Saint Colmcille, Abbot


St Colm Cille (Columba), Abbot and Missionary, Secondary Patron of Ireland (feast)

Colum Cille was born on 7 December 521 near Lough Gartan in Co. Donegal, in the north-west of Ireland. On his father’s side he was a great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, a high king of Ireland in the 5th century. His original name was Crimthann, meaning ‘fox’. He could have been called that because of his red hair. Colum Cille (Dove of the Church) was the name given to him as a monk and he is also known as Columba, the Latin word for ‘dove’.

Already in his time there were in Ireland many monastic settlements which were centres of learning and holiness. He began his studies at the monastery of Moville in Co. Down, which had been founded by St Finian. He later studied at the famous monastery of Clonard, near Kinnegad in Co. Meath, which was founded by another St Finian, who was no relation. In the 540s Clonard was regarded as one of the finest centres of learning in Europe. It is said that the average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was 3,000. Twelve students who studied under St. Finian became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland and Colm Cille was one of these. There he became a monk and was ordained as a priest and it was there he met St Ciaran, who later founded Clonmacnoise, another famous monastery on the banks of the River Shannon. From there, Colm Cille moved to the monastery of Glasnevin (near Dublin), founded by St Mobhi, where he met many learned and holy people.

Legend has it that around the year 560 Colm Cille became involved in a quarrel with St Finian of Moville over a book of the psalms. Colm Cille copied the original at the scriptorium (the place in the monastery where texts were hand copied), intending to keep the copy for himself. Finian disputed Colm Cille’s right to keep it. The dispute became so serious that it resulted in armed conflict, the Battle of Cul Dreimhne in 561, in which many lost their lives but Colm Cille got to keep his copy. It has since become known as the Cathach of St Columba or ‘Battle Book’. Legend has it that a special shrine (Cumhdach) was made for the Cathach. Following the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, it was taken to France by the O’Donnell family (also from Donegal) and brought back to Ireland in 1813. It is now in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and is the oldest surviving manuscript of the psalms.

A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate Colm Cille for the deaths in the battle but St. Brendan of Birr spoke up for him with the result that he was allowed to go into exile. Columba suggested that he would work as a missionary in Scotland to help convert as many people as had been killed in the battle. He left Ireland in 563 with 12 companions for the west coast of Scotland, “wishing to be a pilgrim for Christ”.

It is said that he first landed at the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula, near Southend. However, as he was still in sight of Ireland, he moved further north up the west coast of Scotland. He was granted land on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland which became the centre of his evangelising mission to the Picts. But there were also many Irish emigres who had been in the area for a long time. He provided the only centre of literacy in the region and his reputation for holiness led to his role as a peacemaker between the tribes. There are also many stories of miracles in his missionary work. He later played a major role in the politics of Scotland. He founded several churches in the Hebrides and worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He wrote many hymns and is credited with transcribing 300 books. He seems to have returned to Ireland only once, towards the end of his life, to found the monastery at Durrow, a few kilometres north of Tullamore in the Irish midlands. The site at Durrow was given to him by the King of the southern Ui Neill kingdom of Tethbe. Durrow (Dearmach), means ‘Field of the Oaks’.

Other monasteries said to have been founded by him were at Raphoe and Kells. The latter was to rival and later surpass Durrow as a centre for piety and culture. (Both monasteries produced the famous manuscripts carrying their names.) Then came Clonmore in Meath. Later he made a foundation on Lambay Island, off the coast of Co. Dublin. The site opposite Lambay had a well, renowned for its clear water. He blessed the well, which was called sord an old word meaning “pure”. Because of this the monastery became known as Sord Colum Cille, from which the present town of Swords in Co. Dublin gets its name.

Colum Cille died on Iona in the abbey he had founded on 9 June 597. Iona remains today a very popular place for pilgrimage.

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