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Saint Columba: Fact and Fiction

The Very Rev. Lester Michael Bundy, OSB(Obl) Professor Emeritus, Regis University

Written by The Very Rev. Lester Michael Bundy, OSB(Obl)
Professor Emeritus, Regis University
Retired Pastor of St. Columba Parish Church

Mouth of the dumb,
Light of the blind,
Foot of the lame,
To the fallen stretch out your hand.
Strengthen the senseless,
Restore the mad
O Columba, hope of Scots,
By your merits' mediation.
Make us companions
of the blessed angels.

Early 14th century prayer
from the Island of Inchcolm1

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 (Calgaich’s Oak Wood) now Derry [546].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 Columba’s 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 women’s liberation and the "modern age."

The "Modernist or Popular" view of Columba and Celtic Tradition

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 Columba’s early biographer Adomnán.

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 Adomnán’s 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 "pre-Reformation Protestantism."11

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 Columba’s 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 saint’s feast day that may go back to the tenth-century, possibly even the 9th. Simeon’s 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 King’s 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 uneasy."16

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.

Columba’s 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.
Make us companions
of the blessed angels.

O Columba Spes Scotorum
nos tuorum meritorum interventu
beatorum fac consortes angelorulm. Alleluia.21

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.


1. From the 'Inchcolm Antiphoner', Edinburgh University Library MS 211. Vi. Translated by Gilbert Márkus in Clancy, The Triumph Tree.

2. The Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical edited by James F. Kenney (Octagon Books Inc., New York, 1966) p. 423.

3. Early History p. 424.
4. Early History p. 423

5. A. M. Allchin "Celtic Christianity, Fact or Fantasy?" Epiphany Volume 14, Number 3, 1994.

6. "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. P. 8.

7. Victor Walkley Celtic Daily Life (Robinson Publishing, London, 1997), p. 112.

8. Thomas Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, New York, 1995), p. 180.

9. Cahill p. 172.

10. Cahill p. 185.

11. 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

12. Early History of Ireland p. 156

13. Meek , p. 267.

14. Early History of Ireland p. 425

15. Corish p.28

16. Corish p. 4

17. Corish p. 5

18. Corish p. 24

19. Ian Macdonald Saint Columba (Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1992), p. 17.

20. Macdonald p. 38.

21. From the 'Inchcolm Antiphoner', Edinburgh University Library MS 211.vi. translated by Gilbert Márkus in Clancy The Triumph Tree.

22. 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. 19

23. Clancy, p. 10

24. Clancy p. 11

25. 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, 1995

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, 1997

David Ross The Story of Saint Columba (Waverley Books. New Lanark, Scotland, 1998

UlsterHeritage.com wishes to thank the writer, Fr. Lester Michael Bundy, for allowing us to reprint this article for your enjoyment.

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