it, even as they did on that occasion, when they placed their faith in Columcille.” (Fragmentary Annals).


     In about 880 a Hebridean bishop called Patrick blessed a Viking called Orlygr to emigrate to Iceland; he told him to build a church there in honour of St. Columba and provided him with timber, a bell, a missal and consecrated earth to lay beneath the corner pillars of the building. Orlygr did as he was told, and founded a church dedicated to St. Columba at his farmstead near Reykjavik.


     By the 960s there was a bishopric at Iona, with a bishop called Fothad.


     The succession of abbots of Iona continued as follows: Feradach McCormac (+879); Flaun McMaleduin (+890); Maelbrigid, abbot of Armagh (+927); Aongas McMuricert (+935); Dubtach (+938), Caon conichrae (+945); Robhartach (+954); Finghin, bishop (+966); Fiachra (+977);


     In 980 the Scandinavian ruler of Dublin, Olaf Cuaran, abdicated and became a monk in Iona. A grave-stone of that date at Iona bears a runic inscription saying: ‘King Olvirsson laid this stone over his brother Fugl.’


     Abbot Mugron with 15 monks was killed by the Danes on Christmas Eve, 985.


     On Christmas Eve, 986, according to the Annals of Ulster, Danes from Dublin descended upon the monastery of Iona in Scotland, and killed Abbot Maelciarin and fifteen of his monks at the place called “the White Strand of the Monks”.


     In the next year, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, there was “a great slaughter of the Danes who had plundered [Iona], for three hundred and sixty of them were killed through the miracles of God and Columcille.”


     The last abbots of the Orthodox period were: Dunchad (+989); Dubthalethe, abbot of Armagh (+996); Maelbrigid (+1005); Muredach, resigned in 1007; Flanobra (+1025); MacNia O’Uachtan; Malmore (+1025); Robharbach (+1040); Gillechrist O’Maddor (+1057-1062).



Holy Hieromartyrs and Martyrs of Iona, pray to God for us!



Appendix: The Altus Prosator


     The most famous of St. Columba’s writings was the Altus Prosator. According to O’Donnell, it was composed when the envoys of St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, came to Columba bringing a great cross from the Pope, and there was no food in the monastery for the distinguished visitors. By a miracle of God, food was provided, and Columba composed this hymn in thanksgiving. It is an account of the Creation, Fall, Judgement and Future State of mankind written in rhyme, with the first letter of every succeeding verse being the next letter of the alphabet.


     This is the translation by Rev. E.C. Trenholme:


Ancient of days, enthroned on high!

The Father unbegotten He,

Whom space containeth not, nor time,

Who was and is and aye shall be:

And one-born Son, and Holy Ghost,

Who co-eternal glory share:

One only God, of Persons Three,

We praise, acknowledge, and declare.


Beings celestial first He made:

Angels and archangels of light,

In Principalities and Thrones,

And mystic rank of Power and Might:

That Love and Mystery Divine

Not aimlessly alone might dwell,

But vessels have wherein to pour

Full wealth of gifts ineffable.


Cast from the highest heights of heaven,

Far from the angels’ shining state,

Fadeth from glory Lucifer,

Falling in scorn infatuate.

Angels apostate share his fall,

Steeled with his hate and fired with pride,

Banished from their fellows bright,

Who in the heavenly seats abide.


Direful and foul, the Dragon great,

Whose deadly rage was known of old,

The slippery serpent, wilier

Than living thing that earth doth hold:

A third part of the stars entice,

In hell’s abyss to quench their light,

In headlong fall from Paradise.


From every glad Angelic tongue,

Soon as the stars sprang into light,

Burst forth the wondering shout that praised

The Heavenly Creator’s might.

And, as His handiwork they viewed,

Arose from loving hearts and free

The tribute due of wondrous song,

Swelling in sweetest harmony.


‘Gainst Satan’s wiles and hell’s assault

Our primal parents could not stand:

And into new abysses fell

The leader and his horrid band:

Fierce forms, with noise of beating wings,

Too dread for sight of mortal eye,

Who, fettered, far from human ken,

Within their prison houses lie.


Him, banished from his first estate,

The Lord cast out for evermore;

And now his wild and rebel crew

In upper air together soar.

Invisible lest men should gaze

On wickedness without a name,

And, breaking every barrier down,

Defile themselves in open shame.


In the three quarters of the sea

Three mighty fountains hidden lie,

Whence rise through whirling water-spouts

Rich-laden clouds that clothe the sky:

On winds from out his treasure-house

They speed to swell bud, vine and grain,

While the sea-shallows emptied wait

Until the tides return again.


Kings’ earthly glory fleeteth fast,

And for a moment is its stay.

God hath all might; and at a nod

The giants fall beneath His sway.

‘Neath waters deep, with mighty pangs,

In fires and torments dread they rave,

Choked in the whirlpool’s angry surge,

Dashed on the rocks by every wave.


Like one that through a sparing sieve

The precious grain doth slowly pour,

God sendeth down upon the earth

The cloud-bound waters evermore:

And from the fruitful breasts of heaven,

While changing season wax and wane,

The welcome streams that never fail

Pour forth in rich supplies of rain.


Mark how the power of God supreme

Hath hung aloft earth’s giant ball,

And fixed the great encircling deep,

His mighty hand supporting all

Upon the pillars which He made,

The solid rocks and cliffs that soar,

And on the sure foundations rest

That stand unmoved for evermore.


None doubteth that within the earth

Glow the devouring flames of hell,

Wherein is prisoned darkest night

Where noisome beasts and serpents dwell,

And hades’ old and awful moan,

And cries of men in anguish dire,

And falling tears and gnashing teeth,

And thirst, and hunger’s burning fire.


Of realms we read beneath the world

Where the departed spirits wait,

Who never cease to bend the knee

To Christ, the only Potentate.

They could not ope the written Book,

Whose seven seals none but He might break,

Fulfilling thus the prophet’s word,

That He should come, and victory make.


Paradise and its pleasant glades

From the beginning God did make;

Out of whose fountain-head there flow

Four rivers sweet, earth’s thirst to slake;

And midmost stands the tree of life,

With leaves that neither fade nor fail,

With healing to the nations fraught,

Whose joys abundant never pall.


Questions the Singer, - “Who hath climbed

Sinai the mountain of the Lord?

The echoing thunders who hath heard,

And ringing trumpet-blast outpoured?

Who saw the lightning’s dazzle whirl,

And heaving rocks that crashed and fell,

‘Mid meteors’ glare and darts of flame,

Save Moses, Judge of Israel?”


Riseth the dawn: - the day is near,

Day of the Lord, the King of kings;

A day of wrath and vengeance just,

Of darkness, clouds and thunderings;

A day of anguished cries and tears,

When glow of woman’s love shall pale;

When man shall cease to strive with man,

And all the world’s desire shall fail.


Soon shall all mortals trembling stand

Before the Judge’s awful throne,

And rendering the great account,

Shudder each hateful sin to own.

Horror of night! When none can work,

Wailing of men, and flooding tears,

Opening the books by conscience write,

Riving of hearts with guilty fears.


The trumpet of the archangel first

Shall blare afar its summons dread;

And then shall burst earth’s prison bars,

And sepulchers give up their dead.

The ice of death shall melt away,

Whilst dust grows flesh, and bone meets bone,

And every spirit finds again

The frame that was before her own.


Wanders Orion from heaven’s height,

To thread his hidden eastern way

- Ere set the gleaming Pleiades –

Through bounds of ocean, day by day;

And Vesper, though his orbit’s whirl

Be set twice twelve moons to endure,

One even by ancient paths returns,

- Types both of Him Who cometh sure.[1]


Xrist the Most High from heaven descends,

The Cross His sign and banner bright.

The sun in darkness shrouds His face,

The moon no more pours forth her light:

The stars upon the earth shall fall

As figs drop from the parent tree,

When earth’s broad space is bathed in fire,

And men to dens and mountains flee.


Yonder in heaven the angel host

Their every-ringing anthem raise,

And flash in maze of holy dance,

The Trinity Divine to praise:

The four-and-twenty elders cast

Their crowns before the Lamb on high,

And the four Beasts all full of eyes

Their ceaseless triple praises cry.


Zeal of the Lord, consuming fire,

Shall ‘whelm the foes, amazed and dumb,

Whose stony hearts will not receive

That Christ hath from the Father come:

But we shall soar our Lord to meet,

And so with Him shall ever be,

To reap the due rewards amidst

The glories of Eternity.


[1] Mr. Trenholme in a note on this verse says, “In the daily motion of the stars, Orion sets a little before the Pleiades. The thought is that he only disappears to reappear from his hidden course below the ocean horizon and is thus a type of the Second Advent. So is the planet Venus whose movements bring it back to the same position in the heavens in 585 days… These things were known in Columba’s time, and he himself is said to have been versed in astronomical knowledge.”

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company