Saint Columba: Fact and Fiction
The Very Rev. Lester Michael Bundy OSB(Obl)
Professor Emeritus, Regis University
Mouth of the dumb,
Light of the blind,
Foot of the lame,
To the fallen stretch out your hand.
Strengthen the senseless,
O Columba, hope of Scots,
By your merits' mediation.
Make us companions
the blessed angels.
Early 14th century prayer
from the Island of
Overview of the life of St. Columba
The name Columba is a Latinized later name. His Gaelic name was Colum-cille
which means "Dove of the Church." He was born a prince of the royal Úi Néill
line. His grandfather and two brothers had conquered North-west Ulster and set up the provincial
kingdom of Ailech. In his youth he decided to enter monastic life and was trained in the monastic
community by notable figures including St. Finnian. He grew to be a powerful and influential figure
and while in Ireland founded Dair-mag (Oak-plain) now Durrow and Dir-Calgaich (Calgaichs Oak
Wood) now Derry .2 In total 40 Irish Churches and 56 Scottish
Churches are connected directly or indirectly with his cult.3 In
563 with twelve companions, he founded the community of monks on the island of Iona. Kenney, in
The Early History of Ireland describes it as follows: "The most distinguished center of
Irish religious life at the end of the sixth-century through the seventh century was not within the
land of Ériu. It was the little island of I, Hii, or Iona, to the west of modern Scotland,
some, 80 miles from the Irish coast."4 There, Columba served
as Abbot, and leader of the missionary movement that would bring Christianity eventually to all of
Scotland. There he lived for thirty-four years evangelizing the mainland and establishing monasteries
in the neighboring islands. He succeeded in converting Brude king of the Picts and in 574 the new
king of the Scots Dal Riada came to Iona to receive his sacring at Columbas hands. In the year
597 he died and was buried on the Island by his devoted monks. Many miracles were associated with his
life and his legend grew rapidly. Some would say that he became bigger in death than in life, yet
there is no question that during his own lifetime he was in many ways a monumental figure.
Many stories have become a part of the Columba legend. To some he is the
perfect saintly figure the "Apostle" to Scotland. However, to some he is the epitome
of the imagined "independent" Irish or Celtic soul, who defies authority at every turn.
Still others see him as the progenitor to womens liberation and the "modern
The "Modernist or Popular" view of Columba and Celtic
As previously noted some modern writers have seen St. Columba in particular and
Celtic tradition in general as counter cultural images. In their view St. Columba is an historical
figure and a larger than life hero of downtrodden women and abused minorities a defender of
those who value individual prerogative over communal obligation. However, such views have been well
refuted by more serious scholars such as A. M. Allchin.5
In fact we know very little of Columba as far as day to day activities,
personality, etc., are concerned. What we do know is clouded by mythic images and politicized
agendas. One thing certain, he was in his day a controversial figure and has continued to be so down
to our current times. Much of what has been written about him is romanticized. The image of St.
Columba is interwoven with the folklore -- various strands of tradition real and imagined.
In this day and age, Celtic tradition (or what people imagine being Celtic
tradition) has become popular and trendy. David Adam, in his books on Celtic poetry prayers, has
popularized Columba as the essential "Anglican" spirit. Thomas Cahill in his romanticized
book about the wonders of Irish tradition has given an exaggerated focus on the "gifts" of
Celtic culture to Western European civilization. While there is undoubtedly some truth in what Cahill
has to say, his account is simplistic and at time trivialized.
New Age Spirituality has adopted -- but more accurately adapted Celtic
spirituality as a way of verifying a variety of dubious practices and beliefs. Ex-Roman Catholics
like Matthew Fox (more accurately ex-Christians) have created a pseudo Celtic spiritually to justify
their own deviations from traditional Christian belief and practice.
Victor Walkley, in his Celtic Daily Life, extols the "virtues"
of paganism conveniently skipping over such small matters as human sacrifice.6 He has attempted to argue that the early Celtic Christians were really
druids. Walkley states that "the Culdee faith drew together two strands of doctrinal belief: the
Druidic teaching and the revealed word of God in Biblical texts. But the Roman Church made every
effort to stamp out what they called the pagan belief of the Celtic pole and to destroy the Culdees.
Celtic sanctuaries and burial places were desecrated and churches built above the ruins. The name
Culdees (from cele de, servants of God) was probably derived from the name given to the
Christianized Druids in Britain. Gaulish refugees found asylum among the western Celts, the Silures
of Wales where they established a Druidic College..."7
The image of Columba and the early Irish Christians as unfortunate benign
pagans persecuted by the Catholic Church seems to give comfort to those who seek to find in Celtic
tradition an excuse from the moral standards and conventions of traditional Christianity. However,
serious evidence to support such views is singularly lacking.
St. Columba is revered by some as a popular folk hero. The Story of St.
Columba by David Ross provides a simplistic summary of some of the more popular stories from
tradition, principally those of Adomnán while side stepping the more serious Christian
dimensions of his life. A better book in this genre, St. Columba by Ian Macdonald provides
popularized versions of his life as found in the writings of Columbas early biographer
In some current writings, Saint Columba is portrayed as a proto-protestant. In
this view, St. Columba was never really a "Catholic" because there never was a real unified
Church.8 Further, it is argued that the Celtic church foreshadowed
the rise of feminism in the 20th century.9 Cahill argues
that since there are virtually no references to Patrick in Adomnáns writings, that that
shows there was no unified church.10 As Meeks notes, even today
Columba is vaguely regarded by some protestant apologists as a member of their imaginary
On the contrary, solid scholarship shows "Fundamentally, the Church in
Ireland was one with the Church in the remainder of Western Europe. The mental processes and the
Weltanschauung of the ecclesiastic who looked out from Armagh or Clonmacnois or
Innisfallen were not essentially different from those of him whose center of vision was Canterbury or
Reims or Cologne."12 That there were regional differences is
obvious, especially in relation to secular powers. That these differences sometimes led to friction
is equally obvious. That these differences have been exaggerated in an attempt to try to
"prove" there was no universal Church is also obvious and obviously wrong. As Meeks
points out, "There is need to clean the ecclesiastical cupboards of denominational skeletons,
and return to a broader view of the saints. Celtic saints were, in reality, part if the
European mainstream; they were not, in fact, completely different from saints elsewhere in Europe.
They belonged to the same pre-Reformation period, and shared the Catholic faith of East and West.
Celtic saints, including Columba, adhered broadly to the same theology of those in the
East, and practiced the same kinds of rituals."13
Historic Sources for the Life of St. Columba
There are three main sources for Columbas life. The work of
Cuimíne Ailbe, Abbot of Iona from 657 to 669; Adomnán, Abbot of Iona from 679 to 704,
and the Venerable Bede who lived 673-735.14
Accounts that fit more in the realm of legend than history are several.
Amra-Colum-cille, a difficult and obscure work, is a eulogy of Columba that was compiled in the sixth
century. Other works include the Old Irish Life of Columba a homily for the saints
feast day that may go back to the tenth-century, possibly even the 9th. Simeons
Lines on Columba [1107-1114] are prayer in the form of poetry, raising the hope that Columba may be
patron to various persons including the clergy and people of Scotland. The Life of Columba from Codex
Salmanticensis 845-70 and the Life from Codex Insulensis (a second recension of the latter with some
added detail) provides the story of the famous conflict with Diarmait macCerr-béil over the
Kings judgement on the rights to a copy of a manuscript. Included is an account of the Synod of
Tailtin at which Columba was threatened with excommunication. There are a variety of other minor
sources including a number of poems attributed to Columba.
The legends associated with Columba have grown to be a major part of his
identification in modern times. "That great figure from the first age of monasticism, Colum
Cille of Iona, came to occupy the center of this lore. In his own day he was reputed to have
protected the poets of Ireland, and from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries many nameless poets
of Ireland produced a literature they attributed to him. This poetry gathers up the highest
aspiration of the monastic church: the love of solitude, asceticism, and scholarship, and the
acceptance of exile as the white martyrdom the great sacrifice man can make for Christ.
Colum Cille was the great and archetypal exile, show for the love of Christ abandoned the three
best-loved places, Tír Luígdech his birthplace, Durrow with its cuckoos
calling from the woodland on the brink of summer, and lastly Derry, noble angel-haunted
city ...calm and bright, full of white angels from one end to the other.15
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries a new Irish literary cycle arose with a
renewed focus on romance and poetry. One of these cycles was centered on stories and legends
associated with Columba. Some of the cycle may be based on earlier works of the ninth century, which
have since been lost. Finally, there is the Life of Columba by Manus O Donnell,
composed in 1532, as a compilation of various previous works.
Saint Columba in current scholarship.
Corish tells us, "The Christian church was organized as it was in every
other place around diocesan bishops and their clergy. Up to about 550 the great majority of
ecclesiastics whose deaths were recorded in the annals were bishops. By about this date the new
druids had been allocated their niche in the social structures the bishop being equated
with the king, and the clergy being accepted as another element in the as dána, the men
of learning. The pagan sages retained their place in this class, according to legend because of the
intervention of Colum Cille at the convention of Druim Cett in 575. One function they had to yield to
the Christian clergy was the role of intermediaries with the other world. In the second half of the
sixth century the two cultures reached and accommodation which in certain matter remained
As Christianity grew in Ireland the monastic founders became the "new
heroes" around which the Christian communities grew. "The development of the monastic
paruchiae fitted into the structures of Irish civil society. Land belonged to the extended
family group, the derbfine. When part of this was alienated by agreement to form the endowment
of a monastery it remained an interest of the family group but was freed from secular obligations.
This made a monastic foundation particularly attractive to branches of ruling families that were
losing out in the dynastic struggles, as secular overlordship tended to become concentrated in fewer
hands the monastic paruchiae were built up."17 It was
not an accident that Columba was from the highest ranks of aristocracy.
Columbas monastery at Iona became a center for Christianity with long
reaching influence both in Ireland and Scotland.
Eventually Viking invasions lead to the abandonment of Iona as a major
religious center. "... as early as 804 the decision was taken to set up a new headquarters at
Kells in Ireland. That this move involved some subordination to Armagh is still testified to by the
inscription on the high cross at Kells: the cross of Patrick and Colum Cille. Iona
continued to be a venerated spot, but its ecclesiastical power continued to decline."18
Miraculous events in the life of St. Columba
Adomnán gives accounts of Prophetic Revelations, Miracles and Angelic
visitations. There are a number of accounts of Columba's ability to foretell certain events that
later came to pass. For example there is his prophecy concerning the sons of King Aidan. At one time
the saint questioned the King regarding his successor in the kingdom. The King replied that he did
not know which of his three older sons was to reign. The saint replied that none of the three would
reign because they would all be killed in battle. He then advised the King to summon his younger
sons. "Let them come to me and the one whom God will choose out of them will suddenly rush on to
my lap." The younger sons were called in and Eochoid Buide came to him. Immediately the saint
kissed him, and blessed him, and said to his father, "this is the survivor and is to reign king
after thee, and his sons will reign after him."19 There are a
number of stories of similar prescience on the part of Columba during his life at Iona.
Adomnán tells of a number of miracles that took place including his
power to control the winds and storms, his removal of serpents from the island, purification of
springs and waters, but perhaps most notable is his encounter with the Loch Ness monster. "At
another time again, when the blessed man was staying for some days in the province of the Picts, he
found it necessary to cross the river Ness; and when he came to the bank thereof, he sees some of the
inhabitants burying a poor unfortunate little fellow, whom, as those who were burying him reported,
some water monster had a little before snatched at as he was swimming, and bitten with a most savage
bite." Upon hearing the story, Columba called for one of his men to swim to the other side of
the river to fetch a small boat and bring it back to him. The man jumped in the river and was
attacked by the monster. "Then the blessed man looked on, while all who were there, as well the
heathen as even the brethren, were stricken with very great terror; and, with his holy hand raided on
high, he formed the saving sign of the cross in the empty air, invoking the Name of God, and
commanded the fierce monster, saying "think not to go further, nor touch the man. Quick! Go
back!" The beast hearing the voice of the saint became terrified and fled.20
Adomnán also lists accounts of Angelic Visitations. This begins with the
visit of an angel to Columba's mother before his birth when it is prophesied that he will become a
great religious leader of his people. Other accounts include visions of angels conducting the souls
of Diormit and Brendan to heaven, and stories of angels descending to earth.
St. Columba as Patron and Intercessor
As noted above the Early History of Ireland identifies forty churces or
establishments in Ireland and fifty-six in Scotland connected with St. Columba. Clearly his role as
patron and intercessor was significant. The idea that a powerful Saint could be of help both in this
world and in the world to come is an ancient and venerable tradition in Christianity. It is not
surprising that Columba would fulfill this role in both Ireland and Scotland.
O Columba, hope of Scots,
By your merits' mediation.
of the blessed angels.
O Columba Spes Scotorum
nos tuorum meritorum interventu
beatorum fac consortes
This early fourteenth century prayer from the island of Inchcolm is the perfect
example of what we speak. Adomnán and others used Columba and the Celtic saints as a source of
protection both for this life and after death. Prayer/poems were used to entreat a privileged member
of the kingdom of Heaven to grant safe conduct in the strange kingdom of the other-world and also
immunity from legal process that would be due a sinner after his death. The poems interweave the idea
of the power of Columba in life, his ability to work miracles etc. and his power while alive on this
earth with his ability to continue to be an effective protector and advocate in Heaven. In the trials
and tribulations of the fourteenth century pestilence, plague, and warfare, it is not
surprising that Columba would be called Spes Scotorum, 'hope of Scotland.'
Evidence of the early distribution of Columba's relics is somewhat scanty, yet
clearly there was a dispersal of primary relics, and the development of a number of shrines dedicated
to his cult. It should be noted however, that there was a tradition that poem/prayers were thought to
carry a supernatural power and were treated or used in much the same way as relics were used in other
parts of the Christian world. Clancy makes the point that this seems to be a somewhat uniquely Celtic
tradition. "It is striking that only really in Gaelic sources do we get this sense of poems
composed about saints as, essentially, secondary verbal relics, whose use is tantamount to the
veneration of physical relics."22
Not only was Columba appealed to for intercession against war and plague, he
was also invoked as an agent of justice. The Synod of Birr 697 enacted Lex Innocentium, later
called the Law of Adomnán, which protected non-combatants -- women, clerics, and children
from violence. The law was signed by fifty-one of the kings of Ireland and northern Britain,
including the Pictish king, and forty of the leading churchmen of the Gaelic world. Adomnán
used the saints in the enforcement of the law. Clancy states "I have no doubt that initially
Adomnán leaned on Columba as patron of his law, rather than on his own authority
alone."23 In effect Adomnán decreed that anyone who
broke the law should pay the appropriate penalty, "his life may be short with suffering and
dishonor, without any of their offspring attaining Heaven or Earth."24 There was also a malediction for miscreants which included psalms for
up to twenty days and collects for specific saints.
A great deal of poetry and song is either attributed to him or composed about
him. Yet we do not know how much material he actually directly composed. Although modern scholarship
cannot unquestionably attribute any writings to Columba, there are a number of poems in Latin and
Irish that legend has ascribed to him. It is notable, and a problem to some historians, that
Adomnán makes no mention of his writings. There is an ancient tradition that Columba wrote the
hymns Altus prosator, Inte chrite cedentiumm, and Noli Pater. All three hymns
have antiphons and other additions indicating liturgical use, but their actual use is not clear.25
Columba remains today as a mighty figure. To many in the secular
"modern" world he is a hero to fit their own imagination. But, to those of us who adhere to
traditional Christianity, he is a truly saintly figure of great proportions, one to whom we go
regularly for support, succor, and fellowship.
- From the 'Inchcolm Antiphoner', Edinburgh University Library MS 211. Vi. Translated by Gilbert
Márkus in Clancy, The Triumph Tree.
- The Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical edited by James F. Kenney (Octagon Books Inc., New
York, 1966) p. 423.
- Early History p. 424.
- Early History p. 423
- A. M. Allchin "Celtic Christianity, Fact or Fantasy?" Epiphany Volume 14, Number 3,
- "Divination was commonplace, including perhaps divination by human sacrifice, as was the
reading of auguries within the natural world, especially involving birds. But religion demanded
sacrifice, especially in time of war when victory was paid for by dedication of the spoils of victory
to the relevant god . Oliver Davies "Celtic Christianity" Epiphany Volume 14, No. 3, 1994.
- Victor Walkley Celtic Daily Life (Robinson Publishing, London, 1997), p. 112.
- Thomas Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, New York, 1995), p. 180.
- Cahill p. 172.
- Cahill p. 185.
- Donald E. Meek "Between faith and folklore: twentieth century interpretations and images of
Columba" Spes Scotorum:" Hope of the Scots ed. Dauvit Broun and Thomas Owen Clancy (T &
T Clark, Edinburgh, 1999) p. 257
- Early History of Ireland p. 156
- Meek , p. 267.
- Early History of Ireland p. 425
- Corish p.28
- Corish p. 4
- Corish p. 5
- Corish p. 24
- Ian Macdonald Saint Columba (Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992), p. 17.
- Macdonald p. 38.
- From the 'Inchcolm Antiphoner', Edinburgh University Library MS 211.vi. translated by Gilbert
Márkus in Clancy The Triumph Tree.
- Thomas Own Clancy, "Columba, Adomnán and the cult of saints in Scotland" in Spes
Scotorum: Hope of Scots Dauvit Broun and Thomas Owen Clancy (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1999), p.
- Clancy, p. 10
- Clancy p. 11
- Early History p. 264. Altus prosator is a hymn about creation and "paradise lost."
Bede A History of the English Church and People translated with an
introduction by Leo Sherley-Price (Dorset Press, New York, 1968
David Adam The Cry of the Deer: Meditations on the Hymn of St. Patrick
(Morehouse Barlow, Wilton, Connecticut, 1987
David Adam The Edge of Glory: Prayers in the Celtic Tradition (Morehouse
Barlow, Wilton Connecticut, l985
David Broun and Thomas Own Clancy editors Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scotland
(T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1999
Thomas Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, NY,
Patrick Corish The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey
(Michael Glazier, Inc., 1985)
The Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical
edited James F. Kenney (Octagon Books Inc., New York, 1966)
Iain Macdonald Saint Columba (Floris Books, Edinburg, 1992
Victor Walkley Celtic Daily Life (Robinson Publications, London,
David Ross The Story of Saint Columba (Waverley Books. New Lanark,
Victor Walkley Celtic Daily Life (Robinson Publishing, London,