June - Saint Columba

9th June (597)

Saint ColumbaColumba of Iona was born at Gartan in Donegal c.521, into the royal Ui Neill clan. He was trained as a monk first by Finnian of Moville and then by Finnian of Clonard, and spent some fifteen years preaching and teaching in Ireland. He founded the monasteries of Derry (546), Durrow (c.556) and probably Kells. However, in 565 he left Ireland with twelve companions for the island of Iona (off the south-west coast of Scotland). This island had been given to him for a monastery by the ruler of the Irish Dalriada. His motives have been variously explained - voluntary exile for Christ, an attempt to help overseas compatriots in their struggle for survival, or even a punishment for his responsibility for a battle between monasteries, supposedly over a psalter which he had copied and refused to give up. Whatever the reason, Columba remained for the rest of his life in Scotland, mainly on Iona, returning to Ireland only for occasional but important visits.

Our knowledge of the life of Columba comes mainly from the famous Life of Columba by Adomnan, one of the most influential biographies of the early Middle Ages. Though lacking in historical evidence, it is however a portrait of a charismatic personality, and it describes miracles, prophecies, and visions from Iona tradition. Columba is described as a tall, striking figure of powerful build and impressive presence, who combined the skills of scholar, poet, and ruler with a fearless commitment to God’s cause. Able, ardent, and sometimes harsh, Columba mellowed with age and was described as ‘loving to everyone’ and ‘happy with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. Most of his activity concerned the building of his monastery, the training of its members (among whom were some Anglo Saxons), and the imparting of spiritual counsel. He converted Brude, king of the Picts, and in 574 the Irish king, Aidan of Dalraida, was consecrated by him. He also founded two churches in Inverness.

There are three surviving Latin poems, including Altus Prosator, which may well have been written by Columba. His skill as a scribe can be seen in the Cathach of Columba, a late 6th century psalter in the Irish Academy, which is the oldest surviving example of Irish majuscule writing. It was later enshrined in wood, and then in silver and bronze, sculptured with figures of the saints. It was venerated in churches, but also used both at visitations and in battles as a reminder of Columba’s power.

Four years before his death his strength began to fail, and he spent his remaining time transcribing books. He died in church just before Matins. His memory lived on in his monasteries and more generally in Ireland, Scotland, and Northumbria. After four Viking raids on Iona his relics were translated to Dunkeld in 849, where they were visited by pilgrims, including Anglo-Saxons of the 11th century.

Angela Newton

Read Jan Huckle's reflections on Iona.

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th May 1999