Celtic and Old English Saints          9 June

* St Columcille of Iona
* St. Baithin of Iona
* St. Cumian of Bobbio

Saint Columba of Iona

An article by Thomas Owen Clancy, lecturer at the University of Glasgow
in the department of Celtic history, and author (with Gilbert Mбrkus) of
"Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery" (Edinburgh, 1995).

Scion of the most powerful family in the north of Ireland, founder of
monasteries, and instigator of missions to the Picts and the English,
Columba is undoubtedly the most important saint associated with Celtic

Legends about him grew over the centuries, and many of the stories must
be treated with caution. One of the more famous paints him as a sort of
Christian sorcerer's apprentice, naughtily copying his master's precious
psalter by the light of his own hand, and thereby sparking a major

So too, hundreds of poems, some quite romantic in their descriptions of
nature, others simple devotional verses, were attributed to the saint
long after his death. Nevertheless, through the obscuring mists of his
legends, it is possible to make out an outline of this key figure in the
early Gaelic church. In fact, of all the Celtic saints, he is also the
one about whom we know the most historically.

Fox and dove
Columba was born of royal stock around 521, in northwestern Ireland's
Donegal. Although destined for the church by an early age, his noble
birth gave him insight and influence in the political world.

Legend tells us that his original name was Crimthann ("fox") and that
when he was trained as a priest he changed it to Columb, ("dove"), later
known to all as Colum Cille: "dove of the church." It has become
something of a tradition in modern times to view the saint through the
twin lenses of these names: the astute fox on the make, and the
peacemaking and peaceable dove.

He apparently took part in a battle in 561 between his near and more
distant cousins; this led to his exile and even excommunication for a
time. Yet his biographer and successor, Adomnбn, saw it differently,
glossing over his excommunication, and telling us only that: "In the
second year following the battle of Cъl Drebene, when he was 41, Columba
sailed away from Ireland to Britain, choosing to be a pilgrim for

Despite the skeletons in Columba's closet, his efforts in Scotland
reveal a man who had learned much in his 41 years, enough to establish a
string of monasteries in the Inner Hebridean islands off the west coast
of Scotland. This monastic system anticipated later orders such as the
Cistercians and Carthusians.

Iona, a small island off the larger Hebridean island of Mull, was the
fertile centre of this system. Remote to modern eyes, Iona was at the
hub of early medieval sea lanes that brought pottery and perishable
goods north from France and the Mediterranean. Still, Iona was intended
as a true monastery, a place set apart for Columba and his brethren.

Other island monasteries, such as one on Tiree, housed lay-folk serving
out penances for their sins. Another island housed older, more
experienced monks living as holy anchorites.

Iona, however, trained priests and bishops, and Columba's reputation for
scholarship was great when he died (though we have little of his own
work). From Iona, priests and monks ranged far and wide, founding
churches in Scotland and seeking "deserts in the ocean" (lonely, distant

Mighty monk
Columba's legends give us a flavour of both the fox and the dove. The
Life of Columba, by Adomnбn, is packed with stories about Columba
conversing with angels, sending an angel to rescue a monk falling from a
roof, and being whipped by an angel to convince him to ordain God's
(rather than his own) choice for king of the Gaelic colony in Scotland.

He is seen rapt in contemplation, seeing "with a mind miraculously
enlarged . . . the entire orbit of the whole earth and the sea and the
sky around it." From these visions, he proclaims prophecies, sends monks
to help distressed people, or prays to refresh his tired monks labouring
in the fields.

Columba holds his own with kings. Though he prays for the military
success of kings whom God has chosen, he argues with angels over their
appointment. He faces down the king of Picts through his power, blasting
him with loud psalms, throwing wide his strong oak doors, and besting
the magic of the king's druids. He even defeats wild animals: a fierce
boar drops dead on the spot, and a strange monster on Loch Ness runs
from his power.

Though Columba's power is often depicted in entertaining form, his
influence was in fact the key to winning over the kings of Gaelic
Scotland, and his legendary powers were famous enough for his monks
later to convince the Picts to convert.

After his death, Columba's political and military power became a key
element in his cult. His relics were taken into battle by minor Irish
chieftains and Scottish kings--one of his relics preceded the victorious
Scottish army at Bannockburn in 1314.

One particular appearance, decades after his death, to the English king
of Northumbria was pivotal in the history of Christianity in Britain.
That king was Oswald, who had been raised in exile in Iona. As Oswald
fought the battle in which he secured his kingship, Columba towered
above the field promising victory, as one modern scholar puts it, like
Batman over Gotham. In 635, Oswald sent for missionaries from Iona to
renew the flagging Christianity of Northumbria with their monastic
sobriety and good works.

Posthumous achievements
Columba was a poet, scholar of wide-learning, monastic founder and
leader, a visionary churchman. At the time of his death on June 9, 597,
he was already celebrated.

Though more monk than missionary, Columba established churches in
Scotland that went on, in time, to evangelize the Picts and the English.
The legacy of the monasteries he founded, which drew constantly on the
inspiration of their patron saint, multiplies many times the influence
of the man himself. Fittingly, at the end of the Life, Adomnбn has his
hero ascend the little hill near the monastery on Iona, and declare;

"This place, however small and mean, will have bestowed on it no small
but great honour by the kings and peoples of Ireland, and also by the
rulers of even barbarous and foreign nations with their subject tribes.
And the saints of other churches too will give it great reverence."

One way Columba's influence was felt after his death was the Law of
Innocents enacted by Adomnбn in 697. This law sought protection for
non-combatants (in the midst of a militarised society) and for women (in
danger from domestic violence, common abuse, and appalling labour

Adomnбn's Law imposed strong punishments against offenders. It is a
remarkable landmark in the history of law.

Adomnбn records many tales of Columba as a protector of innocents, and
these tales reinforce the stern message of the Law. In the most famous,
Columba is a young boy, studying in a meadow with his tutor. A young
girl appears, pursued across the plain by a vicious thug, who spears her
at the very feet of the clerics. Appalled, the tutor cries, "How long,
Columba, my holy son, will God the true judge let this crime and our
dishonour go unpunished?" Columba calls down God's wrath on the killer,
who falls dead on the spot.

It is difficult to summarise his accomplishments, but one memorial
composed after his death does it better than most:

"He was learning's pillar in every stronghold,
he was foremost at the book of complex Law.
The northern land shone,
the western people blazed,
he lit up the east with chaste clerics."


More resources:
Thomas Owen Clancy edited "Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic
Monastery" with Gilbert Markus.

Penguin Classics still publishes Adomnan's "Life of Columba."

The Columba home page, includes The Life of St. Columba by Adomnбn
(English and Latin versions), a bibliography, and more.

Adomnan's Life of Columba is available elsewhere
in English http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/columba-e.html
and Latin http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/columba-l.html

Columba's famous rule is also online.

Iona Abbey has their own page devoted to the poet, prophet, and sage

Also Deacon Geoffrey O'Riada's Celtic Orthodox Christianity site

the Ecole Initiative

and the musical group Iona.

There's an official site for Iona (the island)

as well as an official Iona Community site.

Want to go to Iona? There's plenty of travel guides out there

and stories from past visitors.

To get you in the mood, here are some beautiful images of Iona today

and an article on the history of the island.

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