St. Columba of Iona

(521?-597)

Columba, mighty in word and deed, was one of the princely O’Neills of Ireland’s province of Ulster. On both his father’s and mother’s side he was a descendant of Irish kings. He was baptized Columba, or in his native tongue, Colum or Colm. History also refers to him as Columcille, apparently because of the many monasteries (cille) that he was to establish.

Though born to leadership, Colm chose the Church rather than the secular life. He became a monk and priest, and subsequently an abbot (but he would decline out of humility, to accept promotion to the bishopric). In preparation for this career, he studied at the great Irish monastic schools at Movilla and Clonard, and for a time, too, he was a pupil of an ancient bard. The bards, composers of poetry, were also the recorders of Irish history. Columba himself became an able poet.

For fifteen years thereafter, the young monk went about Ireland founding monasteries. The most prominent of them were at Derry, Durrow and Kells. He set an example of austerity to his monks. But the monasteries were also centers of culture. Colm, a great lover of books, spent much of his spare time making handsome hand-lettered copies of important volumes.

In 563, when he was 42, Columba decided to take up the career of a missionary. He and twelve monk-companions (all of them his relatives) sailed to the island of Iona, north of Ireland and off the west coast of Scotland. There he founded the monastery of Iona; and from this headquarters he began to work not only among the Irish who had already settled in the vicinity, but also among the Picta who lived farther north; and he preached the Gospel at least as far as Loch Ness. His followers extended their efforts down into northern England. These missionaries brought with them the Celtic Rite, which differed in some minor respects from the Roman Rite followed in southern England and elsewhere. In Great Britain the abbot of Iona also founded a number of monasteries staffed by monks from his Irish monasteries and churches. He gave to each new church a hand-copied book of the Gospel. He is said to have made three hundred copies himself.

St. Columba worked in Scotland for 34 years. He returned to Ireland more than once, and on each occasion wielded a remarkable influence in matters of Irish church and society. Iona remained his center, however, and there people of all classes visited him as a leader, miracle-worker and prophet when they needed physical or spiritual help.

If in his youth Colm had expected his disciples to equal his own austerity, he mellowed with the passage of the years. Says his biographer, “He appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit in his inmost heart.” Though he had renounced worldly authority, Colmcille was a man of truly kingly bearing. A striking figure of great stature and athletic build, this monk with “the face of an angel” was of attractive personality, “polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel.” His voice was “so loud and melodious it could be heard a mile off.”

St. Colmdille died at Iona on June 9, 597. Up to the end, he was engaged in making one final transcription of the bible. His prestige after death was so great that some 60 Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings eventually chose to be buried near his tomb. Among those Scottish kings, Shakespeare reminds us, were King Macbeth and King Duncan, “carried to Colmkill/The sacred storehouse of (their) predecessors/And guardian of their bones.”

Thus did this Prince of Tirconnell, one of the “twelve apostles of Ireland” die as the revered apostle of Scotland and England’s Northumbria.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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