The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 6
Exclusive Excerpt from Early Irish Saints by John J Ó Ríordáin C.Ss.R
Saints seem to be people of many parts and Colmcille more than most: he was a prince, priest, prophet, poet, diplomat, monk, abbot, scribe, and scholar. In terms of family background, he sprung from the Cenél Conaill (the O’Donnells of Donegal), a branch of the royal house of the Clan Uí néill. He was a descendant of Niall of the nine hostages, and over a period of 700 years, his family produced as many as forty-one high Kings. Colmcille, too, it seems, was himself eligible for such an office.
By secular, as well as by religious standards he is one of the outstanding figures of Early Mediaeval Ireland. Speculation about his life, his reasons for leaving Ireland, or the extent of his influence at home and abroad, cannot detract from that fact. Nor can a case be made against his holiness on the grounds that he was not formally canonised by the Pope, because Colmcille lived hundreds of years prior to such formalities. When St Adomnán wrote his Life in the seventh century, it was specifically to establish for all and sundry that the first abbot of Iona was a man who walked with God in a truly extraordinary and inspiring fashion. For fourteen hundred years the Christian community, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, has acknowledged this estimation of the man by invoking his intercession and keeping his memory green.
From the various sources at our disposal it is possible to put reasonable shape on his life while bearing in mind that the only fairly certain date in his career is at the end. On the testimony of St Adomnán, his biographer, the saint died on Iona on 9 June, aD 597, aged seventy-five. At the other end of the scale, the traditional date of his birth is 7 December, AD 521, and the place is Gartan, Co. Donegal.
In his childhood, Colmcille was fostered by a local priest named Cruithnechán, who not only taught the boy his letters and his prayers but gave him a shining personal example of Christian living, so shining indeed, that he too, like his young foster-child, is venerated as a saint of God. It was during these years of fosterage that his peers, observing the boy’s frequent visits to the little chapel, dubbed him Colm Cille, dove of the church, an affectionate title which has attended him ever since in Ireland, while the Scots have a preference for the Latin, Columba, a dove.
When his term of fosterage was completed Colmcille, instead of following the way of a prince among his people, opted to become a Christian monk. Such a choice on the part of so highborn a young man had major consequences for the young and evolving Irish church. His career undoubtedly provided a powerful stimulus to monastic development, and his choice of the monastic life was a headline followed by many another young nobleman. He was a man of the very highest birth, with all the natural advantages which such a circumstance gave in an aristocratic society. He had the gift of second sight, combined with a power to control others by the sheer force of his own personality.
Information on Colmcille’s life prior to his departure for Britain in AD 563 is little enough. During the decade prior to his departure he was active in establishing monastic communities throughout the upper half of Ireland where his family held sway. Among these foundations were Swords, Lambay, Tory, Drumcliffe, Drumcolumb, Clonmore, Moone, Inchmore in Lough Gowna, and perhaps Kells. There is no knowing the full number, but St Dallan Forgaill, in his Amra or Elegy of Colmcille, describes him as ‘guardian of a hundred churches’.
His missionary exile
In his youth he had renounced the family inheritance. Then, at the age of forty-two, he was prepared to go a step further and renounce his native land. In Early Christian Ireland, the greatest sacrifice and penance a monk could undertake, other than martyrdom, was voluntary exile. Colmcille, who wasn’t in the habit of doing things by halves, took that penitential option.
To this day the people of Islay maintain that when the saint sailed out from Derry he made first landfall on their island, but then moved on to another Inner Hebridean Island, Iona, for his first permanent settlement in Scotland. Here, for thirty-four years he would lead his monks in prayer, study and apostolic endeavour. Life was rarely less than grim on that island, and yet, it was here that he founded a scribal tradition which ultimately produced the Book of Kells; and it was from here that he guided and conducted a mission to both his own Gaelic people in the kingdom of Scottish Dal Riada and to the pagan Pictish peoples further north.
During the Iona years Colmcille returned to Ireland on several occasions, and for various reasons. The monastery of Durrow, in Co. Offaly, was almost certainly founded during one of these visits, while on another, at the celebrated Convention of the Kings, at Drumcet near Limavady, he negotiated the independence of Scottish Dal Riada and saved the bards from suppression. He visited or maintained contact with other Irish church leaders, and many of them in turn visited Iona. Adomnán’s Life offers a vision of a community of saints and founders bound together in strong brotherly relations.
By the end of his life, Colmcille’s achievement was monumental: he had founded Iona and a number of connected monasteries in the west of Britain and in Ireland, and had exercised strong and decisive influence over the political scene in Scotland and Ireland. But he would have considered these achievements minor in comparison to what he was seeking to attain, namely, wisdom, learning and holiness. Judging from the Amra Colmcille, by the time of his death the saint already had an incomparable reputation for these virtues, the virtues not just of a saint but of a wholly rounded and complete human being.