St Columba is still a sign of unity and strength for Irish Christians 1,500 years since his birth, Dr Alex O’Hara tells Ruadhán Jones
From Durrow to Derry in Ireland, to Iona, Scotland and North England, St Columba’s impact stretches many miles and centuries. Born to Donegal royalty – the Cineál Chonnail clan, relatives of the famous Uí Neill’s – in 521, the Irish saint’s life spanned the majority of the sixth century. His work establishing a network of monasteries across Ireland set the foundations for the Golden Age of the Irish Church from the seventh to the ninth century. Across the sea, his monastery in Iona was integral to converting Scotland and North England to the Christian faith.
Despite this, he is perhaps the least well-known of Ireland’s three patron saints – St Patrick and St Brigid being the other two. The 1,500th anniversary of his birth provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate his contribution to Ireland’s Golden Age, and to reflect on the great significance his “heroic virtue” has in our own era.
“I think the relevance (of St Columba and other early Irish saints) for our contemporary society is as witnesses,” Professor of early Medieval History Dr Alex O’Hara tells The Irish Catholic. “We’re dealing with a situation, in terms of being a mission territory, that these saints were engaged with.
“How do you engage with a pluralistic society? This taps into Rod Dreher’s thing, The Benedict Option, forming communities of authentic Christian witness and engaging with contemporary society. I think the relevance for our contemporary society is as witnesses. The saints are witnesses, they’ve gone before us, they are the true teachers of history.”
There was a warrior element in society and that’s their background, but they saw themselves as warriors for Christ, espousing ideas of heroic virtue”
Dr O’Hara, who specialises in Ecclesiastical History and the Historical Theology of the Early Irish Church, says that saints like Columba – or Columcille as he is also known – demonstrate a “heroic virtue” that is very attractive, particularly to young men.
“A lot of their stories mirror the hero’s journey, their lives are heroic,” Dr O’Hara says. “Particularly for young men, they need models of heroic virtue and witness. And also what strikes me again is that these saints saw themselves as warriors for Christ. There was a warrior element in society and that’s their background, but they saw themselves as warriors for Christ, espousing ideas of heroic virtue. I think that can be very compelling.”
Life of St Columba
St Columba’s warrior-status cannot be in any doubt – he was famously on the losing side of a legal dispute over copyright, in which the high king ruled, “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy”. In response, St Columba and his clan rounded up his kinsmen and successfully defeated the copyright holder in the battle of Cúl Dreimhne – 3,000 men died as a result. It is speculated that this may have led to his banishment, though this is debated, Dr O’Hara says.
But before we get to that, Dr O’Hara gives us an brief outline of St Columba and the period into which he was born. At the time of his birth in 521, the Roman Empire was in its death throes. By the time he was 20, Europe was in the midst of its worst pandemic until the Black Death in the 14th century. It was not a time of great scholarship on the continent, which declined along with the Romans.
But Ireland was on the up-and-up, having only recently been converted to the Faith by St Patrick. Previously associated with barbarism, it was increasingly known for its great scholarship and religious zeal. From about the sixth to the ninth century, Ireland was, as Dr O’Hara puts it, “the Harvard or Stanford of Europe”, where students flocked to study Sacred Scripture.
An adept pupil, his reputation grew quickly, as did his influence”
St Columba was in many ways a key figure in heralding this era’s arrival. Born in 521 to the clan of Cineál Chonnail, he was effectively a prince, Dr O’Hara says, and would have been eligible for the high kingship of Ireland. As was typical for the time, he was initially fostered to a local priest, before studying in different locations around the island – such as Movilla, Co. Down or Glasnevin – where the best training was offered. An adept pupil, his reputation grew quickly, as did his influence.
“With a lot of these holy men… they’re brokers,” Dr O’Hara explains. “In terms of cultural brokers, but also in terms of political alliances. He’s coming from Donegal, but he’s starting monasteries around the country in Durrow, in Derry and he’s making links with local kings. I suppose the influence of him as a monastic founder (he is estimated to have founded 50-60 monastic communities in Ireland), so you have the practical thing of monastic foundation. Then also in terms of education, these are liturgical centres, but also centres of education and learning. In terms then of book production, that’s also key.”
Lungs of the Church
“It’s interesting with a lot of these figures, also like Columbanus – a near contemporary – they’re born in one place, but they go around the country. They were establishing networks really,” Dr O’Hara reflects. This ‘networking’ is perhaps St Columba’s key contribution to the development of Christianity in Ireland following St Patrick’s initial efforts. While there is a prevailing stereotype of post-modern connectivity as contrasted with the isolated past, this elides the strength of the connections these monastic communities forged across the island of Ireland.
Theologically, you have to look at these monasteries as lungs where the Word of God is kind of percolating”
“Columba is better known than many of the perigrini because he’s closer to Ireland, the foundations he established in Ireland continued to have an influence,” Dr O’Hara continues. “The Columban foundation of monasteries, particularly Iona – this becomes extremely powerful and influential as a kind of family or network of monasteries.
“Theologically, you have to look at these monasteries as lungs where the Word of God is kind of percolating. You have the meditation on scripture in the liturgy, but also in Lectio Divina, the engagement with the Word of God and how that then transforms societies through these kind of lungs in the countryside.
“They were very dynamic places. At the heart of it is the Eucharist, the Divine Office, but they’re dynamic centres of learning and craft production, they become very wealthy. The thing with Columba and this period is it’s really the beginning of the Golden Age of the Irish Church. There’s no question about that.”
The idea of perigrinus was central to the theology and actions of early Irish monastics, being unique to them. Translated literally it means ‘stranger’, but it can also mean ‘pilgrimage’. But this is not pilgrimage as we would understand it – typically undertaken by monks with experience in monastic life, it often entailed a commitment to leave Ireland for good, Dr O’Hara explains.
“It’s a voluntary form of religious exile and it’s more akin to the Australian sense of walkabout,” he continues. “The idea is that you are led by the Holy Spirit, you don’t have a destination in mind, you’re leaving Ireland to be guided by the Holy Spirit. There’s certainly an attraction to Rome in this period, but that’s the foundation.
“It’s considered a form of martyrdom by the Irish monks. There’s debate as to whether Columba was a perigrinus, or whether he was exiled because of his involvement with the battle. There were certainly political elements to St Columba’s life, but he was also certainly perceived by later writers as a peregrinus, as an ascetic exile.
“With Columbanus and others, when they’re leaving Ireland they have to get permission from their abbot, which underlines the seriousness of the undertaking. The apostolic nature of it is underlined because they always leave in a group of 12. It’s Christological as well, going out in a group of 12. But it’s understood by the Irish as a form of martyrdom, because there was a real sense that the Golden Age of the early Church and in terms of martyrdom was no longer there. But this was a form of ascetic martyrdom.”
Though we may not immediately make the connection, St Columba’s influence is still lived out today. In the Northwest of Ireland, where his cult is strongest, cities such as Derry are a physical sign of his heritage. Derry City initially formed around a monastery founded by St Columba, which attracted many people due to its social and cultural significance. Perhaps the most famous of St Columba’s gifts, though quite indirectly, is the Book of Kells.
Estimated to have been produced around 800AD and discovered in Kells, Co. Meath, the famous book was actually created on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. It was on this island that St Columba established a monastery, either as a political exile or as a perigrinus, in 563 and from here the Ionan monks set out to convert Scotland and Northumbria in Northwest England. It is evidence of the great reach this saint had.
“Columba left one of his foundations in Derry for Iona and established the monastery there in the Scottish Hebrides – this part of Scotland at the time, Argyle, the West of Scotland, it’s really part of Ireland. It’s a kind of colony of Ireland and the name Scotland literally means the Land of the Irish,” Dr O’Hara says.
“Columba plays an important role in Iona in terms of the mission to the Picts (in Scotland). The earliest sighting of the Loch Ness monster is attributed to Columba and Columba blesses the monster I think. It’s recorded in terms of Columba’s mission to King Brudei, who was up near Inverness. Columba died in 597 and after this, the community in Iona begin taking a record, accounts of stories linked to Columba, his miracles. This kind of a dossier then is started in the 630s.
“Around that time, you have the Ionan mission to Northern England. The conversion of England, occurs after Roman legions pull out and you have Germanic people’s coming into Britain. They’re pagan, so you have a re-conversion of Britain with a kind of pincer movement with Pope Gregory the Great, who sends Augustine to the south in 597, the same time that Columba dies. That’s kicking off in Canterbury, Kent. In the 620s and 630s, you have the Ionan mission to Northumbria to North East England. Iona is very important for the conversion of North East Britain.”
Archaeologists and historians are still discovering information about St Columba and the early Irish perigrini. Two recent digs, one in a cave in Iceland and one on the island of Iona, have revealed significant discoveries. At the first, archaeologists have found evidence for the presence of Irish monks who had made their way to Iceland before the country’s conversion early in the second millennia. Meanwhile, in Iona, carbon dating of an old stone hut suggests that it was once used by St Columba to copy out Psalms. “What’s really exciting is that we’re still discovering more, this isn’t just the distant past that we know already,” Dr O’Hara says.
It’s all local communities, and what struck me is how these figures can still be bridge builders among communities”
Another reason St Columba’s relevance isn’t just confined to the past is the cult of the saint is shared by Christian denominations. He and saints like Columbanus, are points of ecumenical strength, particularly in regions in the North of Ireland.
“I was really struck, because I’ve been involved in Columbanus in terms of my scholarship, I’ve seen that particularly in Northern Ireland, in Bangor,” Dr O’Hara begins. “It’s incredible what’s taking place between different faith communities in Northern Ireland. They have a festival to Columbanus in November each year. It’s the Presbyterian, the Church of Ireland and the Catholic communities – they’re all celebrating Columbanus and the heritage of Columbanus.
“I’m involved in this Columban way which is a pilgrims way throughout Europe following in the footsteps of Columbanus. It’s all local communities, and what struck me is how these figures can still be bridge builders among communities. If you look at the cultural events now being organised in terms of music between Scotland, Western Scotland and Ireland. Then there’s a pilgrimage route being organised around St Columba in Northern Ireland.
“You get a lot of these pilgrimage routes developing that are linked to these saints, bringing people closer together. Because these saints are pre-reformation, they can appeal to Christians from other faith traditions. That’s what really struck me about Northern Ireland.”
Commemorating St Columba
Many events are scheduled to take place over the next few months, especially in Donegal and Derry, to commemorate the cultural and social significance of St Columba. For example, a new pilgrimage route is being developed in Derry and an exhibition planned for Tower Museum, also in Derry. Dr O’Hara is also organising a contribution to the commemorations, one which he hopes will ensure St Columba’s theological significance will not be forgotten. He has organised a lecture series, the first of which took place June 9 – the saint’s feast day –, in collaboration with the Loyola Institute at Trinity University.
“I noticed that there’s an event organiser in Donegal, Columcille 1,500,” Dr O’Hara explains. “I realised there isn’t much being done on theology, often the case with early medieval Irish saints. I’m primarily a medieval historian, but I’m working in the Loyola Institute and I’m trying to bring in theology.
“You have very few scholars who actually deal seriously with the theology of Early Christian Ireland. I saw there were a number of events organised throughout the year, but nothing on theology. I pitched it to Loyola and Trinity Long Room hub that I would organise a series, bringing in Theologians and Early Medieval historians to really engage with Columba in this context.”
The series will run initially from June to November, comprising six lectures on topics ranging from the significance of the saint’s feast day to the effects of the perigrini’s exile on Irish identity. To sign up for the second lecture of the series, you can visit here.