Colm Cille

A Saint with a large and complex legacy

Colm Cilles or Columba stands out as one of the most important figures of the sixth century and of the history of these islands.

The impact which he and his followers made, not only in the religious sphere but in many other aspects of contemporary culture, such as what we would call the visual arts, literature, history, as well as what we would now know as international relations, would be difficult to overestimate.

Small wonder then that Colm Cille has been venerated as a ‘saint’ for over a thousand years despite never having been officially canonized.

The beautiful area of Garten, in county Donegal is traditionally believed to have been the place of Colm Cille’s birth in or about 521AD. He was born into the powerful Cenel Conaill dynasty who were said to be descended from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. Adomnan tells us that he was ‘devoted even from boyhood to the Christian novitiate and the study of philosophy’.

Tradition is rich with stories about Colm Cille’s days as a student and young cleric. Again our actual evidence is very limited. Adomnan, Colm Cille’s biographer and Abbott of Iona, tells us that he spent at least some time while still a deacon in Leinster studying with an ‘old master’ called Gemman.

We also know from Adomnan that Colm Cille studied scripture in Ireland with a bishop called Findbarr who is often mistakenly taken as Finnian of Movilla in county Down or Finnian of Clonard in county Westmeath.

ColumbaWe have in fact very little information about any of Colm Cille’s activities before the year 563AD when he left Ireland for Scotland. Adomnan, whose Life of Colm Cille was written towards the end of the seventh century relates the date of Colm Cille’s departure from Ireland to two years after the Battle of Cul Dreimne which was fought in 561AD. The motives for Colm Cille’s departure from Ireland remain something of a mystery but legend has it that it was because of his role in this very battle.

Colm Cille is said to have rallied up his powerful clansmen in battle against Diarmait MacCerbaill, the high king of Tara, over what was perhaps the first copyright contest in history. He had copied a book of Psalms, from Finnian of Clonnard. Finnian insisted that the transcript was his property, as he had given no permission for it to be made.

Colm Cille referred the matter to the High King who finding in favour of Finnian uttered the famous judgement: Le gach boin a boinin, le gach leabhar a leabhran - ‘To every cow its calf, to every book its copy’.

According to the annals the northerners gained victory at the battle of Cul Dreimne ‘through the prayers of Colm Cille’. Some material suggests that guilt for his alleged role in the death of those who fell in the battle was the cause of his going into exile in Scotland.

Adomnan records a synod at Tailtu (Teltown, county Meath) at which Colm Cille was excommunicated ‘improperly as it afterwards became known’. However there has been considerable debate among historians as to whether or not Colm Cille had any role in the battle. Irish sources are divided as to whether Colm Cille left Ireland as a form of penance or simply to find a ‘desert’ place for prayerful contemplation.

Whatever the reasons for his leaving we know that Colm Cille established the famous monastery of Iona, in the Inner Scottish Hebrides in 563AD. This monastery, burial place of many Scottish, Irish and Norse Kings and of Colm Cille himself, was to become the launching pad for a remarkable missionary assault on Scotland and England.

This movement culminated in 635AD when monks from Iona founded the monastery of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was to become the most powerful centre of religious influence in England reinforcing the Celtic mission that was to radically alter the face of northern Britain

The annals say that in 575AD Colm Cille attended the Convention of Drum Ceat, just outside Limavady in county Derry. According to legend, Colm Cille championed the cause of Ireland’s poets at this convention who were in danger of being expelled from the country for abusing their privileges.

The leading poet, Dallan Forgaill, is said to have commenced the composition of the Amra or praise poem in the Saint’s honour. However Colm Cille asked him to desist with the poem until he himself should be dead, accordingly it was not finished until after 597AD.

Possibly while visiting Ireland for the Convention, Colm Cille may have had some role in the foundation of the monastery of Derry. Almost all surviving ancient tradition is certain that Derry was the first of the saint’s foundations and the one dearest to his heart but these stories are unashamedly propagandistic, written as much on behalf of the institution or place and time of its origin as on behalf of its sixth-century subject.

The saint’s principal foundation in Ireland was the monastery of Durrow, now in county Offaly. Durrow or Dairmagh like Derry is another oak-tree name and this may have contributed to the confusion about the foundation stories of the northern monastery.

The only other Columban monastery mentioned by Adomnan is Drumhome in south Donegal, although it is not definite that it belonged to the confederation of the saint’s churches during his own lifetime. Most of the other well-known Irish Columban churches were founded at much later dates, by those who belonged to the familia or community of Colm Cille.

Colm Cille is remembered as both a poet and a scribe. The story about his intervention on behalf of the poets of Ireland at the Convention of Drum Ceat celebrates this reputation. It is likely that he himself composed several Latin prayer/poems and he may have been responsible for creating the Cathach, Ireland’s oldest surviving manuscript.

Adomnan gives a moving account of Colm Cille’s last days. He told the monks that at Easter, during the previous month, he had desired to die but that he put off his departure from the world for a little longer so as not to spoil the great Christian festival.

In a final wagon tour of the monastery he blessed the island and all its inhabitants, its barns and his ‘servant’ the white horse. He returned to his cell to work on a Psalter he was copying. When he reached the thirty-third Psalm and the verse ‘But they that seek the Lord shall not want anything that is good’ he stopped and said ‘Let Baithin write what follows’. When the monastery bell sounded for midnight Colm Cille reached the church ahead of the other monks.

At the altar he sank down on his knees in prayer. As more of the monks arrived the holy man became illuminated by an ‘angelic light’ which quickly faded leaving them to grope for him in the darkness. One of the monks, Diormit on finding him, lifted Colm Cille’s head to his lap.

The other monks arrived with lamps and seeing their beloved abbot about to die, they started to weep. Colm Cille’s face was filled with joy and Diormit raised the saint’s right hand to help him bless his brothers. With this he ‘breathed out his spirit’ and the church resounded with the lamentations of his brother monks. It was the first few minutes of June 9. His legacy is such that place and organizations around the world bear his name.