St Colmcille (also referred to as Saint Columba) was an Irish abbot and missionary who founded some 30 monasteries and is also credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. Patron saint of the city Derry, he is also one of Ireland’s three patron saints. He is in esteemed company, with the other two being St Brigid and of course, St Patrick.
June 9th is the traditional feast day of the Irish saint, the day he died in the year 597 AD – at the age of 75. The legendary saint founded the hugely important abbey of Iona, which became a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland, becoming a dominant political and religious institution in the region for centuries.
He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Christian saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Colmcille 1500 campaign
Colmcille 1500 is a year-long commemoration to mark the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Colmcille – also known as Columba in December of the year 521. The campaign has been set up to celebrate the renowned saint’s remarkable life and legacy. The commemoration officially opened on December 7th 2020 in the lead-up to the 1500 anniversary of his birthday, which will be this December 7th.
The dedicated campaign promotes the rich heritage of the saint whose abbey of Iona linked Ireland and Scotland and beyond. So far, events to celebrate the much-loved Irish Saint have been held in Donegal, Derry, Kells, Argyll, and in the Western Isles, many of them taking place online.
One example is the beautiful song, Strings of Heaven, composed by harper Nodlaig Ní Bhrollaigh, was released by local harp players to celebrate 1500 years since the birth of Colmcille. The ‘Colmcille 1500’ project, supported by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council’s Museum Services, highlights the significant connection between the life of the revered early Christian saint and the Causeway Coast & Glens area.
According to the Colmcille 1500 campaign, there are many new partners and new projects are emerging whilst also adapting to the constraints of Covid-19. The campaign states that there will be ample opportunities to take part in events throughout 2021, into 2022, and, it is hoped, in years to come also.
‘The Pride of Donegal’
The saint is sometimes referred to as the ‘Pride of Donegal’ Born in Gartan, near Lough Gartan in County Donegal, he was also known as Columa, a Latin version of the name Colm. The ‘cille’ suffix that was added to the end of his name means ‘of the churches’. His legacy is much-celebrated in his native Donegal, with the modern day coastal Donegal village of Glencolmcille named in his honour.
He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in the Co Donegal parish of Conwal (mid-way between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint Crunathan.
St Colmcille had regal ties on his father’s side, being a great-great-grandson of the famed Niall of the Nine Hostages – an Irish high king of the 5th century.
A young Colmcille entered the priesthood at 20 years old, becoming a pupil at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne in modern day Co. Meath. When a cousin of a prince gave him some land in Derry, he decided he would start his own monastery.
This allowed him to travel throughout the North of Ireland teaching the pagans about Christianity. In the space of a decade, the illustrious and dedicated Colmcille founded some 30 monasteries, inspiring many with his personal holiness and unwavering zeal for souls.
A troublemaker of sorts
However, Colmcille was also known as a troublemaker of sorts. He was no angel and his strong, relentless personality and assertive preaching ruffled feathers among some. In 563 AD he was accused of starting a war between two Irish tribes.
According to tradition, sometime around 560, Colmcille became involved in a dispute with St Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Tradition asserts that Colmcille copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under St Finnian, intending to keep the copy. However, St Finnian disagreed with his right to keep the copy. Composer Lorcán Mac Mathúna described it thus:
“Perhaps the first judgement on copyright was thus made in the year c. 560 AD when the High King of Ireland, Cormac Mac Cearbhaill, decided that Colmcille had illegally copied Finian’s book. Mac Cearbhaill put it as such “To every cow her calf, to every book its copy”.
The quarrel eventually led to the pitched battle of Cul Dreimhne in Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in Co Sligo) in 561, during which many men lost their lives.
Following these deaths, Colmcille was tasked with protecting Prince Curnan of Connacht. The prince had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Colmcille, but was dragged from his protector’s arms and slain by Diarmaid’s men in defiance of the rights of the sanctuary.
Despite the efforts of a synod of clerics and scholars to excommunicate him over the deaths, St Brendan of Birr spoke on Colmcille’s behalf and as a result, he was allowed to go into exile instead.
He was sentenced by the high king never to set eyes on Ireland again. Although Colmcille’s own conscience was uneasy, on the advice of an aged hermit named Molaise, he resolved to make amends for his wrongdoing by going into exile and winning as many souls for Christ as had perished in the terrible battle of Cuil Dreimhne.
His exile to Scotland
Colmcille left Ireland and was exiled to Scotland with 12 companions. He was to return to Ireland only once, many years later. Columba’s copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St Columba.
They settled on a bleak Scottish island called Iona, which was then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata. It was here that Colmcille would spend most of his remaining years.
On Iona, they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who were pagan. Colmcille remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early medieval Latin hymns may be attributed to him.
On August 22, 565, St Colmcille is reputed to have encountered the Loch Ness Monster – which has been interpreted as the first ever reference to the famed mythical Scottish beast.
It is said that as Colmcille was travelling to Scotland, he had to cross Loch Ness, but Nessie had other ideas. Colmcille responded by raising his hand to make the sign of the cross, commanding the beast to go, telling it:
“You will go no further, and won’t touch the man; go back at once”.
Upon hearing the voice of the saint, the monster fled as if terrified “more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes”. It is believed that the local pagans were astounded and converted to Christianity after witnessing the miracle.
St Colmcille the Peacekeeper
In 575, amidst a dispute between the high king and the league of poets, Colmcille was persuaded to visit Ireland to help mediate the conflict. He insisted on remaining faithful to the terms of his exile, that he never ‘see’ Ireland again, and so he travelled blindfolded.
Comcille’s considerable reputation was respected by everyone in his home country, and he addressed the assembled nobles and clergy with such force, authority and conviction that the king was persuaded to quell the conflict.
Following this one visit back to Ireland, Colmcille spent the rest of his life on Iona praying, fasting, and teaching his monks to read and copy the Scriptures.
A renowned ‘man of letters’
Columba is regarded as an intellectual, and was a renowned ‘man of letters’, writing several hymns and transcribing over 300 books and manuscripts.
Colmcille died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona, plundering much of the relics Colmcille had procured in his life as an intellectual. The saint’s remaining relics were removed in 849 and were divided between Scotland and Ireland. It is believed that the parts of the relics that went to Ireland are buried in Downpatrick, Co Down, with St Patrick and St Brigid.
Performer of Miracles
St Colmcille is also regarded as a miracle maker. A number of miracles have been accredited to the saint – including the healing of people with diseases, expelling evil spirits, vanquishing wild beasts, calming ferocious storms, and even bringing the dead back to life in Jesus’ name. Colmcille is also said to have performed ‘agricultural miracles’ such as when he casted a demon out of a pail and restored spilt milk to its container. These miracles helped to make the saint truly loved, and held a special significance to the common people of Ireland and the British Isles.
A true icon
As he spent a large part of the second half of his life there, St Colmcille has a strong connection to Scotland. The Clan Malcolm or Clan McCallum claims its name from Colmcille and was reputedly founded by his descendants.
Numerous Catholic schools and parishes are under the patronage of the Irish saint, whilst the Church of Scotland, Evangelical Lutheran and Episcopal Churches also have parishes dedicated to him – showing the strength of his legacy.
As well as being a patron saint of Ireland, Colmcille is also the patron saint of the city of Derry, where he founded a monastic settlement in 540 AD.
The Protestant Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry is dedicated to St Columba, as well as St Colmcille’s Primary School and St. Colmcille’s Community School in Dublin.
Ireland’s national flag carrier, Aer Lingus, even named one of its Airbus A330 airplanes St Columba (reg: EI-DUO) in commemoration of the saint.
Similar to Glencolmcille in his native Co Donegal, the Scottish village of Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire also takes its name from St Colmcille.
St Colmcille’s incredible life and legacy has spread across the world. Throughout the United States, there are numerous parishes dedicated to St Colmcille within both Catholic and Presbyterian churches. In the Massachusetts town of Southbridge, there is even an Orthodox monastery dedicated to the Irish Catholic saint. In Canada, the name Columba is found attached to numerous Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican parishes, owing to the fact that many Canadians have Scottish ancestry.
Commemoration Celebrations: Getting involved
Donegal County Council and Derry City & Strabane District Council have come together with support from the North West Development Fund to make the Colmcille 1500 commemoration possible. His remarkable life and legacy in spiritual matters, in language, in the arts and in learning continues to be celebrated through a series of events and activities this year.
Partners of the commemoration include Foras na Gaelige, Ceòlas, EventScotland, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Argyll & the Isles, and BBC Radio nan Gàidheal.
You can keep up-to-date with the latest events happening to celebrate the saint during this special year here on Facebook or you can visit the Colmcille 1500 website here (for Irish events) or at this link (for UK events) for further details.
Oak tree close to the ancient monastic site of St. Finian. The plate reads: St. Colmcille Remembered: 14th Centenary Commemorative Oak Tree planted 1st April 1997 by people of Gartan, Donegal, birthplace of Colmcille (Columba) educated in St. Finians Monastery, Clonard, and died in Iona 597. Credit: Andreas F. Borchert
The Cathach / The Psalter of St Columba at the Royal Irish Academy